Woman farming cabbage in Zimbabwe

ZAKA, Zimbabwe (WOMENSENEWS)–Life for Betina Kugoda is always a struggle, full of prayer and hard work to fill six hungry bellies and clothe five growing children. In normal years, she scrapes a living from a small patch of overworked communal land granted to her by the local chief.

No rains came this year, and the 68-year-old grandmother sent her five grandchildren–orphans of AIDS and the hard, empty-stomach life of Zimbabwe’s community-owned lands–to forage for nuts and plants until an international humanitarian organization began distributing food in her area.

When Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe first embarked on his fast-track land-reform program more than two years ago, he promised that the rich, red land that was being taken from the country’s white commercial farmers would go to the poor and landless. Female-headed households like Kugoda’s were supposed to receive 20 percent of redistributed land.

But as Zimbabwe’s last white commercial farmers are driven from their homes, their land parceled up and handed to new, black owners, little of the land has gone to the poor and even less to women. Instead, the drop in commercial production, coupled with a regional drought, has sent this once productive country spiraling into famine.

“In 1992 there was a drought, but things were not as bad as now,” says Kugoda, as she sits in the burning midday heat, surrounded by other women who have come miles to collect corn donated by foreign nations. “We’ve had two years of bad harvest and now there is nothing to buy and no seed for next year. All there is is hunger.”

Court Ruling: Custom Trumps Constitution

Agriculture in traditional Southern African societies is largely women’s work. Women compose 52 percent of the Zimbabwean population, yet they provide 70 percent of the country’s agricultural labor, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Women also tend to be more dependent on agriculture for survival, with an estimated 86 percent of women working the land.

Men more often migrate to cities and to the mines, leaving their wives to care for their families in rural villages and to grow a small crop of corn, the region’s staple food. But women in Zimbabwe, particularly in communal areas, have few rights to the land they work. Land is usually passed from father to son and a wife has little claim to that land after the death of her husband.

The Zimbabwe constitution theoretically protects women’s rights to land ownership as inheritance, however, the country’s supreme court ruled in 1999 that African customary law superceded the constitution and that a woman could not challenge her brother’s claim to their father’s land.

Promises by the government in October 2000 that 20 percent of redistributed land would go to female-headed households raised expectations among women’s groups in Zimbabwe. To date, there has been no governmental effort, as far as can be determined, to ensure that women are indeed benefiting from the land-reform process and the land quota for women has not been put into statute.

No accurate records of how many women are receiving redistributed land are available. The government estimates that about 16 percent of female-headed households, who comprise about 35 percent of all Zimbabwean households, have been recipients. This is far less than the 20 percent of all redistributed land that has been promised.

“Women have not really benefited from this process,” says Abby Taka Mgugu, coordinator of the Women and Land Lobby in Zimbabwe. “There’s a real lack of political will in the government.”

Land Gives Someone a Degree of Independence

Instead of going to the poor, landless and women, reports indicate that much of the seized land has been given to government officials and high-ranking politicians. In one northern district, farmers said a minister, who is also the local member of Parliament, had seized one large farm and given another to his brother. Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, is reported to have claimed a large farm with an opulent farmhouse and several guest cottages.

In Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development last month, Zimbabwe’s justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, defended the distribution of land to the wealthy, saying the only criteria for new owners was that they should be black.

Lower-ranking government officials and civil servants are also being given land, although in smaller pieces. Many of these mostly male beneficiaries say they will keep their jobs in the cities and move their wives to their new land or hire local women to farm it.

Raymond Mugame, an agricultural clerk in one of Zimbabwe’s medium-sized cities, received a 40 hectare plot of land on a farm in Northern Zimbabwe, although eyeing it, he says he thinks it’s actually much smaller. On a holiday weekend to celebrate Hero’s Day, Zimbabwe’s independence day, he made the several-hour journey from his home by bus to stake his claim and build a small house on the land.

Mugame wants to use the plot to grow corn and other vegetables, but he says he has no intention of living there. Instead, he says, he plans to hire a few families to farm the land for him. The women, he says, will do the farming while the men look after the livestock.

The Women and Land Lobby is pressuring the government to uphold their promise to give more land to women. With few women in politics, it’s an uphill battle. Only 14 of Zimbabwe’s 150 parliamentarians are women, despite agreements by both main parties that 36 percent of their representatives be women.

“There’s affirmative action in the civil service and affirmative action in school enrollment,” Mgugu says. “But when it comes to land, the government has dilly-dallied because land is such a powerful thing. It gives someone a degree of independence.”

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.

For more information:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Fact sheet, Zimbabwe–Women’s Rights: