Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Susie Jacobs (2000) 'Zimbabwe: Why Land Reform is a Gender Issue'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 2, <>

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Received: 14/8/2000      Accepted: 23/8/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


The current situation in Zimbabwe concerning land reform is one of dramatic events, confusion and contradiction.

President Mugabe, in face of decreasing popularity, especially in urban areas, has sought to consolidate his support in Shona-speaking rural areas by launching a campaign to extend land redistribution. The campaign was begun by disgruntled war veterans seeking land; the government joined forces with them in February/March, 2000. The parliamentary election campaign was marked by great violence, mainly from ZANU PF and supporters towards real or suspected supporters of the newly-formed coalition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In May, 2000, 804 farms were targeted for appropriation. In early August, 2000, the government stated that another 2237 or a total of 3041 farms, constituting two-thirds of large-scale (and mainly white-owned) commercial farmland would be appropriated (McGreal, 2000b; Ngwawi, 2000).

The election, as has been widely acknowledged, demonstrated rural-urban splits in support for the present government, and in concerns demonstrated. However, the matter is not as straightforward as this. For instance, among those targeted for pre-and post-electoral intimidation and violence are farmworkers, generally the poorest of rural people, often foreign-born, and in great need of land. And it appears that [much-feared] Central Intelligence Office (CIO) staff have been involved in farm occupations, not only in coordinating occupations but allegedly more directly (Kahiya, 2000).

Commercial agriculture has importance in the Zimbabwean economy, accounting for 20% of GDP, 40% of export earnings (particularly from tobacco) and employing 50% of the formally-employed population (Ngwawi, 2000). Thus, as is much reported in the North, it is feared that economic instability will be exacerbated and that food shortages may loom. The government has said that the appropriation of farms will now take place within a few weeks, before the rainy season, and that resettlement of up to 500,000 families will be coordinated by the army.

In the midst of the present turbulence, it is easy to forget two matters. One is that a land resettlement programme already exists and that it is has been successful and well-administered in many respects. Another is the import of gender, which has been `written out' of most current debates.

The erasure of gender matters is, in a sense, curious, as most of the claims made employ the discourse of democracy as validation. For instance, Mugabe's actions are claimed as justified by the historic injustice done by appropriation of African lands; war veterans' claims are justified in terms of compensation for their actions in helping to bring about the end of settler society and undemocratic rule. White farmers' claims are in terms of commercial agriculture's crucial role in the economy, and implicitly as providing a framework in which democratic society can exist. Urban dwellers, trade unionists and others sympathetic to the MDC have entered into a coalition with the struggle against an increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian government at its centre. In general, land reforms concern the redistribution of resources to a wider group of agricultural producers; they have also been seen as a basis for widening democratic participation within peasant/smallholder villages and thereby influencing wider democratic processes. However, 'democracy' is not usually seen, at least in mainstream debates, as a gender matter: nor is the engendering of land rights seen as other than a fringe issue, despite the fact that 70% of the agricultural labour force is female (Made, 1999).

This article argues that gender is crucial both to land rights in particular and more generally, to a more democratic outcome in contemporary Zimbabwe. Although greater gender equality in land rights would not guarantee equity for women, it would be a development in the direction of a more democratic polity and society. The paper considers the record of Zimbabwe's land resettlement programme in gender terms, and compares this with the international context.

Customary Law

Although social and class differentiation exists in rural areas, most rural women, like men, live in poverty, with access only to inadequate amounts of arid land. The majority of rural people live in Communal Areas (CAs), in which land is mainly held under communal or 'traditional' tenure. Most people, as elsewhere, must seek recourse to multiple livelihood strategies, with remittances (where available) forming a significant component (Scoones, 1996; Francis, 2000). Nevertheless, agriculture remains an important part of rural livelihoods.

