What have been the consequences of Zimbabwe’s land reform for agrarian gender relations? This is a crucial question. If land reform was aimed at addressing historical racial imbalances in land ownership, has it also challenged gender inequalities?
Surveys have shown how many women gained land in their own right (and were granted ‘offer letters’). Between 15 and 20 percent of new A1 plots are recorded as controlled by women. With inheritance of land, this may have increased marginally over time. The pattern in A2 areas was even more skewed to male control, with only around 10 percent being controlled by women; although transfers have been higher through inheritance in these farms.
Based simply on these figures, the record of land reform in addressing gender inequalities is poor. However, such assessments say nothing about the effects of land reform on gender relations, and the power, influence and control of assets of men and women in rural society. New work suggests contrasting interpretations, and interesting dynamics.
Some researchers have argued that land reform has opened up spaces of opportunity for women, whereby new livelihoods can be pursued, and a greater economic independence realised. This view has been emphasised by Patience Mutopo in her excellent study of women in a new resettlement area in Mwenezi district, in the dry south of the country. Access to land – often portions of husbands’ fields – provided the route to building new trading enterprises. Mutopo traced the economic and social linkages that resettlement women created. It is a fascinating story, now written up in a book. It shows that economic and social empowerment does not have to come through the formal allocation of land to women, but many women are able to negotiate access to resources within existing marriage and other institutions, and make very good use of these opportunities. She argues that women ‘can have remarkable bargaining power in certain domains’. She shows how new livelihood activities, notably trading involving travel away from the rural home, have meant changed gender relations. When women travel, husbands must take on domestic caring roles, including cooking and childcare. And with increased incomes, women may be the ones offering cash to their home-bound husbands when they return.
In a paper in Agrarian South by Mutopo, together with Jeanette Manjengwa and Manase Chiweshe, a series of cases are offered that show women accumulating in their own right. In the higher potential zones, agricultural production on the new resettlements was providing income that was being invested in school fees, home development as well as farming inputs. In the drier parts of the country, the cases showed women adopting more diversified livelihoods, including the use of natural resources for craft making and trading. Such patterns of accumulation are assisted through forms of collective organisation by women, facilitating trading, gaining access to markets or providing mutual aid to help out with domestic activities. Such new relations among women provide a basis for solidarity, assistance and economic organisation maximising the opportunities of the land reform, they argue.
In our work in Masvingo province we found a diversity of patterns across sites. New gender relations were being negotiated within households, as women gained economic independence and control over resources, separate from men. Simply having larger farms, and a greater level of production and income means that divisions of labour have shifted, with separate enterprises created, with different responsibilities. While in communal area homes, women have often managed to create some form of independence – growing their own vegetables, buying their own goats – the room for manoeuvre is limited, and with less income to hire labour from outside, women are often restricted to social reproductive activities, and providing labour for efforts controlled by men.
Those women who highlighted the benefits of land reform most enthusiastically in our study areas were those who had been marginalised and ostracised in their previous homes. These included single women, divorcees, and those who – for a range of reasons – had become outcasts in their communities, often targeted as ‘witches’. The land reform areas offered a space outside restrictive, discriminatory, sometimes dangerous settings from where they came. For such women, these were genuinely liberated spaces.
However, others have highlighted that there are severe limits to such liberation. In a recent paper Manase Chiweshe, Loveness Chanoka and Kirk Helliker ask, based on data from Mazowe and Goromonzi, whether radical socio-spatial reorganisations such as fast-track land reform can destabilise forms of domination such as patriarchy. They conclude that patriarchy is so entrenched and the fast-track programme is ‘highly masculinized’, very often limiting opportunities. Bargaining with patriarchy, they argue, has limits. They quote one woman in Goromonzi who comments:
“The household setup is not fair, as men have full control of cash crops and as we women … are responsible for crops that are mainly for family consumption for example round nuts. The unfair part of it is, even if as women we sell surplus ‘women crops’, men’s hands will be seen when monies get on the table. That is the reason why we also engage ourselves in other non-agricultural income-generating activities in a bid to widen our income base”.
When so-called ‘customary law’ becomes extended into new resettlement areas women can become especially disadvantaged. In the early days of land occupation and the beginning of the fast-track programme, the new resettlements – as the old resettlements – were outside customary control, organised through Committees of Seven, linked to political and administrative structures. However over time, as Chiefs and headmen have exerted authority over the new resettlements, hybrid institutional arrangements have emerged.
In areas of land and inheritance in particular an increasing influence of patriarchal customary systems are observed. As Prosper Matondi comments in his 2012 book, the land reform ‘has perpetuated the customary property rights in favour of men’. The implementation of new A1 permits may have helped to reverse some of this trend, as the more detailed permits now replacing ‘offer letters’ require both men and women to be named, and thus specify inheritance rights for women. This provides some protection of the imposition of ‘customary’ rules that frequently result of land and assets being taken by male relatives on the death of a husband.
As Chiweshe and colleagues point out, the burdens of social reproduction continue to fall substantially on women in the new resettlements. But in these new settings, the challenges may well have increased, with the lack of basic infrastructure. The distance to clinics for example can be substantial, and similarly water collection distances may be longer than in their former homes. While investments have occurred, these have been slow and limited, and most resettlement areas have few facilities.
There are thus highly contradictory effects resulting from land reform on gender relations. As Chiweshe and colleagues conclude “[al]though in large part insensitive to the land needs and rights of women, in some ways fast track nevertheless improved – albeit inadvertently – the lives of A1 women… Despite the prevalence of patriarchy as an intertwined system of structures and practices, women have sought to identify and open up gaps and pursue new activities as they manoeuvre their way..”.
It is this active agency, involving negotiation, bargaining and generating creative solutions, that comes across strongly in these studies. While the power imbalances are clear, and gender discrimination widespread, this does not mean that women always lose out.