WOMEN have always played an important role in the Zimbabwean society and an equally important role in the struggle for liberation.
Unfortunately, the struggle for independence initially brought women few benefits.
What was the women’s role in the fight for land reclamation?
In the 1890s, Mbuya Nehanda, a woman spirit medium, played a pivotal and inspiring part in the First Chimurenga against the British colonisers before being hanged in 1898.
Nevertheless, many patriarchal traditions survived, with some enhanced by the settlers during the period of colonial rule. It was only during the war of the 1970s that women began, on a large scale, to fight for liberation.
In fact, many contend the gains of ZANU and ZAPU would not have been possible without the organisational role by women in the villages, the bravery of the women guerillas, the role of girls as message bearers, the provision of food by women and the work of women as nurses and teachers in the guerilla camps.
In the wake of the war veterans’ success, the Women in the National Liberation War Collaborators Association (WNLWCA) was formed which also called on the then president Robert Mugabe to compensate female partisans who had served in various capacities during the war.
The creation of national women’s machineries was an important step in ensuring women’s needs and constraints were put on the national policy agenda since the general isolation of women also meant that women’s needs and potentials were not given adequate attention.
In the early 1980s, in many African countries, including Zimbabwe, as the population increased, food production and agricultural incomes decreased.
The weakening capacity of agriculture to provide for household subsistence increased the workload shouldered mostly by women as men withdrew their labour from agriculture moving to urban centres.
As a result, women made up for the family’s food deficit by working as casual hired labour on larger farms. They started income-generating projects in addition to continuing their farming activities.
In many countries, Government allocations to agriculture also declined as the global recession resulted in a renewed preoccupation with growth as opposed to equity concerns.
In Zimbabwe, it was as a result of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) imposed on the Government by the world banking institutions.
Against this background, the situation of rural women was characterised by overwork, low productivity, little access to land, credit and training, that later also included the use of rudimentary technology.
At the same time, Government interventions did little to address the plight of rural women as, in most countries, the agricultural sector continued to be neglected.
Women’s low participation in national and regional policy-making, their invisibility in national statistics and their low participation in extension services (with the exception of home economics programmes), meant that issues of greatest concern to women were neglected, in the design and implementation of many development policies and/or programmes.
When women were targeted as beneficiaries, it was generally in their reproductive capacity or as targets of welfare interventions.
Small, dispersed ‘women-specific’ projects, or project components focusing on their productive role in agriculture, remained isolated from national agricultural planning and policies.
While African governments in some countries paid increasing attention to the economic role of women, the programmes developed were far from addressing the main concerns of women as they were not directly consulted to articulate their needs and therefore, they were not involved in policy making decisions.
In some countries, despite legislative and land tenure changes in favour of smallholders, women continued to be placed in a disadvantaged position in terms of access to land.
As the amount of land cultivated per person declined in the face of increased population pressure and decreased areas of growth for arable and permanent crops, women’s access to land was rarely addressed with their benefits from land reforms limited and restricted.
Without access to land, women were generally excluded from agricultural co-operatives since membership to such co-operatives was often based on ownership of land.
The emphasis on commercial agriculture and export crops, prior to ESAP, restricted access to credit and other services for the traditional farming sector where women constitute most of the farmers.
Furthermore, following the introduction in Zimbabwe of ESAP, and prior to the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLFP), extension research and services focused on export or cash crops and sophisticated farm mechanisation; issues that were not seen as relevant to women’s subsistence needs in communal areas, even though indigenous women are the majority of producers in this sector.
Prior to the FTLFP, Government institutions and resources focused on the commercial sector as demanded by ESAP, and in those cases in which Government interventions did reach the communal areas, they targeted elite farmers and were of little benefit to women.
In African countries in which traditional models of production co-existed with state run farms and/or cooperatives, women were responsible for a variety of tasks.
For example, rural women provided labour to the family’s commercial plots; women were responsible for household food production and processing, and also had to work in the co-operative structures in addition to their household tasks.
In countries that followed a capitalist agricultural model, women worked just as hard.
Following the first two world conferences on women held in Mexico City in 1975, and Copenhagen in 1980 and the subsequent UN’s ‘Decade for Women’, issues concerning women were put on the international agenda and governments, including those in Africa, began to establish bodies responsible for the promotion of women’s interests, including those of rural women, and encouraged research on their agricultural and other roles.
These women’s bodies also served as advocates for changes in national policies and legislation affecting women’s rights to land and inheritance, employment conditions, as well as the lower wage rates women received for their work.
In Zimbabwe, and Africa in general, the creation of national women’s machineries was a critically important step in ensuring that women’s needs and constraints were put on the national policy agenda.
However, their technical weaknesses, urban bias and lack of influence in technical ministries (since they were commonly positions in the social affairs ministries or in the women’s branch of the revolutionary party in those countries following a socialist development model), meant that their direct impact on rural women was negligible.
Interventions designed by them often focused on smaller income generating projects which did not adequately address women’s needs for assistance concomitant with their agricultural production responsibilities.
The general isolation of the machineries from the planning ministries also meant that women’s needs and potentials were not given adequate attention in the socio-development plans of national strategies.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
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