A conversation with Asseny Muro on gender equality

What you need to know:

  • In 1993, Asseny Muro was one of the founders of the Tanzania Gender Networking Group (TGNP), a leading women’s rights and feminist organization where she is currently the Chairperson of the Board.

Tomorrow March 8, Tanzania is going to join the world to commemorate the International Women’s Day. In Tanzania, the theme will be ‘‘equality generation for the current and future development.”

Woman interviews one of the country’s champion of women rights.

At 71, Asseny Muro has spent more than half her age on an arduous journey advocating for the rights of women in Tanzania. She has seen it all, from the frustrating backlash against gender equality to the big and small wins, all rolled-up in a single journey towards the advancement of women and girls across all sectors.

In 1993, Asseny Muro was one of the founders of the Tanzania Gender Networking Group (TGNP), a leading women’s rights and feminist organization where she is currently the Chairperson of the Board. As she goes down memory lane, she remembers one significant signpost that 25 years ago flipped the women’s rights movement and changed everything!

On 27 February, Tanzania launched the International Women’s Day in Dodoma at a time when global activists and advocates for gender equality will be focusing on the achievements of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 25 years after it came into effect. The climax of the commemoration is slated for Simiyu on 8 March. This year’s theme is: Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.

According to Asseny Muro, the aspirations of the Beijing Platform for Action are still alive today. The Declaration gave many women and girls so much hope for a much better and equal future. Asseny agrees there has been some progress but laments the slow pace in meeting the main goal of the Declaration, which is to ensure women, girls, men and boys have the same opportunities to participate and benefit from all sectors in the development agenda.

In this conversation, Asseny Muro tells us why she thinks the Theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is a game-changer that sets the tone on how women’s rights activists should work to accelerate progress in gender equality and equity.

Why do you think it is important for women of your generation and those that worked with you from the 80s to partner with young activists in Tanzania?

I feel it is high time we enter a new phase of intergenerational collaborative efforts in developing new strategies that can reflect new gender perspectives. Through our journey from the 80s, the issue of intergenerational inclusivity in programs was not always prioritized, hence the fragmentation in the movement. I can attribute this to how the gender space was maybe synchronized at that time. Although I remember that at some point in time efforts were made to ensure different age groups of activists were working together through the Young Feminist Forum, initiated by Tanzania Gender Networking Program and Women Fund Tanzania. But then, some organizations preferred to collaborate with young women activists they felt contributed to their programs.

After many years, I am one of the activists who have realized that there are not as many young women and men who better understand gender and issues related to feminism. I think this calls for a framework that can enable us to pass on the mantle to young women and ensure sustainability of the work we have been doing all these years, and ultimately, we should have in place a strong and inclusive women movement in Tanzania. I am optimistic that through the momentum, which is building up to the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, we have the opportunity to connect the missing intergenerational link in the women’s movement by focusing on working with young women for collective actions going forward.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done and partnerships have become even more important today than ever before. In Tanzania and beyond, there are still barriers to gender equality, equity and social justice. Opportunities for women and girls are still limited in the spaces we need more women to influence change and development.

How would you like the intergenerational partnerships for gender equality to look like in Tanzania?

Feminist activists move with an agenda and in this case, the rights of women to equally participate in all sectors is critical. After 25 years of pushing the agenda in Tanzania, I think we should analyze the vision that has sustained our efforts over the years and decide how we are going to work together through a renewed common vision. We have strategies on how we have achieved results in different sectors, which we can share with young activists to inspire them. At the same time, technology has taken centre stage and young activists are technology savvy, which was not there when I joined the movement. The question then is, how can we tap into the new skills to better the skills that were acquired and put to practice by my generation.

Gender equality is not something we are going to get on a silver platter. It’s a continuous process that involves a lot of collective efforts, and that’s why I think working with young activists is important if we are to sustain the process. As is the culture in the movement, we learn and continue learning. We would like to learn from the young activists just as they should also learn from elder activists so that together, we can safeguard the gains and accelerate progress towards gender equality.

In the last 25 years, what would you say were the key achievements the women’s rights movement contributed to in Tanzania?

We managed to influence policies to mainstream gender perspectives and advocated for resources to specifically address gender gaps through the gender-responsive budgeting which was championed by TGNP in the 1990s.

The formation of women coalitions that united our efforts to demand transformation particularly in the late 90s, led to changes in the Sexual Offences Provisions Act (SOSPA) and the Land Act of 1999. We have also contributed to the review of the Tanzania Constitution and pushed a number of gender concerns including the 50-50 representation of women and men in parliament.

I think it goes without saying that there have been some breakthroughs in areas that were strongholds of patriarchy since time immemorial. Importantly, now we can advocate for gender equality and organize the feminist movement with less resistance. Through some investments in awareness raising campaigns, a significant number of people now understand that we are not fighting men but want equal opportunities and participation in the development of our country. It is also becoming clearer that structural gender inequality disadvantages both men and women and I am happy that at national level, the issue of gender equality is also seen as a development issue that is recognized in our laws, policies, structures and national programs, although there are still some gaps. The Government is aware that, where a woman is empowered, the family, community and country gains.

Through our collective efforts as a movement, there are many strong women organizations in the country implementing programs to empower women, for gender equality and social justice. Women representation in decision making has also improved since Tanzania got independent in 1961, and currently, we have a female Vice President.

But let me again say, even with some gains in the political sector, we cannot ignore the drawbacks we are seeing in the appointment of women for leadership positions in some political parties, particularly if you look at the appointment of party representatives to contest in elections. We need to raise our voices to question this inequality and advocate for 50-50 gender parity in political participation and other decision-making positions. Excluding women in decision making undermines national development

One area that is of concern in the women’s rights movement is the push back factor against the empowerment of women, after all these years, how else can the movement present this agenda to be well understood and accelerate progress?

There is still a backlash on gender equality and the more we do not invest more in partnership building for new strategies and innovations, we definitely risk losing the gains that we have so far made. I think one area that presents opportunities to preserve our gains is the collective realization that the women’s rights movement is waging a structural war, and here I am referring to patriarchy, which is the major structural obstacle at all levels. Women everywhere and of all ages, race, class and so forth have been affected by patriarchy in one way or the other. The agenda before us is a noble one because it is backed by International Declarations on gender equality, which our country also signed. For this agenda to be well understood, we need to invest more resources in awareness raising and education through dialogues, trainings and other innovations that will enable us to connect with different age groups of women, girls, men and boys. I believe if we can change the mindset of young people, to appreciate the importance of gender equality, we can push back the push back factors.

This is why our focus is on young people, we can gain a lot from skills in computer and technology to reinvigorate and better present this agenda.

Going forward, do you think that with stronger partnerships, progress will be much quicker beyond 25 years after BPfA and what will it take?

I think if we employ new advocacy strategies, work together differently, including technology and innovation, and pool our resources together through partnerships, yes, the pace of progress will improve.

We need to repackage the agenda and identify like-minded people in strategic positions to help us lobby the support of those that can help us accelerate gender equality efforts.

Let’s not forget there is still a lot of work to be done in the local communities to change behavior and attitudes that pull us back. We should continuously assess the women’s rights movement to see if it’s still grassroots-rooted and take necessary measures where we identify some weaknesses in other areas. At the same time, we should always ensure that movement processes at community level connects and informs national policies and programmes for gender equality.

The responsibility lies with all of us to heighten the momentum and continue investing in strategies that can push the agenda further.