Unlike men, however, most black Zimbabwean women, especially in rural areas, live under constraints of customary law.[1] Customary law, of course, is not the only source of gender discrimination, and additionally, much debate exists concerning the workings of marriage, women's rights and gender norms in pre-colonial times. However, contemporary interpretations of customary law largely disadvantage women. For instance, although customarily women were entitled to proceeds from the work `of their own hands' such as beer-brewing, midwifery, and proceeds from own handicrafts or produce, today many men's interpretation of customary law is that they are entitled to all or most proceeds of a wife's economic activity, including that from formal, salaried employment. Customarily, a wife was entitled to her 'own' plot of land (in a system in which land was not privately-owned but was individually-worked) in order to plant food crops, used in most cases to feed family members. However, various factors including displacement and land shortages have meant that many women in Communal Areas no longer receive an allocation of land from the husband. Polygyny is permitted in marriages made under traditional or customary law (but not in civil/Christian marriages), and a man's patrilineal relatives expect to inherit property upon his death. Women could and can be divorced for a much greater variety of reasons than could men, and a man had custody of children aged over seven.

The Legal Age of Majority Act (1983), which gave women some basic citizenship rights (e.g. the right to vote; to represent themselves in court; to make contracts), is important but has not been fully implemented. In Communal Areas, chiefly courts still have jurisdiction over a number of matters (Ncube and Stewart, 1995). Divorced and deserted women frequently find themselves without means of support (Mpofu, 1983; Batezat and Mwalo, 1988; Pankhurst and Jacobs, 1988, Made, 1999). The 1985 Matrimonial Causes Act now partially removes `guilt' clauses in divorce suits; Section 7 also empowers courts to make equitable reallocation of spouses' property at divorce; however, these clauses apply only to civil and not to African Customary Marriages. Despite the law, even women married in Christian ceremonies stand to have property appropriated by the husband's patrilineal relatives. This practice has not decreased, and may have increased, in recent times (Moyo, 1995). Even if they are aware of the law, most rural women lack financial resources, time and confidence to bring court cases to assert their claims.

From 1998, the Legal Age of Majority Act has been queried in Parliament, with attempts to overturn it. In April, 1999, Zimbabwean women's campaigns for equal treatment within the law and within families received a severe setback. In the case of Magaya vs. Mayaya, the Supreme Court ruled that a daughter left property, including a house, by her father did not have inheritance rights over her half-brother because she was female. It was further stated that, "Women should never be considered as adults within the family but junior males or teenagers" (Zulu, 1999:8). The implications of this ruling for the LAMA are still not clear; however, this judgment must have serious implications for gender relations in the country and for the possibility of women's landholding.

The Land Reform Programme

A note on land resettlement as a political issue is in order here. When the guerrilla war ended with the Lancaster House Agreement in 1980, land redistribution was an important promise. Most redistribution took place in the early 1980s and the process then slowed. Land reform tended to remain on the 'back burner' except before elections (Alexander, 2000). After the expiry of the Lancaster House Agreement (which stipulated that land had to be bought on a 'willing-buyer/willing-seller' basis), legislation was passed in 1992 which allowed state acquisition of underutilized farms. However the amount of land acquired was not great, and the land tended to pass into the hands of government ministers, ZANU officials and their associates. Such processes led to a great deal of disillusion and to scepticism regarding government intentions concerning land reform.

Since the late 1990's, the government has turned more of its attention to land reform. This is in part a response to ongoing pressure from squatters. As noted, it is also a response to falling popularity, particularly given its military adventures in the Congo and ensuing economic difficulties. Nevertheless support for ZANU remains strong in Shona-speaking rural areas; this is in part due to the land resettlement programme.

Although they remain subject to legal and economic inequality, women in the land resettlement programme have seen changes in the circumstances of their lives. By 1997, government figures state that 71,000 families had been resettled in the programme on 3.5 million hectares (GOZ, 1998). Over half of the resettled population is female. Land is redistributed in 12A/5 ha plots, and is held on a series of permits. Although various models of resettlement exist, the majority of land redistributed is to individual families/households (`Model A'). A significant factor in this context is that the land permits are held by the `household head', assumed to be the husband unless a woman is widowed.

The assumption that land should be held by the husband/father is crucial, and means that women's access to land is highly insecure. An unmarried woman has no claim on land, and a wife's access to land depends upon the marriage continuing, since upon divorce (which, as mentioned is frequent) it is she who must leave the Resettlement Area. In the stipulation that land is held by the household head, however, Zimbabwe is merely following international precedent.

The following sections of the paper first consider the general effects of land resettlement for married women, and then the case of Zimbabwe, before going on to discuss women's movements' demands for land and for other rights.

