Women’s Struggles to Access and Control Land and Livelihoods after Fast Track Land Reform in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe


Mutopo, Patience. 2011. “Women’s Struggles to Access and Control Land and Livelihoods after Fast Track Land Reform in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe.” Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (5): 1021–46. doi:10.1080/03066150.2011.635787.

Author: Patience Mutopo


Women’s access to land and the shaping of livelihoods after fast track land reform should be viewed with a new social and economic lens in Zimbabwe. This paper examines the extent to which negotiations and bargaining by women with the family, state, and traditional actors has proved to be useful in accessing land in one semi-arid district, Mwenezi, in southern Zimbabwe. Based on multi-site ethnography, it shows the complex and innovative ways women adopted in accessing land and shaping non-permanent mobile livelihoods. I challenge the assumption that Western notions of individual rights to land are the best mechanisms for women in Africa; rather it is the negotiated and bargaining processes that exist in patriarchal structures that lead to cultural contracts enabling women’s land access. Off-farm activities involving trading in South Africa became a major activity undertaken by the women. Trips to South Africa intensified due to land acquisition, leading to new market searches beyond national borders. The role of collective action and women’s agency in overcoming the challenges associated with trading in South Africa is examined within the ambit of the livelihoods analysis.

Keywords: women, access to land, fast track, land reform, negotiation, livelihoods, non-Western, Rights, non-permanent mobility



“Discourses on land and livelihoods1 have gained momentum in most Eastern and Southern African countries. Shifts in policy debates result in increasing importance being given to land use and management. Adding the issue of non-permanent mobility2 to the familiar gender3, land and livelihoods debates offers a new way to explore gendered mobility influenced by access to fast track farms, which have become the focus of attention, especially since 2000 in Zimbabwe.” (1021)

“Attempts at agrarianisation processes with women accessing land have led to intensification of mobile livelihoods. Rural women are increasingly dominating non-permanent mobility, which has traditionally been a male domain. Female mobility with the aim of securing sustainable livelihoods opens up new gendered geographies of mobility, with rural women participating more in the public space in search of better livelihood pathways. A symbiotic interdependence exists between women’s access to land and mobile livelihoods, and this ought to be considered with primacy in rural development thought and practice in Zimbabwe.” (1022)

“O’Laughlin (1998, 2002) brought attention to the existence of missing men in Southern Africa’s rural areas due to labour migration to South Africa. This created opportunities for women to gain access to land and control production activities. Women-headed households increased as men were missing demographically in rural areas, which could also be a result of urbanisation. O’Laughlin (2009) has termed this phenomenon in which women accessed land as ‘relatively secure access to land’. Women-headed households assumed a new form of power over livelihood organisation, and subsistence agriculture remained a key survival strategy.” (1022)

“The liberation wars did not even dislodge the women; most of them remained fixed on the land. This reflects that when women become key actors in rural livelihoods, new forms of power trickle down to them, and that power leads to new configurations in land use and livelihood options. Pelizolli (2010) demonstrates that women have taken over the land in a Chokwe irrigation scheme in Mozambique, competing with the few men left, as most men have left to look for full-time employment.” (1022)

“Variations in gender disaggregated data reveal the fact that women in rural set- ups had different participatory mechanisms and motivations for participating in the fast track land reform processes. In as much as mobilisation campaigns were held in the different districts, in Mazowe women played a leading role in the mobilisation campaigns during the land occupations as compared to other districts (Sadomba 2008). I disagree with Matondi and Sanyanga (forthcoming) who argue that the gender statistics hide more than they reveal the extent to which women were ostracised during the fast track process. What should be borne in mind is that the quantitative data present women’s entry point into the new farms and also the role they played as individuals in acquiring land.” (1023)

“A World Bank Report (2003, 23) notes that ‘if women have access to and control over land then family livelihood patterns improve. Most women-headed households have better management policies in terms of farming practices, marketing of produce and use of the income’.” (1026)

“In Zimbabwe most women do farm their husband’s land but they do not have any form of title (deed or customary acknowledged right) to that land. These take a form limited to ‘land offers’ from the Government of Zimbabwe in the fast track resettlement areas. Similar patterns also existed in the communal areas where land use and control has been under the domain of men and traditional leaders, making land a male-controlled resource. However in communal areas it should be understood that the interplay of customary, codified and colonial laws has disadvantaged women with regards to land access.” (1026)

