Gender and Land Rights Database


Rights entrenched in the Constitution

  • The new Constitution, adopted by referendum on 16 March 2013 and approved by Parliament on 9 May 2013:

    - Section 2.3: All State and governmental institutions and agencies at every level must take all practical measures to ensure that women have access to land and other resources on the basis of equality with men.

    - Section 2.7: The State must ensure gender balance and a fair representation of marginalized groups on all constitutional and other governmental bodies. It must promote full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society on the basis of equality with men.

    - Section 4.6 recognises that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.

    - Section 4.15(5): men and women have the right to equal remuneration for similar work.

    - Section 4.28(3): All laws, customs, traditions and cultural practices that infringe the rights of women are void to the extent of the infringement.

Women's property and use rights in personal laws

  • In the country’s legal system, Roman-Dutch law, customary law and new legislation operate side by side. This is reflected in a plurality of marriage systems, partly regulated by customary laws that were developed by the colonial legal institutions, and partly by civil law. Section 23 of the Constitution gives precedence to customary law in the field of marriage and inheritance. This has worked to protect male privileges in relation to property (17).
  • There are three types of marriages in the country: registered customary marriage which is potentially polygamous; civil marriage under the Marriage Act which is monogamous; and unregistered customary law unions which are recognized only for limited purposes such as maintenance of the child and inheritance.
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1985:

    - Deals with division of property upon divorce in a registered marriage. It allows for an equitable distribution of matrimonial property between spouses upon divorce. Direct and indirect contribution of the spouses to the matrimonial property is taken into account in the decision on division of property (7).

    - Does not apply to unregistered customary law marriages. While this type of marriage may be recognized by the parties and society as a valid marriage, the law generally does not consider it valid, except for certain specific purposes of African law and custom relating to the status, guardianship, custody and rights of succession of the children. As a result, women’s advancement has been hampered, especially considering that 80 percent of women live in rural areas, marry under customary law and do not register their marriages, mainly because of ignorance of the existence of the legal requirement for registration of marriages or ignorance of the implications of non-registration (7). 
  • The Matrimonial Causes Amendment Act of 1987:

    - Amends the Matrimonial Causes Act to extend the grounds for divorce applicable to civil marriages to marriages solemnized in terms of the African Marriages Act; and to widen the powers of the court to make a division of assets upon divorce by authorizing it to make consequential and supplemental provisions necessary to give full effect to any order it makes; and to allow the court to make an order relating to the property of one or another spouse that is held by another person and thereby order that person to transfer the property as the court directs (20).
  • The African Marriages Act of 1951:

    - Applies to marriages contracted only by African Zimbabweans and is governed by customary law.
  • The Customary Marriages Act of 1951, amended 2001:

    - Under the Act, marriages contracted according to customary law on or after 1 February 1918 and before 1 January 1951 which were not registered under the 1939 Native Marriages Act are regarded as valid marriages.

    - Provides for the “solemnization” of customary marriages by a customary marriage officer of the district in which the woman or her guardian resides. Customary marriages are not valid unless solemnized.

    - A marriage contracted according to customary law which is not a valid marriage in terms of this Act is regarded as a valid marriage for the purposes of customary law and custom relating to the status, guardianship, custody and rights of succession of the children of such marriage.

    - After the ceremony, the marriage must be registered in a marriage register. Any person employed by the State or a local authority or any chief may be appointed by the Minister to be a customary marriage officer for the purposes of this Act (21). 
  • The Customary Law and Local Courts Act of 1990:

    - Provides for the application of customary law in civil cases and for the constitution and jurisdiction of local courts.

    - In the application of customary law, the interests of children are paramount in any custody or guardianship case, irrespective of which law or principal is applied.

    - Polygamous marriages are to be recognized in civil cases if the marriage was contracted according to customary law.

    - Customary law that applies to the prohibition of marriages between people because of their relationship by blood or affinity will, in cases where customary law is applicable, prevail over the general law. However, if a marriage is to be contracted under the Marriage Act, the general law will prevail over customary law. If a court case arises wherein customary law is applicable, but the parties are connected with different systems of customary law, the court will apply the most closely applicable system of customary law to the case. The court may seek expert advice in such cases.

    - The jurisdiction of local courts or civil cases in which customary law is applicable applies when the defendant is normally a resident within the jurisdiction of the court, the cause of action arose within the jurisdiction of the court and the defendant agrees to the jurisdiction of the court.