Married Women and Land Reforms: Some General Points

The assumption that a `head' of household exists, is a man, and that he should hold land is common globally, and has been a feature of many - nearly all - land reform programmes. Thus, with few exceptions (see Jacobs, 1998) programmes are framed in a manner discriminatory towards women, particularly wives.[2] This feature sets the basis for other changes which tend to undermine areas of autonomy which may have existed pre-land reform (see Jacobs, 1997).

Wives may be under pressure to intensify their work to increase production, and to bear more children in order to supply labour for a larger plot. Ingrid Palmer (1985) noted increased pressure to bear children as a general effect of land reforms for married women; Kinsey (1999) notes that household/family sizes are larger in Zimbabwean RAs than in CAs. The workloads of many rural women may already be injurious to health, with 15-16 hour days not uncommon in Africa. The material benefits of individual family land reforms may have to be `exchanged' for some loss of autonomy. Studies worldwide report increased male control for a variety of reasons, the most straightforward of which is the continuous presence of the man. Additionally, married women may lose customary rights to the small amounts of land they control, as in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. It is common for husbands to be defined as `farmers' and for wives to be defined/redefined as `housewives'. Where use of relatively `advanced' technology is part of the reform, men usually dominate this, so that women's skills may decline in status. Hence any freedom from control by in-laws gained, may be traded for an increase in control by the husband.

Some effects of land reform, however, are more beneficial. Household incomes often rise, as has been the case in Zimbabwe (Kinsey, 1999). One of the main aims of land reforms is increased food security; this often occurs, and is crucial for all. For some women, the importance of this aspect outweighs all others. Other changes concern transformations of family structure, usually so that extended families are more distant and so have less control. Particularly when, as in the majority of cases, such families are patrilineal and patrilocal, many younger wives welcome this change to a smaller and/or more nuclear family.

Gender in Zimbabwean Resettlement Areas

Below I discuss the effects of land resettlement for married women in Zimbabwean RAs. The discussion is based on my own research carried out in the mid-1980s. Although this data was collected some time ago, more recent studies (see Chenaux-Repond, 1994 and 1995; Goebel, 1999) carried out from the late 1980s and in the 1990s indicate the continued relevance of the findings.

Here I discuss only aspects of the research relating to Model A schemes. The research employed several methodologies: a structured questionnaire; 24 semi-structured interviews; observations; key informant interviews and 25 group meetings, held with members of village Women's Clubs in six Resettlement Areas. Overall, 650-700 women were contacted in the meetings. Structured interviews, which form the basis for some of the more detailed data below, were conducted in eight villages of Mt. Darwin and Hoyuyu RAs. The survey was a multiple-stage one and included 207 settlers, consisting of 99 married women, 66 men married to women in the sample and 42 widows/divorcees. This was the first study of gender relations in resettlement of substantial size and duration.

In the following section I categorise certain changes as `positive' and others as `negative'; in this, I have tried to follow informants' perceptions and feelings, as expressed in interviews and meetings.

Features seen as Negative

Below I discuss five of the features of land resettlement which were seen as `negative' by large numbers of women (and sometimes, men) in my study.

The first factor was mentioned by men and by women equally; I note it in this context because it was of great concern to those in my study. Many people complained that they disliked living in villages, and particularly among `strangers'. Villages were perceived as unnecessarily cramped and `crowded'. Many settlers were also concerned about living on ancestral lands not their own.

A second matter which caused dissatisfaction concerned the general burden of work; nearly all settlers stated that this had increased with the allocation of greater amount of land to cultivate, and with associated work such as building fences, construction of huts, herding cattle, ploughing/hoeing/weeding larger fields. Workloads increased for both sexes, but as elsewhere, women already work longer hours (see below).

The third negative feature, mentioned by many was the lack of services in RAs: shops, schools, clinics, markets and sources of clean water were usually distant, increasing the burden of work especially for women. Allison Goebel (1998) reports (1998) that even in the 1990s, women are seriously concerned about the lack of provision of services, although provision had improved somewhat since the inception of the programme.