“Makura–Paradza (2010), Cheater (1986) and Gaidzanwa (1994) note that in the communal and resettlement areas of Zimbabwe land access has become a field of contestation based on legal pluralism and semi-autonomous social fields that are constantly remodified by traditional authorities and local governments so they may continue controlling land. This creates a difficult social environment for women trying to assert a right to land, as much as their livelihood is tied to ever-changing rules governing this critical resource (Jacobs 2010, Tsikata 2003). Rural peasant women face exclusion. particularly from different political and traditional regimes that control land, in spite of their immense contribution to food production. This treatment of women has been accompanied by ‘gender specific discursive justification’ in Zimbabwe (Goebel 2005, 147). Land is a preeminent political resource for the state and for different actors at different geographic levels, and at this stage competing assertions of legitimacy and territoriality are always at interplay (Alexander 2003).” (1027)

“Women, like men, are not a homogenous category since they belong to different classes, ethnic groups, races, political parties and professions. Derman and Hellum (2004) and Mazhawidza and Manjengwa (2011) note that under FTLRP most women from urban or rural areas were discriminated against along political, social and economic lines. This had more to do with women being treated as minors in everyday life in most cases. This has constantly been challenged by non- governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Women and Land Lobby Group, which tirelessly advocated that women, in spite of their biology and marital status, had a right to land during fast track (Moyo 2011).” (1027)

“Married women have a better social standing than non-married women in most patrilineal societies in Africa. During the fast track process, the state and some traditional actors wanted to capitalise on using culture to exclude women heads of households from accessing land, but in practice women heads of households emerged as victors as compared to their married counterparts (Mazhawidza and Manjengwa 2011, Scoones et al. 2010).” (1027)

“In some cases women gained access to land through land invasions, as these subverted formal forms of patriarchal traditional or administrative authority (Scoones et al. 2010, Sadomba 2008, Moyo 2011). This gave the opportunity to some women, often widows, divorcees, and those ostracised from their communal area communities as they were able to join the invasions and gain access to land (usually in A1 villagised schemes). Scoones et al. (2010) noted that the women were valued in the invasion process and in the base camps as independent and able to help with a range of gendered domestic tasks such as cooking and singing in the base camps; they did not have important positions like base commanders but at times some assumed posts of secretaries and treasurers. For them it was a liberation, and an escape from other settings where as women they would not gain access to such rights. This explains in part the higher number of women having access to land through offer letters in their own right compared to communal areas where traditional patriarchal lineage authorities allocate land or the old resettlements where a bureaucratic administrative authority that is equally patriarchal in many ways allocates land. “ (1028)

“Sen (1999) offers three interrelated concepts for analysing gender and production relations: ‘negotiative conflict, rights appreciation and cooperative bargaining’. Sen’s analytical framework based on rights and livelihoods entitle- ments sheds light on the household as a dynamic site where various actors negotiate diverse spaces and strike bargains as part of efforts to position themselves for more equitable gains. In these processes, some members’ rights are subjugated while others, particularly those of male members, are respected and asserted. Access to land by these women reflects the need to create a bargaining site where power dynamics erupt and have to be managed as much as possible to the benefit of the women. “ (1029)

“Women are slowly realising that the information on documents has an impact on their tenure security. If the permits are to be handed over and their names do not appear on them, their right to inheritance in situations of divorce or death of a spouse is compromised.” (1029)

“The need to have individual income emerged as a factor that made women realise the importance of accessing and controlling land. The married women had now established close relations with their husbands and the clan and so could now safely ask for land. Most of these women had been married for more than five years and had stayed with their husband’s families before coming to settle at Merrivale.” (1030)

“Marriage enabled the women to acquire land and have access to their own fields within the husband’s family after a certain period of time; these are referred to as ‘tsewu’ in the Karanga and Shangaan traditions found in southern Zimbabwe.” (1031)

“I argue that the nexus of land, farming, home and access to markets is critical for the well-being of women, in particular. At the same time, I also agree with Goebel (2002) and Vijfhuizen (2002) that the meaning and role of land for women changes not only in relation to local, national, and international trends, but according to the particularities of women’s lives (for example age, marital status, whether or not they have dependent children, and so on). Assets are neither fixed nor static; their value changes. Different assets are important at different times.” (1039)

Topics: Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Livelihoods, Political Economies, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe

Year: 2011

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