Tusonge’s Aginatha Rutazaa: childhood, women’s rights and our new disability-inclusive project

Last month I spoke with Tusonge’s Founder and Managing Director Aginatha Rutazaa who opened up to me about her family, education, passions, beliefs and her vision of the lasting impact our new project will have on disability-inclusion and female empowerment in Kilimanjaro region.

Founded in 2011 and based in Moshi, Tusonge Community Development Organisation is a non-profit organisation that works with marginalised groups in Kilimanjaro region. It particularly focusses on women’s economic empowerment, human rights education and child protection. ‘Tusonge’ is a Swahili word meaning ‘let’s advance or let’s move forward together.’

Read more about Tusonge here

We have recently partnered with Tusonge on a two-year Disability-Inclusive Livelihoods project which began in July 2018 and is funded by the Big Lottery Fund UK. Its geographical focus is on two villages in Kilimanjaro’s Nija Panda ward and it will directly benefit 350 women and girls (28 of whom are disabled), and 10 disabled men.

The project is designed to improve the social well-being, status and economic independence of vulnerable women and those living with a disability. 12 village community bank (VICOBA) groups, which foster economic independence, provide an opportunity to borrow small seed capital and start income-generating activities. People living with a disability and others surviving on less than one dollar per day will benefit from vocational, business and financial management training. More widely, the project raises awareness and understanding of women’s rights and the rights of people living with a disability. Each adult beneficiary has 4-5 dependents and 1,800 children are expected to be indirectly reached.

Aginatha was born near Moshi and she recalls how, while growing up, her grandmother and mother were not included in family decision-making processes. Instead, this responsibility resided entirely with her father as head of the household. Aginatha has a Bachelor of Science and in 2009 she completed a Master’s Degree in Community Economic Development. It was during her Master’s research that she first became aware of Village Community Bank Scheme (VICOBA) groups. She has two daughters, is a widow and a human rights activist.

First of all, I was really intrigued to know more about the steps that led to the foundation of Tusonge seven years ago. When asked what her motivations were, Aginatha spoke with infectious passion, listing multiple factors behind her decision. She wanted to help women like her mother in her home community to have power over their own lives. “I live in this community. I was born here. I grew up in a family where my grandmother and mother had no decision-making power. How can it be right that one person decides on behalf of someone else?”

I can’t imagine not having financial autonomy over my own life and the decisions I make. Yet, in Tanzania, women’s rights are routinely violated as a result of Customary, Religious and Statutory or Civil Laws. These laws bolster patriarchy; the main feature of Customary Law is known as “gender discrimination.” Specifically, women are regularly denied access to the means of income generation or participation in local government structures and religious groups.

Aginatha asserted how “a legal entity like Tusonge is better than an individual – an organisation can have influence and support women. It can educate and empower women to know their rights, making them confident enough to say no when it is no. A collective organisation can challenge traditions and change our way of thinking by coming up with clear messages which can shake communities.”

As part of her Master’s programme, Aginatha came back to her home community to conduct research, and this experience influenced her decision to create Tusonge. “I explored the economic challenges women are facing in my community. They are active in the labour, from resources to production, yet not involved in the decision-making process. Women are not involved in ownership at all.”

Aginatha stressed the importance of gender analysis at household level. By asking ‘who is the decision-maker?’ and ‘who has ownership of commodities?’ it is possible to locate the root cause of marginalisation and vulnerability.

“I wanted to inform their lives and give a critical eye to the challenges that need to be overcome – this belief is as strong today as it was back then.”

She also told me she wanted to assist people living with a disability, to educate them so they know where to get support from in moments of crisis. “Cultural backgrounds marginalise women and children living with a disability. I support them to know their rights and linked to their duty bearers – they need to know where to go. They must be able to fulfil their duties as citizens.” People with a disability have great ability. As a society we need to appreciate this and encourage them to realise this, and to keep on building and share with others for more impact and sustainability.

Feeling progressively inspired by our remarkable partner, I asked Aginatha how her organisation supports those living with a disability and what the term ‘disability’ means to her.

In her mind, disabilities present a range of different problems and with them, a different set of challenges – from spinal issues to conditions such as autism. What’s more, Tusonge abides by the disability mainstream checklist: “whatever we do, practice or plan, we must make sure to keep an eye on this checklist so that our work is fully inclusive.” She told me “we highly appreciate collaboration with African Initiatives since this partnership has added value into building our capacity towards disability-inclusive strategies.