Fourthly, a number of men, and some women (both widowed and married) discussed anxieties concerning tenure insecurity, as they were aware that land was held via permits. Men, however, were far more likely than women to discuss matters in terms of access to land. Widows' insecurity was compounded by poverty (for most but not all); by a lack of command over labour and by a general feeling of social powerlessness. Married women were much more likely to express the insecurity of their position not in terms of landholding but in terms of the lack of security in marriage.

A fifth feature - perhaps the most important - which many wives interviewed saw as operating to women's disadvantage was the extent of polygynous marriage within Resettlement Areas. I found rates of over 30%, and Chenaux-Repond found a rate of up to 36% (1994). Although data for CAs are not reliable, it seems unlikely that the percentage of polygynous marriages approaches these levels. This phenomenon may indicate that many junior wives in RAs are being treated as labourers, similar to the phenomenon found by Weinrich (1975) and by Cheater (1981) in Small-Scale Commercial Farms. Certainly, some polygamously married men I interviewed, were explicit concerning their `accumulation' of wives in this fashion, and were enthusiastic about the possibilities offered within RAs.

Beneficial Features

Despite this discussion of material hardship and of insecurity, a majority of married women in my study perceived resettlement as a positive experience, and felt that their lives had improved in many respects. Thus Zimbabwe departs to some extent from the general and rather negative general picture of land reform discussed above.

Gender Division of Labour

The first positive aspect concerns a shift in the gender division of labour. Even though most settlers, as noted, worked harder than previously, settler men reportedly did far more fieldwork than had been the case in CAs. In particular, men assist more with ploughing as well as with sowing, weeding and harvesting. An early study by Henny Henson also reported similar changes.[3] In my study, the most common situation was that husbands and wives more often participated together. A number of men also reported assisting with `female' tasks such as fetching water and firewood. Women still are responsible for nearly all domestic labour and childcare, and for many aspects of fieldwork, so that their overall work burden typically remains much higher than men's. Nevertheless, the burden of agricultural labour is perceived as being shared more equally, and this is felt to be a highly beneficial development.

Property and Income

Wives in my sample population had improved situations regarding property and income compared with their holdings previous to resettlement. Firstly, more wives, 37%, had been allotted plots of `their own' to cultivate than they had had previously, with 1.6A being the mean amount of land. More recent work in RAs has show much higher percentages of wives being allocated land, one study citing nearly all wives as having land (Chimedza, 1988); Goebel found that 65% of wives had their `own' plots (1999). Such differences may simply relate to variations between sample populations or may indicate improvement over time.

A minority of wives were allocated harvested crops for use or sale by husbands. Additionally, about one-quarter of men and wives said that wives had been allowed to use or keep proceeds from specific crops such as cotton or groundnuts. Although again these proportions may appear small, they indicate an improvement from that in CAs previous to resettlement, where, according to wives' testimony, few were allocated proportions of any crops.

Wives' own income in this population appeared to be relatively high; however, 20% of wives had no income. The most important reported income sources consisted of sales from maize and cotton, income from handicrafts, beer-brewing, herbalism, and sales of eggs. Wives' average income amounted to one-quarter of mean reported household income, a high figure which may represent a surprisingly (and welcome) high degree of intrahousehold redistribution.

Family Change, and `Good Husbands'

Changes in family structure, organisation and processes, generally so central to women's lives, were important in the generally hopeful feelings about resettlement expressed by many wives. Related to these changes, many wives viewed their husbands' behaviour after resettlement as having `improved', compared with previous situations.

A relevant factor is change in family structure. In general, the resettled people in my sample lived in two rather than three-generation households: 12% of households contained relatives of the senior generation. The majority of settlers, both male and female, expressed relief at living away from extended families. Seventy per cent of husbands and 60% of wives said that the nuclear family was the `best unit in which to live', and many people said that extended families had caused great friction in their lives and were a drain on resources. For many wives, resettlement meant an increase in influence. In the absence of other relatives, and `living among strangers', husbands may draw closer to their wives and may adopt a more companionate model of family life.

The majority of wives' views, as expressed in structured and unstructured interviews and in Women's Club meetings, was that their male partners were now `better husbands': that is, they drank less; worked harder; directed more resources towards the household/farm (rather than to other women); were less violent and esteemed wives more. The model of a more self-contained nuclear family with a `good' husband, it should be noted, does not imply female autonomy or equality. Differences of social strata within the peasantry were of importance: middle peasant women were more likely than `poor' or `wealthier' stratum women to say that their household status had declined or had remained unaltered post-resettlement and that husbands took decisions over cropping, budgeting, etc. without consulting them at all.

