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When I was studying at a university in Bangladesh back in the 1980s, the university had enforced a ‘sunset rule’ for women students. Which in practice meant that the gates of the women’s residence hall would close at sunset, after which no students were allowed to enter or leave the grounds of the residence hall. A perfect rule to keep female students invisible from public places, events and even from libraries. The rule was introduced to ‘protect’ women and keep them ‘safe.’
At that time I was involved with a theater group and it was difficult for me to keep to the sunset rule when shows and rehearsals were taking place. Each time I did not meet the sunset rule, I was obliged to show a letter signed by either one of my lecturers or a parent providing an explanation. This was inconvenient and unpractical since it was not always possible to get a letter from a lecturer and my parents resided in another town.
Lack of recognition affects our self-esteem
However, my mother did write a letter to the head of the residence hall stating that I had my parents’ permission to not follow the sunset rule, because they fully supported my theater work and passion for the arts. Sadly, upon reading this letter, the head of the residence hall threw it in the rubbish bin, claiming that it was completely unacceptable and furthermore my mother could never account for a ‘real guardian.’ Ironically the head of the residence hall was also a woman.
This experience is something I reflect back on, particularly as I reflect on International Women’s Day and the experience of women accessing spaces, resources, rights and their potential all across the world. I see first hand the impact this discrimination has on women: the lack of recognition of their contribution and efforts, the lack of respect for their passions and hobbies and then the impact this has on their self esteem and their personal identities.
The only hope I have is that the fight against discrimination faced by women started long back; before my student days. And the movement is growing stronger and spreading wider; but we still have a long way to go.
In Tanzania, we see how an innovative group of campaigners has successfully challenged the ‘invisibility’ experienced by small-scale women farmers and pastoralists. They started a competition called the Female Food Hero which recognizes the everyday realities, the victories won and the challenges faced by these women. Over 6,000 women farmers entered the competition. And within three months, the stories of some of these women reached the lives of over 25 million people in Tanzania – more than half the country’s total population. Hollywood celebrities such as Kristin Davis also promoted and amplified the voices of these women farmers. The winning Female Food Heroes were provided a number of prizes – such as solar panels, a tractor, a grain store – which benefits their communities. Since this Female Food Hero competition these women have now become visible advocates for the rights of their communities – especially women.
The success of the Female Food Hero project continues beyond the national boundaries of Tanzania. Anna Oloshuro, a pastoralist from the Maasai community in Tanzania participated in a summit in Washington, DC, USA. The summit was attended by 75 influential women from across America – businesswomen, political leaders and activists. In her speech, Anna discussed the challenges, the disempowering stereotypes she has had to endure: “I am not poor, I am a strong woman and an everyday hero; just I am living in poverty.”
Ester Jerome Mtegule, the Female Food Hero competition winner, and Anna are now preparing to go to Turkey for the international conference on Economic Justice – the largest women’s gathering of activists from around the world. There they will connect with others women from around the globe, to ensure their quest for justice and equality is further strengthened.
I salute the campaigners in Tanzania. It is vital that we use our power to take action for the empowerment of small-scale women farmers and producers around the world, so that their can fulfill their potential not only as farmers but more importantly as human beings who have rights. Join hands with others to grow the movement for global justice.