Gender and Land Rights Database


The country’s population in 2005 was estimated at 13 120 000, of which 6 509 000 were male and 6 611 000 were female. The current estimated growth rate is 0.95 percent over the period 2005–2010. The population density is 34 people per square kilometre (1). In 2006, the rural population was 63 percent of the total population (2).

The economic performance of the country rests mainly on agriculture, mining and manufacturing. The country’s economy has been sharply contracting since 1998; there was an 80 percent rate of unemployment in 2006 (3). Inflation peaked at 11.2 million percent in 2008 and has seriously affected economic activity and people’s welfare (3). The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by around 40 percent between 1998 and 2004 (4). Per capita GDP in 2004 was USD 613 and agricultural per capita GDP was USD182 (5). Agriculture was estimated to contribute about 18.1 percent of GDP in 2008 (3). About 50 percent of the population is employed in agriculture and depends on land for food production and animal grazing (6). The performance of the agricultural sector has been uneven over the last two decades (7).

The government’s land reform programme and the subsequent collapse of the agricultural sector, which once provided 400 000 jobs and was the country’s main source of exports and foreign exchange, led to a prolonged economic crisis, turning the country into a net importer of food products by 2002 (3). The decline in national agricultural production over the last seven to eight years is also due to the structural changes in land tenure. The newly settled farmers cultivate only about half of the prime land allocated to them because of shortages of tractor and draught power, fuel and investment in infrastructure improvements. The large-scale commercial sector now produces less than one-tenth of the maize that it produced in the 1990s (8).

With a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.513 in 2005, the country ranked 151 out of the 177 countries measured (11). Thirty-six percent of the population lived on less than USD 1 per day from 1991–2001 (12). The number of undernourished people in 2001−2003 was 5.7 million, which was 45 percent of the entire population (5). In 2008, a cholera epidemic started spreading rapidly across the country. The number of suspected cases of cholera reached almost 36 000 by early 2009; nearly 1 780 people have died from the infection since the outbreak began in August 2008 (9). The HIV and AIDS pandemic has also worsened the plight of many families. More than a million people are living with HIV (10), with prevalence estimated at 15.3 percent in 2007 (3). Life expectancy at birth in 2007 was 36 years for women and 37.9 years for men (13). The adult literacy rates in 2003 were 85.5 percent for females and 93.3 percent for males (12).

Women play a key role in subsistence agriculture. In 2001, they constituted 61 percent of farmers in communal areas and comprised at least 70 percent of the labour force (12); eighty-six percent of them depend on the land for their own and their families’ livelihoods. They are the main providers of labour for farming and are the primary managers of homes in communal areas, since many men are migrant workers in the cities or in other areas away from their homes. It is estimated that at least 3 million people, making up over 20 percent of the population, have left the country since the economic crisis started in the late 1990s (2). Consequently, households headed by women are increasing and reached 33.17 percent of the total in 1992 (7).

Land is unevenly distributed along racial and class lines (6). Until very recently, roughly 50 percent of all agricultural land was in the hands of a few thousand white farmers. The colonial regime expropriated the best quality land for white commercial farmers and restricted and resettled the black African peasant farmers into marginal, overcrowded communal lands. Although resettlement programmes were set up after independence in 1980 and in 2000, unequal and inequitable land distribution, insecurity of land tenure and unsustainable land use are still among the major land problems in the country (14).

In spite of their role in agriculture, rural women living in the communal areas are largely treated as dependants of men, not as landholders or farmers in their own right. Section 23 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination, but recognizes exceptions to this principle in issues relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance and other matters relating to personal law, which are to be settled by the application of African customary law (16). In spite of land resettlement programmes, progress for women’s land rights has been very slow. Very few women have been resettled. Discriminatory laws and practices have been maintained, including Section 23 of the Constitution, impeding equal land rights both before and after the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) started in 2000 (17).

Although on paper, FTLRP lists women as a category of beneficiaries and government stated that it would ensure a 20 percent quota for women to benefit from the programme, the number of women who were actually allocated land was very low all over the country. Women-headed households who benefited under Model A1 − for landless people − constituted approximately 18 percent of households and women beneficiaries under Model A2 − aimed at creating small-scale to medium-scale black indigenous commercial farmers − constituted only 12 percent by 2002 (15).

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