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First Woman Runs for Tanzania Presidency

One of Tanzania's presidential candidates in the upcoming polls is a woman, the first to run for the office. Although activists hail the move, they say it is still difficult for Tanzanian women to break into politics and to be taken seriously.

Anna Claudia Senkoro beams as she reflects on how she is making history as Tanzania's first-ever female candidate for president.

The effervescent mother of three describes to VOA her five-year journey in politics that eventually led to her trail-blazing move in a conservative country not used to having women political leaders.

"I have just decided to stand because I think it is time now for a woman to rule this country," she said. "I was to stand for a member of the parliament to the area where I come from, but I tried to look around and said, 'No, no, why should not I stand for a presidential post? I think I can make it.' It was a little bit difficult for people to understand. The day I went to collect the form at the National Electoral Committee [Commission], most of the media people were there. They did not understand: 'A woman standing for this post? What kind of a woman is that?'"

Ms. Senkoro is from the Progressive Party of Tanzania, a small and virtually unknown group. She says she is using her own money and resources to campaign, with the odd contribution from supporters.

She is the only woman among 10 candidates vying for the top job in Tanzania's October 30 elections. More than 100 other women are running for parliamentary seats in 232 constituencies in the East African nation. More than 1,200 candidates are running for seats.

While activists applaud Ms. Senkoro's bid for the presidency and the other women running for parliament, they say Tanzanian women still have a long way to go to be fully accepted in politics.

In a bid to increase the number of women in leadership positions, 30 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for women, with a similar system for village councils.

The executive director of the Legal and Human Rights Center, Helen Kijo-Bisimba, says that, while a quota system is good in theory, it does not always work well for women.

"First of all, because they're going there in affirmative action, they are not regarded as equal to the other parliamentarians who have gone through the constituency," she said. "So this one also makes them feel at least downgraded. You feel, like, you are there because you have been brought there - you would not feel as aggressive as you would. Being a woman in this patriarchal system sometimes can be difficult - you have to really be assertive."

Ms. Kijo-Bisimba says the emphasis should be more on encouraging women to contest seats. But, she says, in patriarchal Tanzania where women are not encouraged to speak out and must battle many negative stereotypes, running for office is easier said than done.

She describes to VOA some of the experiences women have had when running their campaigns during this and past elections.

"If a man is having, for example, an extramarital affair or is not even looking after his family, when he goes to campaign, that thing is not mentioned," she said. "But if you are a woman, and for example you are divorced, that can be a big issue, that look at this woman, she cannot even maintain her family, and they will call you names, prostitute and such things."

One of the biggest challenges for many women is that the values and practices being followed in the male-dominated political sphere run contrary to their own values and practices.

A policy analyst with the Tanzania Gender Networking Program, Deus Kibamba, says Tanzanian politics have become what he calls free market, which means that many voters choose candidates who pay for votes.

He explains how this affects women candidates.

"Most women are denied from owning and managing resources. So then the women, if they are candidates or not, they are unable to pay out money. Two, they do not believe in corruption. Most women in Tanzania, as in most of Africa, would not like to engage in dirty games, and they would not like to pay bribes," he said.

Presidential candidate Senkoro explains that this is her experience.

"The problem I am facing is people asking for money, T-shirts, hats, whatever," she said. "Each place you go, 'Mummy, we are hungry, we need some money to eat. Mummy, you look very rich, this ruling party is giving us money, you have to give us some money.' So you have to educate them, tell them that, 'Look here, I have come so that I can work for you, not buying you.'"

Outside politics, women in Tanzania also face enormous obstacles.

Many cultural practices discriminate against women. These include: female genital mutilation; early marriages for girls; wife inheritance, where a widow must marry the brother of her deceased husband; and dowry.

The Legal and Human Rights Center's Ms. Kijo-Bisimba says discrimination exists in Tanzanian legislation. According to customary law, a woman cannot inherit the property of her deceased husband or inherit clan land.

Ms. Kijo-Bisimba says candidates are not addressing these issues in their campaigns, especially in areas of the country where these cultural practices are strong. She says many politicians say what they think voters will want to hear.