Harare — The spike in women managing their own agricultural land following Zimbabwe's 2000 land reform programme catapulted the country to high up in the African league of female farmers tilling their own farms, although accurate data for gendered land ownership on the continent remains a grey and contested area.
Women provide the majority of sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural muscle and produce up to 80 percent of the regions basic foodstuffs, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Prior to Zimbabwe's land redistribution, which saw about 4,500 white-owned farms - accounting for more than a quarter of the country - handed to an estimated 245,000 black farmers, fewer than 5 percent of Zimbabwe's women had land registered in their name. But in the wake of land reform, women now comprise about 20 percent of landowners and leaseholders.
"Anybody, male or female, could claim pieces of land [with the advent of the land reform programme]," Thandiwe Chidavarume, director of Women and Land in Zimbabwe (WLZ), an NGO campaigning for greater land access for women, told IRIN.
However, Zimbabwe's formerly white-owned redistributed land is provided on a 99-year leasehold and remains the property of the state, so tenure is not guaranteed, and deciphering gender ownership of land in Africa also hinges on the question of what "ownership" means.
The land ownership matrix since the 2000 redistribution completely altered the landscape, but communal land, where patriarchal norms persist and traditional leaders determine land access, has remained largely unchanged.
About 50 percent of Zimbabwe consists of communal land, where 70 percent of the population reside and small-scale farmers work average plot sizes of about two hectares.
A December 2013 paper by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) entitled Gender Inequalities in Ownership and Control of Land in Africa: Myths versus Reality highlights the "gross simplifications" regarding women and land in Africa, leading to bald statements that "less than 2 percent of the world's land is owned by women" or "women own approximately 15 percent of agricultural landholdings in Africa."
FAO's Gender and Land Rights Database uses the term "agricultural holdings headed by women". Mali is at the bottom of a 19 country list, with 3.1 percent. Madagascar has 15.3 percent, while Cape Verde tops the list with 50.5 percent.
The IFPRI paper acknowledges the paucity of information regarding land ownership by women. Whereas property deeds might identify an owner, other considerations were also at play.
"For example, a woman may have the right to farm a parcel of land and bequeath it to her children, but not to sell it without permission from her kinship group. Second, the single statistics that are used seem to imply that individuals own land. Without further qualification, however, it is not clear how land that is owned jointly is classified. In particular, it would be important to note how land that is owned by couples is included in the measure. It is also unclear how land owned by clans, tribes, institutions, or government actors, rather than by individuals, is included," the paper said.
"Analysis of LSMS-ISA [Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Surveys on Agriculture] from six countries shows that of the total land area owned or accessed by households, women solely own (documented and undocumented) a high of 31 percent in Malawi, followed by Uganda (16 percent), Tanzania (15 percent), Niger (8 percent), and Nigeria (less than 1 percent)," the paper said.
The paper surmises that in the absence of comprehensive data "the pattern that women own less land than men, regardless of how ownership is conceptualized, is remarkably consistent. Further, in many cases, the gender gaps are quite large."
A 1993 Land Tenure Commission appointed by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government investigating post-colonial land issues had no gender perspective in its brief, although it is estimated about 70 percent of Zimbabwean rural women are engaged in daily agricultural activities, from land preparation for planting through to post-harvest activities.
In 1998 WLZ was established after the realization, Chidavarume said, "that in spite of Zimbabwe being independent [since 1980], women were still treated unfairly when it came to accessing agricultural land...
"We continue to lobby government and are pushing for more than 20 percent now. With hindsight we should have asked for more from the beginning," she added.
Women's rights watershed
Meanwhile, the 2013 adoption of a new constitution is viewed as a watershed for women. Emed Gunduza, a spokesperson for the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCZ), a network of women's rights activists and women's organizations, told IRIN the new constitution had eliminated contradictions between customary and statutory law.
