The Land Policy's emphasis on gender sensitivity echoes global recognition and acknowledgement of the strategic importance of land as a resource for men and women in Zimbabwe. Land is an important asset for women in Zimbabwe because of their limited access to economic opportunities, high reliance on the resource for their livelihoods and women's responsibility of feeding and nurturing family and community members.
This article uses the experiences of women in various positions in communal areas of Zimbabwe to highlight how they experience land vulnerability at different levels than their male counterparts.
Women secure land in communal areas through their relationship with a man as a sister, mother, niece, aunt or wife.
Men on the other hand are eligible for customary land rights on marriage and inheritance.
The gender bias in land governance and allocation renders women's land holdings insecure.
Previously women were accommodated within the family land as a wife, mother or sister.
However, the situation of women has been changing as a result of the migrant labour system, which resulted in the migration of men from rural areas to urban areas leaving women alone in the rural areas. The church's influence also led to the decline in polygamous marriages and contributed to the number of women heading their own households in rural areas.
HIV and Aids-induced mortality witnessed a spike in the number of women living on their own as widows and the economic independence of women following the attainment of independence in 1980 also contributed to the number of women heading households.
This is the basis for advocating for independent land rights for single women in communal areas. There are other reasons.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to international and regional protocols that include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, World Conference on Women's Beijing Declaration, Africa Union Framework and Guidelines, African Union Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investments, and the Sustainable Development Goals.
These protocols oblige the government of Zimbabwe to put in place measures to ensure that women have equal access to natural resources like land on the same terms as their brothers, fathers, spouses and uncles.
A system that discriminates against women violates the international and regional provisions and undermines women's basic human rights.
The Zimbabwe constitution of 2013 provides for equal land access for men and women.
In conformity with the country's supreme law, all state institutions and agencies are obliged to ensure that men and women have access to land and natural resources on an equal basis.
Any institution or practice that undermines this provision is in violation of the laws of the country.
Women need secure access to land in customary land tenure areas so they can grow their food to feed themselves and their family.
Women need land so they can have a place to live and construct their residence.
Women need secure land rights so they can have a burial place.
When women have secure land rights in a communal land, they can have access to forests for harvesting fruits, medicine and firewood.
They can also accumulate livestock and benefit from the grazing lands.
Women can use land to generate income, access credit and agricultural inputs as well as negotiating access to markets.
Land provides women with access to a basic asset for negotiating access to other natural resources and agricultural assets.
Land control increases women's ability to invest in land and enter into agricultural contracts.
The much publicised anecdotes about women taking their lives at the end of the cotton harvests are a consequence of women's limited control of land and decisionmaking over land and produce.
When women have secure land rights, they are recognised as members of the community that they live in.
This recognition as a community member enables the women to have a sense of belonging, to connect with their ancestors and sacred places.
The community membership enables them to benefit from community level reciprocal arrangements like nhimbe, zhunde, support with child-rearing and social support during bereavements and illness in the family.
Community members also benefit from the government and non-governmental support programmes like drought relief.
Communal land resources face pressure from climate change. Women are the main guardians and nurture the land.
However, they are marginalised in decision-making about natural resource management.
When women have secure land rights in a community they are free to participate in community decision-making processes about the management of common resources.
Zimbabwe has a history of colonial land dispossession that undermined livelihoods of men and women.
In order to secure their rural homes, men and women have to travel between the rural and urban areas to mobilise money and other resources for investment in the communal areas.
Sometimes men and women need the rural home as an important fall-back and insurance against the loss of employment in urban areas and for use in retirement.
When women have unconditional access to the rural home they can also deploy the rural land as insurance on the same basis as their male counterparts.
Without this insurance women risk losing their land to traditional authorities and other male relatives.
When land redistribution programmes equally target men and women, they will benefit on the same level as men.
The current statistics, which show that less women than men benefit from land redistribution means that women are discriminated against and marginalised in the identification of land reform beneficiaries.
Zimbabwean communal land is under pressure from mining companies, tourism establishments and infrastructure development.
The establishment of these facilities results in the dispossession and relocation of men and women living on the land.