    - Among the cases in which a local court will have no jurisdiction are those seeking to dissolve a marriage, unless the marriage, although recognized by customary law, has not been solemnized according to the terms of the African Marriages Act. Local courts may not determine the custody or guardianship of a minor or the liability of any person to maintain another (20).
  • The Maintenance Act of 1971:

    - Passed before independence, it was unknown to most people until after independence. While it does not have specific provisions in favour of women, it gives a woman the right to claim maintenance from the father of her child and vice versa. The liability of maintenance of children is the joint responsibility of both parents, though each contributes according to his or her means (7).
  • The Deceased Persons Family Maintenance Act of 1978:

    - Enables a surviving spouse and children to retain the matrimonial home and household goods and effects and to claim maintenance for themselves from the deceased’s estate (7). 
  • The Legal Age Majority Act of 1992:

    - Until 1992, women had been considered as legal minors. In 1992, the Legal Age Majority Act was adopted, giving women majority status and enabling them to administer properties and estates. However, the Constitutional provision that still allows discrimination has been used to argue that the Legal Age of Majority Act has no effect on customary law and cannot grant women rights that they do not enjoy under customary law (14). 
  • The Labour Relations Act of 1985:

    - Article 1 prohibits employers from discriminating against any prospective employee in regard to employment on the grounds of, among other things, sex (7).
  •  The Guardianship of Minors Act of 1969, amended in 2002:

    - Guardianship is granted to the father unless the child is illegitimate, in which case guardianship is granted to the mother. Section 3 of the Act gives fathers the right of guardianship within marriage, merely allowing mothers a right to be consulted by fathers and to apply to a judge “if a decision of the father in any matter relating to guardianship is contrary to her wishes and in her opinion likely to affect the life, health or morals of the minor to his detriment” (7).
  • The Immovable Property (Prevention of Discrimination) Act of 1982:

    - Prohibits discrimination regarding the sale, lease or disposal of immovable property and the financing of such sale, lease or disposal on the ground of sex (7).

    - The matrimonial property regime is out of the community of property unless parties enter into an ante-nuptial contract. If the couple wishes to choose a community of property regime, they must register a written agreement with the local Deeds Registry Office. A woman can thus acquire property in her own right (7).

    - In dividing the property upon divorce, the courts will look at the principle of equity rather than who bought what. The courts take into account the duration of the marriage, the direct and indirect contributions of the parties and the needs of each spouse and their minor children If the marriage is not registered, the Matrimonial Causes Act is not in force (7).
  • The Deeds Registry Act of 1959, last amended in 2001:

    - Section 15(1) of the Deeds Registry Act enables a married woman to deal with immovable property without the assistance of her husband. Prior to the amendment of the Act, a married woman could not deal in immovable property without the assistance of her husband (7). 
  • The Citizenship Act of 1984:

    - Children acquire their fathers’ citizenship. Women cannot pass their citizenship to their children. However, illegitimate children can acquire citizenship from their mothers.

    - Citizenship is almost automatically granted to a foreign woman married to a citizen; while that right is not accorded to foreign males married to citizens.

    - According to the Act, a woman’s nationality shall not be affected by marriage. She may acquire, change or retain her nationality as if she were an unmarried woman of full age. Similarly, marriage does not affect a woman’s majority status. She can transact, enter into contract, sue or be sued, in her own right. She can obtain a passport in her own right without her spouse’s consent (7).

Inheritance legal mechanisms

  • The Administration of Estates Act of 1907:

    - Removed inheritance laws unfavourable to widows in civil and registered customary marriages, but only for deaths that occurred after 1 November 1997.

    - Provides that property of an estate is to be divided by the surviving spouse and the children, regardless of sex. A widow, whose husband died without leaving a will, retains rights to land on the death of her husband.

    - In practice, however, women still occupy a subordinate position in the communal areas and, in general, only have access to land through their husbands. (13)

    - In 1998, the amendment to the law ended distinctions between daughters’ and sons’ entitlements (22). 
  • The Married Persons Property Act of 1929:

    - Because the default marital property regime is separation of property, according to Section 2[1] of the Act, unless both spouses have submitted a joint registration agreement, the land permit does not automatically transfer to the widow upon the death of the husband. Moreover, deeds registry processes are usually so slow that in practice widows cannot enjoy inheritance rights (23).
  • The Deceased Persons Family Maintenance Act of 1978:

    - Enables a surviving spouse and children to retain the matrimonial home and household goods and effects and to claim maintenance for themselves from the deceased’s estate (7). However, the widow gets only the right to use, rather than actually own, the property of her dead husband (23).
  • The Deceased Estates Succession Act of 1873, amended in 1997:

    - Concerns the administration and other aspects of estates subject to intestate succession. The Act deals with aspects of succession such as entitlements of heirs, agreements on division of property and sale.