The new constitution stipulates that "all laws, customs, traditions and cultural practices that infringe the rights of women conferred by the constitution are void to the extent of infringement." The previous constitution protected customary law.
Consequently the custom of a widow losing her deceased husband's land entirely or partially if she refused to marry a male relative becomes redundant. The custom, Chidavarume said, had placed an unwarranted strain on a woman's ability to provide for her children. Customary law also dictated that unmarried women could not have communal land allocated to them.
However, Gunduza said, the stumbling block for women was socialization and continued beliefs of a man's authority over women.
As a consequence, most women with land or leaseholds are unmarried, or are widows or daughters returning to their parents' areas after a divorce, said Edith Mazhawidza, president of the Women Farmers Association, although there were also instances of joint land ownership between men and women.
But with the dust settling from the turbulence of land reform, there is less and less land available for resettlement and increasing competition for it. In a widely reported address earlier this year Vice-President Joice Mujuru acknowledged there was corruption in land allocations, which she said the government did not condone.
The allocation of land is multi-tiered, with the National Land Identification Committee under the auspices of the office of the vice-president at the apex. Provincial committees are chaired by ministers of state for provincial affairs and district committees headed by district administrators, with both committees drawing on personnel from government departments, including the president's office, ruling ZANU-PF party officials, war veterans and traditional leaders.
Ella Mubayiwa, 60, returned from England to claim a farm during Zimbabwe's 2000 land redistribution programme
Ella Mubayiwa, a 60-year-old widowed mother of four, was part of the "Third Chimurenga" as the 2000 land reform programme was dubbed, and was encouraged by her mother to return to Zimbabwe and claim land.
"I was in England after finishing a degree in business administration but could not get a job, when I heard that the president had authorized the reclamation of our land," she told IRIN. "We were bussed to different parts of the country and had the pick of the land."
Mubayiwa acquired a 35-hectare farm in 2000 in Nyabira, about 30km west of the capital Harare, and was one of 38 other households resettled on the former white-owned farm.
"It was difficult from the beginning as I had no draught power, or finance so I started from very humble beginnings, hiring other peoples' tractors," she said.
She first began growing tobacco as a cash-crop and by 2012 was able to buy a tractor with her profits.
"It has made it easier for me but I still face challenges in terms of capital to finance my activities on the farm." Banks do not accept the 99-year government leases for farmers as collateral for loans, as the leasehold only gives the right to farm state land, not land ownership.
Mubayiwa's venture into livestock was less successful after her four cattle died, but she is diversifying her crop production, after being selected as part of a maize seed production pilot project by the government's Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC).
Edith Mazhawidza, president of the Women Farmers Association, approached SIRDC to enter into a partnership with 11 female farmers on a combined 200-hectares across Zimbabwe to produce a maize seed variety developed by SIRDC.
"They [SIRDC] supply seed, fertilizer and technical know-how," Mazhawidza told IRIN. The women are then contractually bound to sell the harvest to SIRDC and after the costs of inputs are deducted the women are paid the difference. Maize seed production provides higher rewards with a ton fetching up to US$660, against maize with consumption prices of about $390 a ton.
Mubayiwa has a promising crop of maize seed on 15 hectares. "I am hopeful that because of the good rains, I'll get a good harvest. I hope to double the hectarage next year," she said, adding that she expected to harvest five tons per hectare.
The success of producing maize seed has encouraged her to use her Harare house as collateral for a loan to build a dwelling on the farm, as she still commutes to the farm, and also install an irrigation system.
"I used to be wary of ceding the title deeds of my house to the bank as security because of the uncertainty of the rains. I was afraid that if there was a drought I would lose my house but the rainy season was good this year so I am willing to take a chance. It's better to be on the property, I want to be a full-time farmer," she said.
Mubayiwa employs 10 full time workers, who live on the farm with their families, and hires about 15 seasonal labourers.
"I need more people on the farm but labour is expensive, I pay my workers $75 a month and provide them with mealie meal as well," she said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]