Like the world over, gender roles in East Africa are changing.
Traditionally, women keep house, bear children, grow food, carry water and are considered subservient to their husbands. Husbands are responsible for the material support and protection of their households. Sons typically inherit their fathers' property while daughters are married to a suitor her father approves of. These gender roles are reinforced by poverty, discriminatory social attitudes and violence against women.
This is an old pattern, one found throughout history and still common in many countries. Yet these restrictive gender roles are not sufficient to meet the demands of a modern, global society.
Due to changing economic pressures, and increased access to education, more and more women are starting businesses. They have a stabilizing effect on their local economy by providing employment, selling to residents and buying from local vendors. Women who contribute to or fully provide the family's income have more power at home, and are more likely to assert their political rights.
In Tanzania, family structure depends on the tribe, but is increasingly being affected by western ideas of family. Yet change comes slowly.
A man is always the head of a household in Tanzania. He earns the majority of the money, and makes the final decisions on issues of importance. A woman, on the other hand, earns respect by bearing children. Once a woman has children, she will often no longer be referred to by her first name; instead, she is identified as the mother of her eldest child, or in some instances, her eldest son. For example, our teacher Grace could also be called Mama Chris.
Children spend the majority of their time with their mother and other female relatives. It is not uncommon for older female siblings to help raise the children, in some cases even discontinuing their education to help out. In cases where a man has a daughter from a previous relationship, she is responsible for caring for her father’s new wife's children. In addition, families who can afford more help will often hire a young woman to raise their children. She will live with the family until her service is no longer needed.
Many of these traditions are beginning to diminish as urbanization and westernization become more prevalent. The nuclear family is becoming more common, and women are finding roles outside of the home. For example, our head teacher Grace, like other women in her community identified a need in her community and sought to meet that need. She worked with Felicia to build and lead a non-profit school. East African women are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, and are beginning to build their own solutions to their problems, whether that means providing a community service or starting a business.