Remembering Women in Zimbabwe’s Land Reform

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion on Land Grabbing in Zimbabwe. As a Zimbabwean who grew up on a farm, I assumed I knew everything there was to know about this issue. Yet, like most people, I had understood this process from a racial, class & historical perspective because the debates around this issue focus almost entirely on the infamous brutality of the “fast track” resettlement program in 2000.

However, after this discussion, I realized that there was an untold story to the land issue in Zimbabwe – an untold story that has always existed even before colonization. This is the story of women – my grandmothers, aunts and sisters who I grew up watching primarily work on this land – but who have been denied a chapter to this story. Since the debates around the land reform are largely constructed around race and economic growth, gender issues are either ignored or unanalyzed. So, as I pondered away in thought, I was led to ask, “If women play a central role in farming, why is their access to land minimal?”

It is clear that other issues are at play here. Despite women’s central role in farming, their subordinate position mediated by cultural and social expectations often inhibits their ability to own land. In a culture that privileges men, it is no surprise that women’s entitlement to land and home comes through marriage. This immediately draws me to memories of my grandmother working the rural field to produce crops and vegetables to feed her family while my grandfather worked in the city. I even remember the few times where my grandmother tried albeit futilely to show me how to hold and use garden hoe every time I went to visit her because it was viewed as an important trait to have to be considered “marriage” material. Therefore, not only are women expected to play certain roles in order to be considered “worthy” of marriage, but these same roles are used to further entrench their position. In this context, marriage then takes on deeper and symbolic implications for women’s access to resources i.e. land.

If women’s access to land is mediated through male power and control, how then do we address their plight? Clearly, simply advocating for a land reform program is not enough because even though Zimbabwe has been in the process of redistributing land (although problematic), it is estimated that only 20% of women have received land. While the current land reform, divided into two parts A1 and A2 shows women as significant beneficiaries in the former, it is still not clear whether these are just women who have been able to capitalize on their use of social networks and political party affiliations to acquire land. In any case, the need to give women more access to land remains an extremely important and controversial issue in Zimbabwe.

It is thus important to create a land reform program that addresses the inequalities that women suffer. Yet, this is not an easy task because the very act of distributing more land to women implies challenging the spaces were men are in control. In this patriarchal culture, men's power is derived from their ability to not only control resources, but also, who has access to them. As a result, fighting for equal rights for women often contradicts their main cultural identities as married women, mothers, etc, while threatening men’s identity and power.

Consequently, there is a conflict between cultural practices, attitudes and laws that constrict women’s role and individual modern rights that seek to broaden this role. Hopefully the new Referendum will provide a changing landscape for women in Zimbabwe to challenge programs and laws that either discriminate against them or simply ignore them as citizens worthy of the same resources that the government declares belongs to its “citizens”. With the help of organizations such as Women and Land Lobby Group (WLLG), women’s plight when it comes to land will continue to be put on the table and eventually be included in the narrative for land rights in Zimbabwe.

Photo credit: Actionaid

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