For the majority who perceived that their status had improved, several lines of explanation may be relevant. One set of factors is contingent: beer halls are usually much further away and opportunities to carry out extra-marital relationships, perhaps less. As noted, the decline of the extended family may have improved wives' position, at least among monogamously-married families.

Resettlement Officers

A second explanation concerns the authority of Resettlement Officers (ROs), who administered RAs until early 2000. The Resettlement Officer's role was similar to that of the old District Commissioner and the Areas do not fall under the jurisdiction of District Councils. Hence, ROs had and were perceived to have a good deal of power within their `own' Areas. In particular, they had some leeway to interpret rules applying to resettlement.

Both men and women surveyed knew that their behaviour was scrutinised by Resettlement Officers. Male title-holders knew that they stood to lose permits if not, as it was said, `on good behaviour'. In practice, among the ROs I interviewed, settlers were only removed for gross misbehaviour, but the possibility of removal appeared to be felt as a deterrent. Additionally, some ROs imparted a model of `proper' family behaviour: in some cases this consists simply of hard work, investment in the farm, and not disrupting neighbours; for others, a notion of the wife as companion and as due respect, was an element. Even the former, more limited view, of proper behaviour tended to encourage men to be sober husbands as well as good farmers. In this instance, social and state control of a direct kind, as well as familistic ideology of a more indirect nature, may have operated to the benefit of married women.

This aspect of `changing gender relations' is paradoxical: a highly authoritarian structure appeared to be operating to the benefit of some of the least socially powerful settlers. What the effects of the wholesale removal of ROs will be, remains to be seen.

Recent Changes in Inheritance

Resettled women are now advantaged over other African women with respect to procedures over inheritance. In RAs, rulings have meant that wives/senior wives inherit (or, at least, may inherit) rather than the husband's brothers. Ironically, since many wives are considerably younger than husbands, a substantial number will inherit land permits (Chenaux-Repond, 1994, cited in Gaidzanwa, 1995). In Goebel's Wedza study, one-fifth of tenants were widows (Goebel, 1999).

Again, the role of ROs was of import in these changes. Goebel notes that the percentage of widows cited above (and 33% in one village) are high because of the intervention of the Resettlement Officer, who had stipulated that the widow should inherit the land. More startlingly, in some cases ROs have decided to award land to married women.

Women's Movements and Land

Most of the changes outlined above as `positive', do not give female settlers a basis for longlasting autonomy, influence and security. They stem from the actions [individual and collective], and the goodwill of male actors: husbands and Resettlement Officers. A husband may allocate land for `women's crops' - or may not; he may or may not redistribute some of `his' household income, and so on. The allocation of land to men means that women's dependence upon husbands is exacerbated despite an increase in material well-being. In the case discussed, changes have been enacted through state policies and were (sometimes) ameliorated by powerful social actors. Within this situation, married women have probably negotiated where possible, and some have adjusted happily to the `trade-off'.

Women's groups in Zimbabwe have not been complacent in regard to this situation, but have campaigned for more secure access to land for married and single women. These actions are notable in themselves, for feminist and women's movements worldwide[4] have not seen land as an important focus: perhaps because the movements themselves tend to be urban-based.

However, even before the present events, women's movements operated within difficult circumstances. Although some state actions and laws have ameliorated women's lives, in other respects state campaigns have been directed against groups of women and against groups contravening (hetero-)sexual norms. From soon after independence, government in Zimbabwe asserted its masculinist credentials, orchestrating various campaigns focusing on the sexuality of women; the existence of ideological and physical harassment has made conditions for organisation difficult. The best-known campaign, until recently, was the `clean-up' campaign ostensibly directed against `prostitutes' but in effect directed against all urban women (Jacobs and Howard, 1987; Batezat and Mwalo, 1989). Whitworth (1998) outlines a near-continuous media campaign against women's rights and groups construed as feminist. In the last several years, President Mugabe has launched vociferous campaigns against homosexuals and has sought the support of rural women in these. Pre-election, these campaigns escalated in vehemence. Recently, another popular phenomenon has occurred. Incidents of (usually, urban) women wearing trousers or short skirts being attacked by mobs of men, stripped and beaten has increased, and police have failed to stop these. Such incidents have caused the UNCHR to protest to the Zimbabwe government (Deng, 1998). Although not initiated by government, the latter actions indicate a situation in which some men feel empowered to enforce violently their views on appropriate dress.

