Changing gender relations after land reform in Zimbabwe

There have been a number of excellent publications on shifts in gender relations after land reform. A piece in Agrarian South by Patience Mutopo, Jeannette Manjengwa and Manase Chiweshe, Shifting Gender Dimensions and Rural Livelihoods after Zimbabwe’s Fast-Track Land Reform Programme, reflected on work in Mwenezi, Mazowe and Chinoyi. Framed within a narrative of ‘re-peasantization’, they conclude:

“The return to the rural areas by women from every class has led to the formation of new agri-business activities among women, which has shaped new social production relations. In so doing, women have also redefined gender roles and household governance, negotiated with patriarchy in establishing niche land-based livelihoods, and created new migration patterns for themselves, where previously they had been confined to the household.”

Based on the early Utete audit report of 2003, only 18 percent of farms in A1 and 12 percent of farms in A2 are held by women. But, as the paper shows, this does not tell the whole story of access. The negotiation of access to land and land-related businesses in the context of patriarchal marriage and community relations has been possible for many (see earlier blogs on this theme, here and here).

Based on research in Mazowe and Goromonzi, Manase Chiweshe, Loveness Chakona and Kirk Heilliker argue in a paper in the Journal of Asian and African Studies that:

“…radical socio-spatial reorganisation such as fast track may destabilise systems of patriarchy. In the case of fast track, there has been a reconfiguration of relations between men and women yet this is uneven and contradictory and remains within the confines of patriarchal structures, practices and discourses. At the same time, women have manoeuvred and negotiated at local levels to enhance their lives and livelihoods.”

Patience Mutopo’s important book, based on extensive fieldwork in Mwenezi, shows this very well, documenting the importance of new migration and trading routes for women, who with access to land (often formally held by husbands) are investing in agricultural and livestock production in this extremely dry part of the country.

In a more recent paper in Africa Review, Sandra Bhatasara and Manase Chiweshe argue that there is a need to go ‘beyond gender’ and the fixation on the survey figures on land holding status. Proposing an ‘intersectionality’ and ‘agency’ perspective, they argue that multiple dimensions of difference interact to determine access, and women, even in constrained settings, can exert agency using a range of approaches, overt and more hidden. It is an approach focused on social relations rather than social status or categories that is advocated. They argue:

“Whilst women appear losers as portrayed in many studies, was it only gender that determined access? What about age, nationality, class, political affiliation and traditional roots among other aspects? How did the 18% quoted in several studies get land? What about married women in this debate? Were women just victims in the FTLRP?”

They conclude that land access needs to be understood within an intersectionality framework, arguing that “women were not merely victims but used versatile tactics and strategies to get land”.

This focus on agency, social relations and multiple, intersecting dimensions of difference seems an important step forward in the on-going debate about gender and land reform, moving beyond the numbers game to a focus on processes by which land access is gained. It does not make the case that all is well. Zimbabwean rural society is extremely patriarchal, with women often excluded and subject to violence, but it opens up more opportunities beyond a victimhood narrative.

This is the sixth in a series of short reviews of new work on agriculture and land in Zimbabwe. Nearly all of these studies are by Zimbabwean researchers, reflecting the growing research capacity and ability to comment on important issues of policy in the post-Mugabe era. If there are other papers or books that you think should be included, please let me know!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland