Gender and Land Rights Database


Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights

  • The customary position of women as minors and as inferior to men – especially in the Shona, Ndebele and other ethnic groups – impedes the advancement of girls and women. Advancement in areas such as education, health care and inheritance of property is diverted to boys and men who are regarded as permanent and major members of families, especially in patriarchal cultures. This relegates women to performing and remaining in unpaid domestic labour, subsistence agriculture and low-paid wage work (7).
  • Women do not have a direct relationship with land nor can they make any claim to it except through their male relatives or husbands (14).
  • Customary law allows the husband, by virtue of his matrimonial power, to dispose of assets, including land, on behalf of the family when property is held jointly. When a woman contracts into a customary marriage, the husband has the legal power to dispose of land on behalf of the family (17).
  • Widows cannot inherit the husband’s estate because a man’s claim to the family inheritance takes precedence over a woman’s, regardless of the woman’s age or seniority in the family.
  • Eviction of widows and orphans from the land by their in-laws upon the death of their husbands/fathers is a widespread practice in the country. Many women farm for a living on land in communal areas run by traditional chiefs. According to custom, chiefs allocate land to male heads of households, but a woman does not automatically inherit this land upon her husband’s death. Consequently, women may be evicted from the land when widowed.
  • Many who remain on the land do so at the pleasure of their in-laws or traditional leaders. Childless widows are often evicted, as are young widows who refuse to be physically “inherited” by a male relative of their late husband, often a brother (14).
  • There are three types of marriage in the country: civil marriage, registered customary marriage and unregistered customary marriage. Because the registration of marriages is not yet compulsory, about 80 percent of women living in rural areas are married under customary law and do not register their marriages, mainly because of ignorance of the existence of the legal requirement for registration of marriages (7).
  • Early marriages are common, especially among unregistered customary marriages. Young girls are still being pledged and married off, although the Marriage Act specifies that the minimum age for marriages is 16 years for girls and 18 years for boys. The African Marriages Act also prohibits the pledging of young girls and women in general (7).
  • The payment of lobola, dowry, is still a very common practice. Since men pay lobola to their in-laws for their wives, they and their families and, in some cases, even the womens’ families expect subservient, loyal and obedient service from their wives. Many women are ill-treated by their husbands or husbands’ families on the grounds that lobola was paid for them and that therefore they should be obedient and respect their husbands and in-laws. 
  • Due to fear of isolation from family members, women are more inclined to adhere to the custom of lobola, even though they are free to enter into a marriage without the payment of it as a prerequisite (7).

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