Despite the general difficulties of open organisation and frequent state attacks on civil liberties, a number of explicitly feminist groups exist, mainly in urban areas such as Harare The Women's Action Group (WAG) was formed to defend women arrested, imprisoned and sent to detention camps during the first `clean-up' campaign. It now has adequate offices with an advice centre, a library, some regional workers and publishes a tri-lingual magazine. The WiLDAF also campaigns on legal issues. An important group in campaigning terms is the WLSA (Women in Law in Southern Africa). Another group, the Zimbabwe Women's Research Centre and Network (ZWRCN) is notable in that it has tried to organise itself internally along feminist and egalitarian lines, although it has encountered serious problems in this attempt (Chigudu, 1997). These organisations, however, are highly dependent upon external funding, mainly from NGOs.

The government set up a Land Tenure Commission in 1993. However, no recommendations to remove gender discrimination were included (Mabuwa, 1996). As a result, protest against this state of affairs escalated. For instance, SAFERE (a feminist journal subsequently closed down by the government) included property rights and democratisation as major foci of debate; the WAG holds meetings in the countryside and has fieldworkers who travel to rural areas to discuss women's needs and concerns. It also made representations to government concerning women's lack of formal land rights The ZWRCN has published several documents concerning women's land rights (e.g. ZWRCN, 1994). The Musasa Project, formed to campaign against gender violence, found in a Midlands Province survey that many women tolerated violent abuse because of fear of being driven off the land (Made, 1999). Most importantly, a coalition of groupings has been formed as the Women's Land Lobby. Following the promise of resettlement land for mainly male ex-combatants, it began campaigning for one-third of designated land to be allocated to women in their own right, either individually or jointly with the husband. To date, such demands have been unsuccessful.

This is in part because of the opposition of Mugabe and a number of ministers. However, the reasons go deeper and are by no means confined to Zimbabwe. The Minister without Portfolio and for Resettlement (now Vice-President), Joseph Msika, in response to a question about why women did not have land rights, said at a press conference: "Because I would have my head cut off by men if I gave women would turn against the government" (Sayagues, 1998). Msika added that giving wives land, or even granting joint titles, would `destroy the family'. Such sentiments have much international precedent (see.Agarwal, 1994:53).


Such reactions are indicative of the intertwining of questions of land, family, gender and power. In this emotive mix, issues of equity and of democracy may be sidelined. The imminent land redistribution in Zimbabwe, as noted, purports to economically empower the rural poor (see below). But if gender factors continue to be ignored, the majority of rural dwellers may find themselves little better off. The populist vision of a peasant landholding democracy does not sit easily with alternative visions of women's rights. Although women, and particularly older women with many children/sons may not be powerless, they are in most cases nevertheless subordinate members of households and communities, and not only in southern Africa.

Granting land rights for women on the same basis as for men (and this could be either communal or individual) would not create gender equity overnight, given the complex nature of gender subordination. However, it would constitute one important element of citizenship rights. It would also be likely to ensure greater food security, given that African women are more likely to plant food crops to feed family members than are men. Greater food security links with improved nutrition and health: in a situation in which HIV/AIDS has caused life expectancy to plummet to below 40 years, people might live somewhat longer. (See Kinsey's (1999) comments on malnutrition in RAs despite increased production of cash crops.) Land rights are likely to give married women a measure of economic security, and this might mean that they were better able to resist any abuses which might occur within marriage/sexual relationships. In general, land rights link with greater social power and status within agrarian societies.

However, historically and in the present, the situation of women holding land rights has only been brought about by powerful governments (as in China, post 1949) or by widespread social movements. Even in these situations, let alone others, the fact or possibility of women's land rights is seen as highly threatening, particularly in patrilineal/patrilocal societies; male peasant backlashes may occur (see e.g. Wiergsma, 1991). In a sense, the extent of the conflicts sparked off may indicate the seriousness of the question, and the extent of other changes which some fear and others hope, might lead on from gaining one type of right. Competing conceptions of `democracy', and newly- emerging ones of citizenship, are in question.

