In most African communities, land and power are closely linked. Men hold the power and women are regarded as inferior. When families get new land, this culture can negatively affect women. Recent research on the land reform process in Zimbabwe shows that women have not benefitted equally. In Manicaland, eastern Zimbabwe, few of the resettled small-scale farmers who received land were women.
During the fast-track land reform program, some small-scale farmers were resettled in the Nyabamba area of Chimanimani District in Manicaland. This region was chosen so that farmers could have larger plots of land, with better soils. Village headmen were responsible for land allocation. Within families, the head of the household divided the land, mainly to sons. Mothers and sisters were rarely considered.
Women played an active role in clearing land. Yet in most cases men were the sole recipients of offer letters. Offer letters are the documents needed by the government to grant land permits to landholders. In Nyabamba, women’s names are documented as sole recipients of land on less than 14% of offer letters.
When the land belongs to men, women can access and use land only to grow food for the family. They cannot grow food for sale. Neither can they decide how income is spent. Men are the decision-makers and the women the “decided for.” Yet women in Zimbabwe, and across Africa, are responsible for feeding their families. It is estimated that women produce 80% of the total food produced in Africa.
When the women resettled in Chimanimani, they formed community groups. During this time of change, they farmed alongside men. They used forest resources for beekeeping. Now they sell their honey in the market. Together with the men, women have learned how to make beehives, which they sell locally. They have been trained in forest conservation. They replant forest trees and plant trees at home.
Community groups have also been trained on land rights and land reform. During the trainings, men take part in discussions on equal rights for women to land. The groups sensitize other community members on issues of land and land rights.
Apart from beekeeping and afforestation, women have been elected and are active on local environmental management committees. Gender balance is key in these committees. Men recognize women’s contributions and acknowledge the value of their participation in land management.
But attitudes change slowly. One woman registered her name on land documents while her husband was away. But this situation did not last long. She explains, “A few months later, my husband came and saw the permit in my name. I was rebuked for the decision.” Her husband went to the office of the district administrator and replaced her name on the document with his own.
The community groups continue to raise awareness in communities. They want to engage with the legal institutions that deal with land matters, and encourage them to be more open to change.
Some men have registered their land as “joint titles.” The names of both the man and the wife appear on these land documents. It’s estimated that 8% of land documents are registered as “joint title.” This small success has given women the strength to continue working together with men. Together, they are trying to diversify their livelihoods beyond a dependence on gardening and forest-based resources.
The women of Chimanimani hope to achieve more in the future, as they continue their trainings on awareness raising and attitude change.