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Giving a Voice to the Voiceless in Zanzibar

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15 March 2011

Fatm Said and her five children were forced from their home in Zanzibar at knife point. The man wielding the blade wasn’t a thief or local hoodlum but her husband wanting what he said was rightfully his – the house. And the local laws supported him.

Woman working in Zanzibar

Ms Said’s husband, a fisherman, spent long periods of time away from his family. He could be gone to fishing camps, or ‘dago’ for months or even years, as was the local custom. In her husband’s absences, Ms Said had to provide all the household income.

As she was a smart woman, Ms Said managed without her husband’s financial help and even amassed enough money to build a family home. In fact, she built such a nice house that when her husband returned from one of his fishing trips, he decided he wanted it all for himself.

In Zanzibar, which is 95 percent Muslim, land is typically owned by men and by extension - and in the eyes of the law - that includes anything on that land, too. So without paperwork to show that she had built the house with her own money, Ms Said was unable prove to the courts that she had constructed the house and it remained the rightful property of her husband.

Ms Said’s story is not unusual in Zanzibar, a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean. Though part of the United Republic of Tanzania, the islands have their own government – the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar – and their own elected officials and laws.

But Ms Said’s situation changed when a group for Women’s Empowerment in Zanzibar, WEZA, got involved. Using the media to highlight the injustice of Ms Said’s situation and the day-to-day difficulties the practice of Dago puts upon the Zanzibari women, WEZA pushed for a payment of cash for Mrs Said from her husband in lieu of her home.

“We use the media a lot for its ‘bang style’,” said Mzuri Issa Ali, a WEZA Team Leader and former journalist. “We believe it can transform society and advocate for women’s issues.”



WEZA have used the local press and radio to highlight a host of issues negatively impacting Zanzibari women, prompting a national debate on gender-based violence and reassessment of Zanzibar’s laws. Along with cases like that of Ms Said, WEZA have helped to empower thousands of women.

Some 186 gender related issues have been resolved with WEZA intervention at the community level and 22 women have been put in touch with the appropriate legal institutions. Furthermore, WEZA adult literacy programmes have helped 1,317 women learn how to read and write, while thousands more women – and men – have benefitted from their microfinance programmes.

The organisation has even set about addressing some of the worst effects of the dago tradition. Through religious education sessions WEZA seeks to inform the men of the negative effects the dago practice has on the wives and children they leave behind. With no male income coming into such households, many children are forced out of school and it’s not uncommon for the men to return with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, which is prevalent in the region.

At first, Ms Ali and her colleagues said it was a hard sell to get mostly male newspaper editors to consider women-focused editorials and news for their newspapers and radio stations. But three years on, WEZA has proved time and again that women’s issues are important for all society and can spark national-level debate and even political change. So much so that journalists on the lookout for a good story now come to WEZA for a tip.

As for Ms Said, she’s seen her fortunes turned around since WEZA’s intervention.

“Fatm Said is back in her home, indeed, her husband has even remarried her,” explained Ms Ali. “But this time around, the house is in her name!”

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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