In cases where communities are eligible for compensation and relocation, women are marginalised as the compensation and relocation targets are the "male heads of household".While the assumption is based on a nuclear household, the existence of other adult women in the rural households as sisters, mothers, grandmothers and sons means that women's presence and rights are understated and, therefore, overlooked in issues of resettlement and compensation for loss of communal land.
Women's land rights need to be recognised and endorsed independently of men as men and women use land differently.
For example, women derive non-material benefits from land and natural resources through the ceremonial and medicinal uses throughout their life cycle.
Women also have spiritual and cultural values that they attach to land, which can never be captured in a male-biased representation of land rights.
Women's access to land in customary areas is dependent on her marital status.
When women secure land through marriage and or other kin dependency on a male, they are vulnerable and may lose that land when the relationship with the male is disturbed.
Such disturbances include divorce, family disputes or the end of a marriage or relationship upon the death of the male spouse or relative.
Affected females have to renegotiate their land rights with the new male authority or they risk losing the land.
When a marriage ends by death of one spouse, men's land rights in a communal area remain intact.
However the situation is different for widows, who may or may not be able to maintain their land.
The only instances in which widows may retain control of the communal area land is when they have adult sons.
Widows also are more likely to retain their communal area land if they have independent income (for example remittances, pension or rental income from an urban property).
Their chances of retaining the use of land are better if the widow is connected to powerful people in the community.
Widows are also allowed to remain on communal land as guardians of land for their minor children.
Women with no male children, younger widows and women who are not related to powerful people in the community are at risk of losing their land rights when they lose their husband.
In some cases, the widows remain in the community but their capacity to use the land is undermined as the community withholds benefits associated with the community membership.
The benefits include reciprocal labour, homestead construction, funerals assistance, support with child care and access to social security processes such as maricho.
These widows may also face hostility from the deceased husband's family and/or be blamed for their spouse's death.
As a result, widows end up abandoning their communal land. When women hold communal land on an equal basis as their male counterparts, they will not be vulnerable when they lose their spouse.
When a married man decided to marry another wife in a customary marriage, the first wife's land may be reduced to accommodate the other wife.
The first wife's control over the proceeds from her agricultural work may also be diverted by the husband to invest in the younger wife.
When a married couple divorces, the women are expected to return to their village of birth.
If the woman has minor children, she may take them with her. These women lose their land, homestead and produce in the marital village.
If these divorcees succeed in securing land in their village of birth it is sometimes conditional that they do not bring their children.
The vulnerability that follows a divorce is one of the reasons women stay in abusive marriages.
The intergenerational transmission of communal land discriminates against female children.
Land inheritance is also biased towards extra-marital children born by the woman.
As a result, female children of a deceased continue to reside on communal land at the indulgence of their male relatives.
Although women cannot inherit land belonging to their parents, divorced and unmarried adult women could be allowed to use the deceased parents' homestead.
The woman's male relatives retain in control of the homestead and arable land.
The girl child's entitlement to live on deceased parents' homestead remained contested.
This has an impact on her livelihood, her opportunities to use the land and capacity to use the land as an intergenerational asset for her children.
Single women with children have a most difficult status when negotiating access to land in communal areas.
The women have their children with them because in most cases the children are minors.
When these single women negotiate for land in their village of birth, the women's families resent the burden of caring for these children.
In addition, these children are not eligible for land allocation when they get married.
When these children's mother remarries, the children are not eligible for land in the mother's new marriage.
Additionally, if the mother dies before these children, they are not eligible to inherit their mother's land.
Although not allowed under the Communal Lands Act, the sale of communal land is an increasingly common process through which people gain access to land.
Women's capacity to benefit through land purchase is limited as they have limited financial resources.
When they do gain access to land through the market, the women's capacity to mobilise community support and access social capital remained constrained.
In cases where married couples purchased land, widowed women remained vulnerable to dispossession by traditional leaders or the state who cite the Communal Lands Act.
It is my hope that a gender sensitive policy will inform land tenure security for women in Zimbabwe in ways that eliminate gender-based discriminatory land allocation practices.
Gaynor G Paradza is a land governance expert based at the Public Affairs Research Institute.
About Article Author