Culture holds women back from economic power

Arabia Manera says she’s a lucky woman. She embraces with pride the prestige that comes with being married to the village head of Ward 25, Nyadire area in Mutoko. But, she tells SOFIA MAPURANGA, she faces the same challenges as many other Zimbabwean women when it comes to owning land.

Arabia Manera would like to make her own decisions about how and what she farms.
Arabia Manera would like to make her own decisions about how and what she farms.

Arabia Manera says: “I don’t own any land. Whatever crops I plant, I have to first seek permission from my husband. There are times when I feel like planting groundnuts, but because my husband refuses to allow me to cultivate them, I am forced to follow his orders and do as he says.”

For Manera, like so many other Zimbabwean women, her agricultural ventures are determined by her husband.

She says that African tradition has it that farmland belongs to the family with the man as custodian. Because of this, she can’t challenge or deviate from her husband’s instructions.

“I wish I had the freedom to independently grow crops of my choice,” she says. “My husband tells me what to plant and he is the one that allocates me the space to do that. Everything begins and ends with the man of the house.”

A survey by Women and Land in Zimbabwe in 2011, WLZ addressing women farmers’ rights in Zimbabwe, established that, although the majority of women used communal land for their farming activities, where they had access to land, they did not own it.

“Women have access to land but they do not own or control it,” said the report. “The title deeds, offer letters and permits are registered in the name of their husbands or male relatives.”

The director for WLZ, Thandi Chidavarume, says that in the 1980s preference was given to landless married men while women beneficiaries only qualified as widows, divorcees or single persons. It is, she says, a positive development that the percentage of women who own land has risen over the years.

Says Chidavarume: “Soon after independence, 87 per cent of those that were allocated agricultural land were men. We celebrate the improvement regarding women’s access and ownership of land, but we are saying there is need for continued strengthening and advocacy for women’s land and natural resource rights.”

Chidavarume says the number of women using the land for their economic benefit has increased over the years despite the financial hurdles that prevent them from realising maximum gains from their agricultural activities.

In Zimbabwe, women make up most of the population and over 80 per cent of them live in the communal areas where they form the bulk of the farmers, besides providing the most labour.

The United Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that women farmers are the pillars of African agriculture, bearing the responsibility of producing over 90 per cent of the food on the continent.

The international organisation states that the women are responsible for growing, selling, buying and preparing food for their families.

SaysChidavarume: ”There is a slight improvement in that around 18 per cent of A1 farms are now owned by women and 12 per cent of A2 farms. We are optimistic that these figures will not dwindle, but will increase as we move forward.”

Chidavarume attributes the increased percentage of women to the lobbying and advocacy work by non-governmental organisations.

“Government commitment to the economic emancipation of women is the reason why there is progress in granting and allocating women land,” she says, emphasising the need for continued lobbying for gender-sensitive policies and laws.

The constitution of Zimbabwe states that it is the duty of the state to ensure the promotion of full gender balance.

Chidavarume adds: “Although it is guaranteed in the constitution, there is a need to ensure that this law is adhered to and implemented accordingly.”

A study by the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Zimbabwe done in 16 districts of Zimbabwe, Understanding Poverty, Promoting Wellbeing and Sustainable Development, established that more than 141,000 families benefited from the land redistribution exercise.

“Nearly 98 per cent of all the productive land in Zimbabwe is now in the hands of smallholder farmers,” read the report.

According to the 2012 World Development Report, Gender Equality and Development, gender disparities persist, not least around economic power.

It noted that women continue to have unequal access to economic opportunities and that there are gaps between women’s productivity and their earnings.

In its report on the country’s progress towards achieving gender equity by 2015, based on the Southern Africa Development Community guidelines, Gender Links noted that there were no gender responsive policies in sectors such as agriculture and mining. “In areas where the law does provide for gender equality regarding access to resources such as land, measures to ensure that such provisions are implemented are not in place,” read the Gender Links report.

The women’s affairs minister, Oppah Muchinguri, says the ministry is aware of the challenges faced by women regarding land ownership.

“Government is ready and willing to assist women who need land for agricultural purposes based on constitutional provisions on equality,” she says.

Muchinguri adds that because women’s livelihoods are based on agricultural activities, it is important to capacitate them through allocating land.

“As a country, we have recorded considerable progress regarding women’s empowerment. The next step is to advocate for the alignment of the country’s laws with the constitution as a starting point of holding government accountable to gender equality,” she says.

She urges women to take stock of the progress made towards gender parity and come up with practical strategies towards achieving more.

“Implementation is a major challenge. Civil society organisations should work with government towards promoting gender parity in all spheres,” she says. For rural women like Manera, owning land means economic power.

Says Manera: “It is difficult to make independent decisions regarding land use.”

Village head Mutyambizi says married women have the opportunity to apply for land independently, but the challenge is the negative cultural connotations and the effect on a couple’s marriage.

“Family is family and the wife should do everything in consultation with her husband. There is no need for a woman to apply for land when her husband has available land for tillage,” he says.

Says Manera: “Women are highly enterprising but because they are not at liberty to make independent economic decisions, we remain marginalised economically.”

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