In the words of Ruth Kihiu: Empowering Maasai women in northern Tanzania

Date: Monday, June 11, 2018

Ruth Kihiu sits at a desk at UN Women headquarters in New York. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Ruth Kihiu. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Ruth Kihiu is a Programme Manager at The Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC), which works to socio-economically empower marginalized pastoralist Maasai women in Ngorongoro, Monduli, and Longido districts in Tanzania, through livelihood and income-generating activities. PWC, supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, also aims to educate women and girls about their rights and equip them with leadership skills.

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Before I joined the Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC), I was working in the private sector, in a business membership organization. But my passion has always been around women's empowerment. I felt that as much as my work in the private sector was important, I needed to work with women. PWC works for women's empowerment, particularly for the empowerment of a segment of women who need it the most: the Maasai women. I felt that this is where I needed to be.

The Maasai are an indigenous pastoral community, facing numerous challenges. The land for pastoralists is shrinking because of various reasons. One is climate change, which results in severe droughts. Another is large-scale investment in Maasai land by businessmen, and farmers’ expansion into Maasai ancestral land.

Maasai women face additional challenges. In the pastoralist community, the land is mostly owned communally, not individually, and it is mostly men who decide how that land is going to be used. For the past 20 years, our organization has been working to ensure that women are at the table to decide or co-decide with men about land and natural resource management. For example, we helped a group of women in the Ngorongoro district secure a Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy (CCRO) for a large piece of land, to be jointly owned by both men and women. The process of securing this certificate included land use planning that involved both men and women. Before the certificate was issued, the whole group had to discuss what that land was going to be used for. For the first time, women were part of this process and were also voted to be part of the management committee for the land. So, they were able to say that they wanted a part of the land to be used for eco-tourism activities as an alternative livelihood for them. This had never been done before.

Women also face problems in areas where they can individually own land. Most of them don't have the legal documentation to prove that it is their land. PWC works with local authorities and communities to ensure that women owners have valid title deeds and that they are using the land to improve their livelihoods.

As pastoralism as a way of life is facing external pressures, we help Maasai women identify alternate livelihoods. Through village community banks, which are microcredit groups that lend money at a low interest rate, we have assisted women in starting small businesses, like selling grains, beadwork and starting small hotels.

However, widespread illiteracy often stands in the way of progress. Sometimes, the women are not aware of their rights and are not able to manage their businesses well due to limited knowledge of business management. To overcome this challenge, PWC has organized adult literacy classes, which has been extremely beneficial for them. And our core intervention continues to be girls’ education. When we started, our focus was to get scholarships for Maasai girls. But now it is no longer just about access. It is also about quality, and we have helped over 1,500 Maasai girls receive quality secondary school and college education.

Another challenge we face is that the Maasai are in remote areas where the roads and infrastructure are bad. We are not able to reach as many people as we would like to, because it takes more resources to reach remote areas. The support we received from the FGE has been critical, and we have used it to educate women, to improve water access in the Maasai community and to increase women’s participation in decision making as well as land and natural resource management.

The progress is noticeable. We have seen women use their own personal resources to rescue girls from early marriage or rescue their neighbours from domestic violence. The women have also begun to engage with investors interested in their land, questioning them, and ensuring that they get a fair deal. Many women are now able to afford three square meals a day and they send their children to school regardless of whether their husbands agree or not.”