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Inequality affects food production in Zimbabwe

24 October 2011

Karin Steen

A shortage of land in Zimbabwe leads to greater inequality between the sexes. However, an indirect consequence has also been that opposition to polygamy has increased. This has been shown by Karin Steen of Lund University, Sweden, in her recent thesis in Sustainability Science.

Karin Steen has studied the relationship between men, women, land and labour from a gender perspective. Women do not really have a right to land, but through marriage they can gain access to a garden plot where they can grow vegetables for their family and to sell. The men do have control over the women’s labour, but the pieces of land have given the women a certain degree of financial independence. However, the already uneven power relations between men and women are worsening: a shortage of land has meant that a woman’s proportion of the family’s total land has shrunk dramatically. Women’s independence has thus been reduced, as well as the opportunities for them to work to support their family by alternative means.

“In Zimbabwe, access to land is intimately linked with male identity”, says Karin Steen. “It is a highly political issue and a lot of time is now spent on land disputes with neighbours instead of food production.”

The region which Karin Steen has studied is called Chiweshe. It is one of many ‘communal areas’, where African peasant farmers were gathered together to make room for the colonial settlers. Still today, 80 per cent of Zimbabwe’s subsistence farmers farm 40 per cent of the country’s arable land, which lies within these areas.

The shortage of land was remedied to a certain extent in the early 2000s when peasant farmers occupied large-scale commercial farms belonging to white farmers. However, ownership of the occupied farms is still unclear, which means that many peasant farmers do not dare to leave their old plots of land, despite the fact that they are too small.

Karin Steen explains that the shortage of land has also had other, indirect consequences. Combined with the influence of ideas on gender equality from the cities, the shortage of land has meant that opposition to polygamy has increased:

“Women are less able to provide for their children if the land has to stretch to another family”, says Karin Steen.

Many peasant farmers, both men and women, have also started to recognise that polygamous marriage leads to a lot of conflicts within the family.

After her PhD, Karin Steen will continue to study how gender affects production and food security in developing countries.

“There is a lot of research being done on gender and agriculture, but there is a lack of studies that examine in detail how power is expressed in the relationship between men and women and how this in turn affects food production.”

Karin Steen’s thesis is entitled Time to farm. A qualitative inquiry into the dynamics of the gender regime of land and labour rights in subsistence farming: an example from the Chiweshe communal area, Zimbabwe.

It was presented at LUCSUS – the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

Karin Steen can be contacted by telephone, +46 46 222 80 83, or by email, Karin.Steen@lucsus.lu.se.