    - The surviving spouse of every person who, on or after 1 April 1977, dies intestate is declared to be an intestate heir of the deceased spouse. If there are descendants of the deceased or a parent, brother or sister who is entitled so to succeed, the surviving spouse receives from the free residue of the joint estate, the household goods and effects in such estate and succeeds in respect of the remaining free residue of the deceased spouse’s share of the joint estate to the extent of a child’s share, or to the extent of a half share (21).
  • The Deceased Persons’ Family Maintenance Act of 1978:

    - Allows children of a customary marriage to claim maintenance from the deceased’s estate, but women are often unaware of their entitlements under this law and benefits depend on the size of the estate (26)
  • The Wills Act of 1987, last amended in 2001:
    - Concerns the making, revocation and effect of wills. Any person who has capacity pursuant to this Act to make a will:
    a) makes provision for the transfer, disposal or disposition of the whole or any part of his or her estate;
    b) makes provision for the custody or guardianship after his or her death of any of his or her minor children; and
    c) makes any other lawful provision, disposition or direction, whether in respect of his or her own or any other property or in respect of any other matter (24).

Land Legislation

  • The Communal Land Act of 1983, amended in 2002:

    - States that all communal land vests in the President who holds it in trust for the people. Communal land consists of land which, immediately before 1 February 1983, was Tribal Trust Land in terms of the Tribal Trust Act of 1979.

    - All those with vested rights are entitled to continue to exercise their rights on customary land. No person shall occupy communal land unless he acquired the right to do so before 1 February 1983, has obtained a permit to do so or is related to a person who occupies or uses communal land.

    - Those without vested rights may apply to the relevant Rural District Council to acquire occupation and user rights. However, in granting the permit to use this land, the Council must refer to customary law, which excludes women from acquiring land (7).
  • The Rural Land Act of 1963, amended in 2002:

    - Provides for the acquisition of land by the State and for the alienation of State land. Land may be leased or alienated to a single individual or to a single corporate body but not to two or more persons jointly without the consent of the appropriate Minister. Private land shall not be leased for cultivation if not properly demarcated. No cultivation on the basis of sharecropping shall be permitted by the owner on land to which this Act applies unless an agreement in writing and approved by the Minister is in place (24).
  • The Land Acquisition Act of 1992:

    - Introduced by the Government to speed up the resettlement process and to address the problem of inequitable access to land by resettling landless communal people after the expiration of the Lancaster House Constitution entrenched conditions in 1990. However, land redistribution did not proceed rapidly and, as a result, land occupations increased (6).
  • The Administrative Court (Land Acquisition) Rules of 1998, amended in 2005:

    - Set out forms and defined procedures for specific proceedings and applications with the Administrative Court in relation to the acquisition of land under the Land Acquisition Act (24).
  • The Deeds Registries Act of 1959, amended in 1996:

    - Provides for the establishment of deeds registries, for the appointment of registrars of deeds and for the registration of deeds and conventional hypothecations and matters incidental to the foregoing.

    - The Act provides for the making and registration of deeds regarding land and other real rights, for rights in land such as lease and servitude and for the transfer of land (24).
  • The Traditional Leaders Act of 1998, last amended in 2001:

    - Provides for the appointment of Chiefs, Headmen and Village Heads. These local officers shall have a wide range of powers in the field of local administration regarding, among other things, grazing, allocation of communal land and communal land use, irrigation and use of natural resources (24).
  • The Agricultural and Rural Development Authority Act of 1971, amended in 2001:

    - Establishes the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority. The operations of the Authority shall be controlled by a Board constituted under Section 5. For the better exercise of its functions and powers, the Board may establish one or more committees. The functions and duties of the Authority shall be: i. to plan, coordinate, implement, promote and assist agricultural development in the country; ii. to prepare and, with the agreement of the Minister, to implement schemes for the betterment of agriculture in any part of the country; iii. to plan, promote, coordinate and carry out schemes for the development, exploitation, utilization, settlement or disposition of State land (24).
  • The Rural District Councils Act of 1988 last amended in 2002:

    - Provides for the declaration of districts, classification of lands in districts by the Minister and the establishment of Rural District Councils. Rural District Councils shall have functions and powers in the fields of natural resources management, matters concerning land in a District, water, fisheries, forestry, sewerage and protection of the environment. A District Council may, among other things, compulsorily acquire land under this Act, establish cooperatives and make bylaws (24).

Policies/Institutional mechanisms enforcing or preventing women’s land rights

  • The Fast Track Land Reform Programme of 2000 (FTLRP):

    - The government programme to redistribute land lists women as a category of beneficiaries and provides for a 20 percent quota of women beneficiaries. In reality, however, the number of women who were actually allocated land was very low all over the country (15).
  • In 2003, the Presidential Land Review Commission, named the Utete Commission, examined the implementation of the fast track reform. The commission found that women have not benefited from the reform on an equal basis with men.
  • The commission recommended that land leases be registered in the names of both husband and wife; that a quota of at least 40 percent of land allocation should be made to women and that a quota of 40 percent funding should be reserved for women’s credit. In addition the commission suggested that widows should have first option to take over a lease (17).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography