A Tanzanian Human Rights Lawyer Empowers Rural Women

Laetitia Petro (R) with her friend Likele Shungo. The two women studied law together at the University of Dar Es Salaam with scholarships from Carnegie Corporation of New York. (Photo: Megan Lindow)

Driven by childhood experiences in a polygamous household, Laetitia Petro has dedicated her career to helping women gain independence and security.

This article is part of a series exploring the transformation of African women's lives through education.

"I always had the spirit of being someone who will defend women's rights."
— Laetitia Petro

Laetitia Petro knows all too well how the factors of inequality in polygamous households, poor schooling and gender-based violence can drag a woman down. As a teenager growing up in a rural village in western Tanzania, she saw her mother disinherited of all her property in a bitter family dispute. It was an event that set the course for her life.

Raised in a polygamous household, Laetitia was the youngest daughter of her father's second wife. The death of her older brother left her branch of the family vulnerable, and jealous family members soon convinced Laetitia's father to seize her mother's house and land. The injustice struck Laetitia forcefully, and she resolved then and there to become a magistrate one day and help her mother reclaim her land. "I always had the spirit of being someone who will defend women's rights," she says.

Laetitia had always been clever in school. While her older brothers all dropped out of school one by one, she persevered in her studies, making her father proud. Other families in the village ridiculed him for investing in a girl's education. "Everybody said, this man is crazy. He fails to educate his boys and then he takes this girl to school!" Laetitia recalls. "So I was working very hard to make sure I passed."

She graduated from high school, but her marks weren't quite good enough to secure a government scholarship to attend the University of Dar Es Salaam. The scholarship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York came as a lifeline. Laetitia entered law school, won her degree, and qualified as an advocate in 2007. She then joined the Legal and Human Rights Center, a local NGO. In the meantime, her father had relented and given her mother back her property.

Working at the human rights organization, Laetitia immersed herself in conducting trainings and media campaigns. She traveled across Africa as an election monitor, observing elections in Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. She hosted trainings for commissioners with the Tanzania Police Force, and organized human rights associations in various Tanzanian universities. The experiences deepened her understanding of human rights issues and exposed her to a wide range of people.

But she never forgot her vow of helping rural women like her mother. In 2012 she resigned and moved far from the capital in order to establish her own legal firm, as well as an organization called Sauti Ya Mwanamke, which means "The Voice of the Woman" in Swahili. Dedicated to the promotion and protection of women’s and children's rights, the NGO provides legal aid, education, and economic empowerment to rural women.

Full of energy and enthusiasm, Laetitia describes the activities of Sauti. The organization defends the claims of women who are victims of property disputes or domestic violence, taking their cases to court and navigating the rapids of the legal system. Many tensions and contradictions exist in rural life between the dictates of tradition and the law, Laetitia says. For example many customary practices prevent widows from inheriting property. In her strategy to help build gender linkages within the legal system, she has enlisted both a senior magistrate and a senior police officer to Sauti's board.

But the organization’s mainstay is a system of Village Community Banks (Vicoba), which enable groups of rural women to save money and access low-interest loans in times of need, particularly for their children's education. According to Laetitia, gender violence is widespread across rural Tanzania and occurs mostly because women depend financially on men and often have to beg them for money to buy food and meet basic household needs. This situation of dependence often means that women have nowhere to turn when they suffer violence. "I tell women, if you didn't have a chance to become educated, at least become economically empowered so you don't have violence in your family," she says.

So far there are 15 different Vicoba groups with some 450 members spread across them. Sauti runs out of a shipping container office, and its shoestring budget is often supplemented with Laetitia's earnings from her legal practice. "I go to court every week to defend women whose rights have been violated," she says. "A lot of women are still in need of education about their rights. Education is the key to liberate a woman from gender-based violence."

Megan Lindow is an award-winning writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a former Africa Correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Weaving Success: Voices of Change in African Higher Education, the story of a major 10-year initiative investing in African universities.