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Revisiting the role of women in Zimbabwe's agrarian structure in the aftermath of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme: Interview with Patience Mutopo

21 Aug 2012

Revisiting the role of women in Zimbabwe's agrarian structure in the aftermath of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme: Interview with Patience Mutopo
UNRISD interview with Patience Mutopo, multi-disciplinary researcher, following the event “Gender and Agriculture after Neoliberalism” held at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

UNRISD: Please describe your academic and research background, especially your work in the Mwenezi District of Zimbabwe. From where does your academic interest in women’s struggle for land rights and livelihoods originate?

Patience Mutopo: I am a multi-disciplinary researcher with academic training in social anthropology, political science, human rights law and international relations. The empirical investigations I undertook in Mwenezi were undertaken within a period of one and a half years, using ethnographic methodologies which I was actively involved in. This gave me the opportunity to understand the dynamics of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme from the perspective of the beneficiaries, as well as an insight into what land based livelihoods meant to the community. This work was part of my doctoral degree which I have successfully completed since.

My academic interest in women’s issues was reinforced by Anne Hellum and Ingunn Ikdahl professors at the University of Oslo, who gave lectures on the course Women’s Law and Human Rights when I was doing my MPhil in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights Law with the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. I was very intrigued by Professor Hellum’s knowledge and especially the work that she had published on Zimbabwe. She also supervised my MPhil thesis and as a result, her academic excellence and interest in my thesis topic stimulated my interest to continue working on women’s issues.

I have also had an interest in women’s access to land and the shaping of livelihoods because, as an African woman growing up within a cultural sphere that subjugates women, I have always wanted to understand how the traditional structures function and who makes the customary laws. This is something I addressed in my PhD thesis. As a result, I realized that so much happens within that domain. I also felt I could change the lives of women. My late father used to say: “They can tell you that you are a woman and you cannot have a very good job, a very good education, be a baker, a preacher… but I want to tell you that you can do all these multiple roles successfully, and you will break the chain even in this family.” This is something I have always embraced!

UNRISD: Can you give a brief history of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) in Zimbabwe? How has the programme affected land access, land use and land governance?

PM: The FTLRP in Zimbabwe was a civic and government initiative that sought to redistribute land to the landless people of Zimbabwe following the colonial history which had led to the loss of land for black Zimbabweans. It was initiated by the liberation fighters, popularly known as war veterans, who were able to mobilize ordinary people to reclaim the land their forefathers had lost. The FTLRP has in earnest led to massive alterations in the agrarian structure in Zimbabwe, with the A1 and A21 farmers owning land, such that land governance has now been transferred to the people, with varied uses of the land. Land has been used for crop production with some crops doing much better than others for different reasons. Land governance is also being negotiated as formal titles of land are still being scrutinized so that those who have accessed the land can have legal persona. The process is, however, still in progress meaning I cannot give concrete conclusions of what is happening but guess, to my content, that the new constitution that is being drafted will lead to solving these matters.

UNRISD: Following the FTLRP, how are networks of women currently pursuing different livelihood options as farmers and as wage-workers? What sorts of networks or communities of solidarity exist? How have these patterns changed?

PM: Different networks based on kin and non-kin relations have developed since the FTLRP was introduced. Women have entered into networks that help with farming activities, the selling of crops and the formation of new relationships in the new communities in which they’ve settled. This has helped in crafting new farming methods and pursuing other livelihood options based on the different experiences of the women. As wage-workers, the networks have given these women the power to negotiate income earnings and assume more power in coordinating land-based livelihood activities. The networks of solidarity that exist include women’s church groups and women’s burial societies but the patterns have, however, changed; men have also been taking an interest in the groups because of the changing social relations that the new communities have presented. This demonstrates how networks are constantly reshaped with regards to the gender relations that exist in societies and the globalization of culture that brings with it these changes.

UNRISD: In your experience, how are power dynamics in the agricultural sphere gendered? Who is the primary decision maker? And from where does that power generate (such as patterns of patriarchy, land ownership and asset ownership.)?

PM: Agriculture is a power- laden sphere because men plan the activities and women are the providers of the labour. The power configurations are hierarchical but once again, changes are noticed with regards to different household models as more young people are involved in farming the household land; a trend that is different from that of the older generation. Power is generated from the customary arrangements that exist but again, this differs because in some situations, the family-laden values surrounding access to land and asset ownership are appreciated by the people and to them, it is not anything to do with power but rather the “correct living system”.

UNRISD: Can you explain the relationship between gender, agriculture and migration in the context of southern Zimbabwe? Who migrates? Why? And how do patterns of migration affect gender relations at the household level?

PM: Migration has always existed in southern Zimbabwe with people, mainly males, travelling to South Africa and Botswana to work in the mines. This is due to Zimbabwe’s proximity to South Africa. The area has been an important source of labour, and the ethnic relations of the people with some communities in neighboring South Africa make migration an ongoing phenomenon. Men have always migrated so as to earn an income and continue improving their rural livelihoods. Now, however, different dynamics exist with women moving from the private sphere and migrating to find better opportunities as a result of the need to find space in the public sphere. Due to the current migration trends it is mainly women, the elderly and school children who stay at home working on the farms. This means that farms are essentially women’s farms with men directing operations by cell phone from Botswana or South Africa about what to grow and when, and the livestock to purchase. In a way, women have assumed the managerial task of running the farms, affecting the traditional notion that men manage the farms.

UNRISD: How do gender relations at the household level influence food commodity chains and international markets? How can women’s active role in the market side of agriculture be properly acknowledged and valued by governments and/or consumers?

PM: Gender relations are constantly negotiated and are not static; women have complete control over crops such as beans, groundnuts, bambara nuts and sweet potatoes. The value chains involve women from the levels of production to selling. But again, some men are also involved in these processes—in the use of income and the identification of the markets. I can hence safely say that in this case, the value chain is somehow gendered with all actors being involved. With regards to cash crops such as maize, sunflowers and cotton, men dominate the value chain process and women are just part of processes such as producing and packing in particular. However, some women are also active in this cash crop process such that international markets will soon be dominated by female smallholder farmers as the information they are able to access due to the technological revolution gives them more power to be involved in taking their produce to international markets.

It is high time that governments and consumers acknowledge that women are rising as champions in agriculture at a greater rate than ever before. Previously, they were just producing the food crops but now they are also involved in the value chain process of bargaining with buyers—a new development in agriculture, South African women farmers in KwaZulu-Natal’s Umbulumbulu village have taken control of the amadumbe crop. In West Africa the market queens are gaining ground and I am not doubtful that in Southern Africa this is also the case. And Zimbabwe is no exception!

1 A1 farms refer to the land that most people acquired during Fast Track Land Reform. They are 6 hectares of land and between 50-60 hectares of communal grazing lands. A2 farms are modelled on medium scale farming units with strong notions of indigenizing commercial farming. These farms are from 300 hectares, with no communal grazing lands.

Photo courtesy of Sustainable sanitation via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Pawpaw tree grown in arborloo pit, Zimbabwe.


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