Women in much of Africa are, at best, second-class citizens. So many of the problems that plague the continent would be lessened or turned around completely if women had more power. This includes education, health care services, disease control, economic stability, poverty, political stability, the negative impact of population growth, and the influence of political, military, and some religious forces that serve to further oppress women and through that oppression influence so many other aspects of life and death. About 60 percent of people infected with HIV in Tanzania are women, which is reflective of the lack of power women have to either deny sex or demand men use condoms. Both are often met with violence. And in a study I cited as part of my graduate work at UCSF, 53 percent of women surveyed in Zimbabwe were found to believe wife beating was justified in at least one of the following situations: arguing with one's husband, neglecting the children, leaving the home without telling her husband and denying sex.
Today I came across a New York Times article titled "Mass Rapes in Congo Reveals U.N. Weakness" and I was reminded of how enormous this problem is, and how it extends well beyond the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In the midst of this, there is good news. In Tanzania, free primary education has led to more girls being educated, at least at the primary level. With fees placed on schools, it is much more likely that a family will invest in boys. While only about 1 percent of people in Tanzania go on to higher education, and most of them come from the wealthiest sliver of the population, about 30 percent of these students are now women. Government loan programs have helped less advantaged students get to universities, but funds are generally fairly scarce.
There are also glimmers of cultural change that are exciting. Among my favorite examples in Tanzania is Kivulini in the city of Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Kivulini is a women's rights organization dedicated to mobilizing communities to prevent domestic violence. They treat domestic violence as a community problem, and engage the entire community in prevention activities including street marches, festivals and ngoma (a wonderful tradition of drumming, dancing and singing for healing and transformation), discussions, and training programs. And the part I love most about it is that it was started in 1999 by six Tanzanian women who could not sit back and watch the destructive effect of domestic violence in their community. A few women in one community standing up and using their voice created an organization that is influential in addressing huge community problems. That is exciting and a reminder to me that standing up and using your voice anywhere can create change.
I am more and more convinced that without cultural change, and specifically the equal status of women in society, millions of dollars can be thrown at many problems with little effect. So much of the spread of HIV, for example, is culturally based and heavily rooted in women's rights issues. And it is Africans talking to Africans that will ultimately make the difference.
In a country as poor as Tanzania, support for organizations like Kivulini needs to come from us. Organizations like Heifer International offer substantial economic empowerment for women through ownership of farm animals. A cow can make the difference between being able to send your children to school or not, and can be the catalyst for further economic growth. Give a cow or goat in the name of someone you love. Microfinance is another opportunity for women to borrow money to be able to start a new business. Giving to an organization like Opportunity International or Kiva can make an enormous change in people's lives. My young nieces had a wonderful time deciding who to invest in last Christmas, and they get to decide again when the money is repaid while learning something in the process. It really doesn't take much to help create change in the world and within our own communities. Support your local food bank. The need is everywhere.