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Sexual & Women’s Rights Country Overview: Tanzania 2020

This series of country context overviews is founded in the Coalition of African Lesbians’ (CAL) work in different countries, specifically the Masakhane project in Southern Africa. The project’s focus is on strengthening capabilities of CAL members and partners in different countries through learning in action, as the basis of facilitating effective growth in activism among the groups with which CAL works: lesbian women, women living with HIV and AIDS, sex-workers and young women. As feminists and activists concerned with gender and sexual rights and justice, we understand that current social, political and economic structures, institutions, ideologies and practices undermine our rights and freedoms and restrict our autonomy. This understanding informs both CAL’s areas of focus in its work and the focus in this context overview; Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), sexuality politics specifically expressed in issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and gender discrimination and violence.

CAL’s approach to its work is also informed by the five factors identified in the “Report of the Study on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in Africa” by the former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. CAL has modified these factors; patriarchy and heteronormativity, fundamentalisms, militarisation, war and conflict, neoliberal capitalism, crises in democracy and environmental exploitation.

This publication focuses on sexual and gender rights, specifically violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is intended to support Civil Society Organisations, activists and government agencies and institutions in their work to address persisting SRHR issues, gender violence and sexual orientation and gender identity issues.


Population: 58 million (World Bank)
Women’s Literacy: (UNESCO Institute for Statistics)
84.6% [15 – 24 years]
73.1% [15 – 64 years]
29.7% [65 years old and older]
Women’s Employment Rate: 79% (World Bank)
Maternal mortality: 578 per 100, 000 live births (World Health Organisation)
HIV prevalence: 6% [Women aged between 15 – 49 years old]
                                  2.2% [Young women] (UNAIDS)                               
GBV: 46.2% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. (United Nations Women)
GDI: 0.948 (United Nations Development Programme)
GII: 0.556 (United Nations Development Programme)
COVID-19 Status: 509 confirmed cases, 21 deaths (February 3, 2021) (World Health Organisation)

Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

As concluded by the World Health Organisation[3] (WHO), Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SHRH) encompass efforts to eliminate preventable maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, to ensure quality sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptive services, and to address sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cervical cancer, violence against women and girls, and sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health is essential not only to achieve sustainable development but also to ensure that this new framework speaks to the needs and aspirations of people around the world and leads to realisation of their health and human rights.

Contraceptive Access and Use

In Tanzania, it is estimated that there is a 22% unmet need for contraceptives amongst women between the ages of 15 and 49 (Tanzania, U., 2018). The use of modern contraceptives by married women of 15 – 49 years is 32% while younger married women’s (between 15 and 24 years old) use of modern contraceptives stands at a low 16%. Injectables, the implant, the pill and the male condom are the most commonly used methods of contraceptives in Tanzania (Planning, F, 2020).

Low funding, slow procurement systems, poor supply chain management and poor service delivery are the main challenges that hinder women’s ability to access contraceptives in Tanzania (Dansou, J., 2017). Additionally, women and young girls – particularly in the rural areas – are not adequately sensitised on the various contraceptive options. Furthermore, women have cited their partner/husband’s opposition to modern methods of contraception as a reason for their non-use (Carroll, A. and Kapilashrami, A, 2020).

Maternal Mortality Rate

Maternal deaths in Tanzania attribute 18% of deaths experienced by young girls and women between the ages of 15 to 49. The main causes of high maternal mortality rates include unsafe abortions, hypertensive disorders, haemorrhages and infections (Tanzania, W., 2007). Research conducted by UNICEF reveals that health systems and the delivery of medical services in Tanzania is in dire need of strengthening. It is estimated that only 20% of dispensaries and 39% of healthcare facilities offer full and adequate delivery services (UNICEF, 2016).

Additionally, maternal and new-born health in Tanzania is not prioritised. In 2015, $160 million dollars was allotted towards child health – three times more than money set aside for maternal health (Shoo, R. S. et al., 2017).

 Furthermore, maternal mortality is rife and exacerbated by women’s inability to access quality healthcare due to their compromised economic status. 


Unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Tanzania. Women often resort to unsafe abortions because the laws that govern abortion are restrictive and ambiguous. The Penal Code, Sections 150 – 152, prohibit any termination of pregnancy unless it is for purposes of saving the pregnant woman’s life. On the other hand, it has been argued that the case of Rex v Bourne[4] – a popular English common law case – suggests the lawfulness of an abortion so long as the procedure is done to preserve the mental and/or physical health.

The ambiguity and diversion between the Penal Code and English law (which Tanzania inherited through colonialism) presents a confusing scenario for women and medical practitioners. In addition, the Penal Code is unclear on who may perform a termination procedure and under what circumstances. It is for this reason that women resort to unsafe abortions, often performed by unskilled personnel and in unsanitary conditions.

Discrimination and Violence against Women

The Tanzanian Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) conducted in 2015 indicated that 46.2% of women who have been married before have experienced an incidence of sexual and/or physical violence at least once before in their lifetime.[5] Presently, there are no laws that specifically address violence against women, however there are  policies such as National Plan of Action for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women[6] and Children and the National Gender Policy – both of which have been criticised by CEDAW for being unsatisfactory.

Marital rape is not recognised in Tanzania unless the married persons are legally separated. Many women and young girls have revealed that they are discouraged from reporting incidences of sexual and physical violence due to a grave fear of being slut-shamed, stigmatized or simply not being believed by police officers. A report compiled by the Tanzania Women Judges Association (TAWJA) similarly confirmed that social and cultural norms tend to downplay and minimise the severity of abuse experienced by women (OECD, 2019).