“There is a huge amount of ability within disability; we tell them they are beautiful, capable and they are our role models in some areas. We can also learn a lot from them and we will keep on celebrating their contributions. This reaffirms the meaning of Tusonge: let’s move forward together.”

Tusonge works with Motivation to provide mobility support, is closely connected with village social care workers and if consultant support is secured, people living with a disability are given priority. Tusonge also seeks assistance from Disability People Organisations (DPOs). According to Aginatha, knowing the DPO is very important: they mentor the Tusonge team, help with capacity building and deliver training. “We are eleven staff, we have lesser knowledge of disabilities and, through training, we can develop our skills from the right person, as each disability is different.”

I asked Aginatha about the project’s geographical focus – why these two villages in Nija Panda ward?

A disability assessment commissioned by African Initiatives made clear recommendations regarding the need to do a disability-inclusion project in this area of Kilimanjaro region. “We contacted the government authorities, you have to do this if you want to do a project and a social welfare officer was sent to one of the wards to review by the government.” Aginatha informed me that the villages have especially high rates of abuse and violence, and people living with a disability are more affected because of their impairment. Based on this feedback and Tusonge’s own understanding, it was deemed the most appropriate area to start with.

“It could lead to further avenues, we plan to scale up with further practice and experience. Also, the narrower focus is more manageable as it will provide a window to intensively learn about the disability issues within these communities.”

In this pilot phase, Tusonge is taking every opportunity to learn, observing existing opportunities, as well as challenges. Furthermore, Aginatha plans to maintain quality documentation of the process and lessons for wider sharing by the end of phase one.

The project provides an avenue for Tusonge to learn and grow as a team towards disability-inclusive approaches. This is a key skill which will cut across all existing Tusonge projects to attain sustainability and impact.

Aginatha, what does economic empowerment mean to you?

“It is the ability for women and other vulnerable groups to develop economic confidence through earning their own income. To own that income. To produce and to own, and not be interfered by another person. The challenge is that most women participate in economic gaining activities but when it comes to making decisions and agreeing on ownership, this is done without their involvement. Their capacity to strategically challenge and question needs to be established.”

This brought up memories of her family; it was an honour that she shared her recollections with me.

“We grew coffee and I saw my mother participating in the production of the coffee, from farming and spraying pesticides which affected even her health, to processing the coffee which involved peeling off and drying the seeds, as well as marketing the produce. These were the main functions my mother did when she was alive. When it came to gaining an income from her hard work, my father was the one who collected the money from coffee unions. There was no family platform for partners to discuss how the money was spent, and because of the patriarchy ingrained within the community, my mother was accepting of working in the fields, producing and caring for the family.”

In Africa, large families are common because of extended life expectancy. Having seven people to care for is just normal. “A woman who is the mother is responsible for the well-being of the seven members of her family. It is a lot of work, and hard if you are not economically empowered. Our role in the family is the care taker, and there are expenses that ensure the family survives. If you have no income you cannot fulfil your duties, for example if your child is sick, you cannot independently seek medical help. Husbands spend income on luxuries, when he comes back home, if there is no food on the stove as women cannot provide it financially, this can lead to assault.” For a disabled woman, being a mother and wife means she is required to complete domestic responsibilities, all without an income of her own and while living with a disability.

On a final note, Aginatha kindly shared with me her vision of the impact this new project with African Initiatives will have. She concluded our conversation by summarising her ideal outcome: community sensitisation to the needs and lives of those living with a disability.

“One clear impact that I am working towards is to support the communities and their receptiveness in their acceptance of people living with disability. I want to change the attitude of community and family members, to make it more positive. The question of disability is a challenge because of community mind-set and attitudes.

They need to see disabled people as human beings who have aspirations and desires, and who can be economically productive instead of being locked inside the house and stigmatised as helpless. They are people who can help themselves and realise their own dreams, to contribute to the family, village, government and economy.”

I came away from my time speaking with Aginatha feeling inspired and honoured to be working with such a confident, motivated and philanthropic woman. I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog as much as I did producing it, and if you have any questions for Aginatha, please email them to me at hollyb@african-initiatives.org.uk and I will make sure to pass it on.

Also, keep an eye out for my next interview blog with the Pastoral Women’s Council which will be coming out in November!