The future?

In the land redistribution which seems imminent, it seems unlikely that women's needs for land, let alone wider rights, will be taken into account. Despite the rhetoric, widening democratic participation is not 'on the agenda' at present.

On the basis of evidence so far presented concerning women's experiences within resettlement, we can speculate about the likely consequences of an unplanned land reform both for women's situation/s and more generally.

Firstly, a wide/r land redistribution might have the unintended spin-off of increasing popular demands for land, for sustainable livelihoods and for other economic rights both in Zimbabwe and in the region .[5]

However, a rapid land reform involving hundreds of thousands of households is likely to be highly chaotic. The army, which is thin on the ground due to Mugabe's deployment of troops in the Congo, is not experienced in administration, let alone welfarist measures such as land reform. Land reforms enacted without attendant and well- planned services and inputs are unlikely to be able to generate sustainable livelihoods. As Benson Dube (2000) commented, "...[these people]...need jobs, they needs security, they need roofs ..and affordable health services. Giving them unserviced land won't help."

Thirdly, who will get the land? This is a scenario in which the strongest (socially, and perhaps physically as well) and the best-connected will receive farmland. With land being sold by various parties, it seems highly unlikely that groups such as farm workers and very poor CA residents will receive land. Ethnic and linguistic factors are also likely to play a part. Nor does it seem likely that large numbers of women will be able to press claims.

In general, weaker social `players' are likely to lose out. Even in a properly and fairly-administered programme, who should receive land is a highly contentious and contested issue; a militarily-administered programme devoid of criteria concerning equity is likely to result in a free-for-all. Poorer women's needs and interests are likely to be marginalised. Moreover, accumulation of wives has proved to be a convenient and (economically) successful strategy for a large minority of men in existing RAs: in an unplanned situation, this strategy may become even more popular.

The above thoughts are, of course speculative. Some men as well as some women are likely to benefit from a land redistribution, given the poverty in CAs. However, many other people may end up giving up their plots, particularly in arid areas. With the advent of HIV/AIDs, farming is already precarious, with many physically unable to farm, and with farming being at times directed by children (Palmer and Mullins, 2000). A chaotic resettlement is likely, if anything, to exacerbate such effects rather than to ameliorate them. A relatively small number of people will be likely to accumulate land titles sold on unless such transactions are severely restricted by government.

Land reform is an urgent necessity in Zimbabwe as elsewhere in the region. The present situation presents great opportunity to reduce rural poverty, to widen democratic participation, and to use the state to increase rights of rural people, including women. However, if women's voices have not been 'heard' in time of relative stability, it is unlikely that they will be in time of conflict. The present scenario probably makes the achievement of land rights by rural Zimbabwean women even more remote. Moreover, if land reform fails, it is likely to become discredited - quite unjustly - as a strategy for reducing poverty.

Much is at stake now. A widespread land reform is overdue. However, present processes and procedures are unlikely to result in either viable or democratic outcomes. To achieve its potential, land reforms must be linked to democratising trends; particularly in southern Africa, a democratic land reform means one which encompasses gender rights.


1'Customary law' is the colonial interpretation of laws concerning marriage, kinship, divorce and a number of everyday, community-level matters. Much debate exists concerning the workings of pre-colonial laws and regulations, and the extent to which women and younger men were disadvantaged or protected within the lineage-based system. See, for instance: Schmidt (1992)

2What I have termed the `general' pattern' with regard to gender relations and land reforms has been ascertained from a reading of available studies of gender and land reforms along individual household/family lines. The generalisations ventured here are based on a reading of twenty-two case studies taken from Africa, Latin America, and south, southeast, and east Asia. See Jacobs (1997) for a bibliography.

3Henny Henson's fieldwork in northern Zimbabwe was done as part of her MA at the University of Copenhagen.

4 However, Indian women's movements have taken up land issues far more than is common elsewhere.

5Land invasions on 63 Kwa-Zulu Natal commercial farms were reported in July, 2000, apparently in response to the events in Zimbabwe (Kirk, 2000).


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