Young girls in Tanzania continue to face violence through the cultural practice of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and child marriage which has a 37% prevalence rate (Commission, E., 2020). Both FGM and child marriage impact the welfare and wellbeing of young girls and often results in them not completing school and/or an inability to enter the workforce. It is estimated that 8000 young girls drop out of school annually (Commission, E., 2020).

Women face discrimination in relation to land and succession rights due to customary laws that exclude girls and widows from being administrators of estates.[7] It is only sons or senior male people within the family that can enjoy such rights. Furthermore, women are discriminated against in the workplace and earn significantly less than their male counterparts despite Article 10 of the Employment and Labour Relations Act[8] requiring equal pay. 

Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression

Section 154 of Tanzania’s Penal Code criminalises “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” which attracts a penalty of life imprisonment. An attempt to commit the offence prescribed as per Section 154 is punishable with a minimum of twenty years imprisonment.[9] Section 153 of Zanzibar’s Penal Code specifically criminalises ‘acts of lesbianism’ and punishes such an offence with a prison term of no more than five years. While the above offences are rarely litigated upon, members of the queer community – women in particular – face grave discrimination on the basis of their (perceived and actual) sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. For example, the Community Health Education and Advocacy Services (CHESA) – an organisation established to advance the health rights of queer people – was de-registered by the government for allegedly ‘promoting unethical acts. Homophobia runs rampant in Tanzania and is perpetrated and endorsed by the Government (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

Treaties Ratification Table[10]

Below are the sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights treaties to which Tanzania is a party. By virtue of being a signatory to these instruments, Tanzania is obligated to abide by the treaties and ensure that there is a harmony between its domestic laws and international law standards.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)17 July 198022 August 1985
Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)5 November 20033 March 2007
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (OP CEDAW)2006

Organisations in Tanzania Working on Women’s & Sexual Rights

  • Tanzania Women Empowerment in Action (TAWEA)
  • Women in Development in Tanzania (WIDET)
  • Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA)
  • Women Fund Tanzania (WFT – Tanzania)
  • Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP)
  • Waache Wasome

[3] WHO (2014) Sexual and reproductive health and rights: a global development, health, and human rights priority, WHO. World Health Organization. Available at: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/gender_rights/srh-rights-comment/en/

[4] Available at: https://www.womenslinkworldwide.org/files/2769/gjo-reinounido-1939-en-pdf.pdf

[5] https://bmcwomenshealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12905-018-0675-0

[6] Available at: https://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/-/media/files/un%20women/vaw/full%20text/africa/tanzania%20-%20national%20plan%20of%20action%20for%20the%20prevention%20and%20eradication%20of%20violence%20against%20women%20and%20children%202001-2015.pdf?vs=1318

[7] Rule 5 of the Local Customary Law, available at: http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/tan179737.pdf

[8] Available at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/68319/104204/F-894240970/TZA68319.pdf

[9] Section 155 of the Penal Code, 1945, available at: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=59637

[10] This table is focused on the treaties relevant to the focus of this context overview, for a more comprehensive database of treaties signed by Tanzania, and their ratification status visit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=97&Lang=EN , the African Union (AU) website: https://au.int/en/treaties  and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) website: https://www.achpr.org/ratificationtable?id=49 .


Carroll, A. and Kapilashrami, A. (2020) ‘Barriers to uptake of reproductive information and contraceptives in rural Tanzania: An intersectionality informed qualitative enquiry’, BMJ Open. BMJ Publishing Group, 10(10), p. 36600.
doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-036600.

Commission, E. (2020) Countering child marriage and FGM in Tanzania . Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/stories/countering-child-marriage-and-fgm-tanzania_en  (Accessed: 15 June 2020).

Dansou, J. (2017) ‘Factors Behind the Preference in Contraceptives Use Among Non-pregnant and Sexually Active Women in Benin Republic’, Central African Journal of Public Health.
doi: 10.11648/j.cajph.20170305.15.

Human Rights Watch (2020) Tanzania’s Anti-LGBT Crackdown and the Right to Health , Human Rights Watch . Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/02/03/if-we-dont-get-services-we-will-die/tanzanias-anti-lgbt-crackdown-and-right  (Accessed: 15 June 2020).

OECD (2019) Tanzania Development Index . Available at: https://www.genderindex.org/wp-content/uploads/files/datasheets/2019/TZ.pdf
(Accessed: 21 August 2020)

Tanzania, U. (2018) Family Planning Fact Sheet . Available at: http://wcaro.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/  (Accessed: 10 August 2020).

Tanzania, W. (2007) ‘Trends in Tanzania ’, WHO. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/pmnch/activities/countries/tanzania/en/index1.html (Accessed: 15 July 2020).

UNICEF (2016) Under-five mortality rate Maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births). Available at: https://www.unicef.org/tanzania/media/711/file/UNICEF-Tanzania-2017-MCH-fact-sheet.pdf (Accessed: 15 July 2020).

Planning, F. (2020) Tanzania – Family Planning 2020, Family Planning 2020. Available at: https://www.familyplanning2020.org/tanzania  (Accessed: 14 July 2020).

Shoo, R. S. et al. (2017) ‘Stagnating maternal mortality in Tanzania: what went wrong and what can be done’, Tanzania Journal of Health Research, 19(2).
doi: 10.4314/thrb.v19i2.6.