Women and Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe: Stuck between Gender Norms, the Economic Downturn and Climate Change

Food security
Wednesday, 26 May, 2010 - 12:24

Zimbabwean women resort to subsistence farming in order to overcome food insecurity. Politicising land ownership and food aid by government and NGOs leave women with no option but struggle to produce more food for their families, in the absence of men who migrated to cities and neighbouring countries in search of employment. On one hand, the controversial land reform programme is benefiting mainly men and women from well-off backgrounds. On the other hand, the state of food insecurity directly exacerbates women’s vulnerability. Out of desperation, women opt to work as prostitutes to support their families and this further exposes them to the risk of getting infected with HIV and AIDS. Government should focus on addressing symptoms of poverty and patriarchal thought systems and put an effort into supporting women

The combination of climate change and the global economic downturn means that most African countries, including Zimbabwe, face food insecurity. Droughts, floods, poverty and unemployment result in high levels of uncertainty and anxiety about where the next meal is going to come from. Like many other matters, the concept of food insecurity in Zimbabwe is also characterised by gendered dimensions, in that women usually bear the brunt of food insecurity at household level (3). Zimbabwean women are often the ones responsible for feeding their families and a lack of food is therefore their problem to solve.

Food insecurity varies according to context, which means that definitions of the phenomenon need to fit the specific context they refer to. The term ‘food insecurity’ can refer to food supply, access to food and adequacy and utilisation of food and food processes (4). Due to rural location, poverty and climate change, Zimbabwean women often resort to subsistence farming and their food insecurities are therefore relative to food production. The politicisation of landownership and food aid by the Government and NGOs alike have been a major cause of women’s struggle to produce enough food for their households.

The majority of Zimbabwean women play the role of breadwinner because thousands of men have migrated to neighbouring countries in search of improved political and economic circumstances. In their absence, women have faced abundant food production and access problems, and have thus started resorting to informal trade and risky behaviour, including trading sex for food aid. Food insecurity in Zimbabwe has deterred those men who had the means and will to leave, and driven many of the women left behind to prostitution. Sadly, desperation for money and food means that women who resort to sex work are at the mercy of their male clients’ demands. In other words, the state of food insecurity directly exacerbates women’s vulnerability. This tragic situation is a direct consequence of the combined impact of the country’s eco-political state and the normative gender roles that favour males and still govern land matters.

Gender roles, land reform and politics

Zimbabweans have suffered from hunger for a decade and 2010 has already been declared a ‘hunger year’ after all crops wilted at knee level. According to Gaidzanwa (5), women did not benefit from the land reform programme which Government embarked on during its land redistribution mission. She notes that only elite women benefited from land reform, because the political economy in Zimbabwe still subscribes to the ‘Victorian ideology’ which perceives men as the main breadwinners who should have access to land and food supply. Ironically, elite, well-off women in political circles were therefore the only women who benefited from the land reform programmes intended to help the disadvantaged. The fact that women are most affected by food insecurity in the country can therefore be partially explained by the norms that govern the gender roles that men, women and their societies adhere to.

In practice, these dominant gender roles in Zimbabwe mean that, even though women now perform the previously male role of household heads and breadwinners, they do not have the normative male claim to land or the male power to influence land issues. They can be likened to soldiers without weapons – they want and are expected to feed their families, yet the Government seems unwilling to provide them with the means to do so, namely free and fair food aid and access to land.

Women in the rural areas have focused mainly on subsistence farming rather than commercial farming or farming for national consumption. They struggle to produce enough food for national consumption because of the partisan distribution of farming inputs. In an effort to empower ‘new’ farmers, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe embarked on a five year policy in 2008 to distribute tractors and other heavy farming equipments on credit and with zero deposit. It is striking that this Government which has reserved a quota for women in Parliament and politics did not implement the same quota in its five-year agricultural plan, considering that so many women are trying to survive by farming. Ultimately, women in Parliament benefited most from the equipment, whilst women in the rural areas remained neglected and impoverished. In addition, farming inputs such as seed and fertiliser were not distributed to every woman in the rural areas; instead those few men and women in politics had access to the inputs and were able to hoard them. They reportedly proceeded to resell them at exorbitant prices beyond the reach of many. The voice of rural women could furthermore not be heard in the media or in speeches made at any national conferences. The odd instances where rural women were mentioned distorted their experiences of food insecurity to suit Government campaigns.

A recent survey (6) indicated that when food aid from Government or NGOs is distributed, the headman is expected to take on the responsibility of aid distribution. The distribution of food aid is a political task and recipients of aid are determined along partisan lines. Rural women who do not support the correct politicians then need to seek out extra-marital affairs with, and/or perform sexual favours for either the headman or food aid distributors. This sexual behaviour becomes necessary because of the politicised nature of land and food aid distribution and will increase the spread of HIV and AIDS amongst Zimbabweans.

Sex work to cope with food insecurity

Women use their agency to negotiate obstacles and find solutions to their troubles, but they also need to navigate the given set of circumstances in which they find themselves. Women in the rural areas of Zimbabwe and many of those who seek livelihoods outside the country, deal with the challenge of food insecurity, although in some cases in an arguably immoral way. Nyangairi (7) found that some Zimbabwean women who cross the border engage in sex work, mainly for financial benefit. The women then remit their earnings to their families back in Zimbabwe. The women’s narratives reveal that they feel like they have no choice but to engage in risky sexual acts because it is the only way for them to support their children. Although the women usually use condoms, some clients are willing to pay more for sex without a condom. Zimbabwean women who struggle with food shortages thus resort to sex work (sometimes unprotected) inside and outside of the country in order to obtain food aid and money.

Again, normative ideas of masculinity expose women to HIV infection. Unprotected sex is perceived by some men as ‘real sex’ which is masculine in nature, referred to as kurova nyoro in Shona. Interestingly, the women say they are aware that they are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, but they refer to their situation as similar to that of soldiers who have been deployed for war: one can die, but survival is possible if you adhere to the rule of the game, which is condom use at all times.

Government’s Responses

The Zimbabwean Government’s failure to address food insecurity and its causes has largely affected women’s lives in terms of their access to land and other food related resources, such as food aid. The Legal Age Majority Act of 1982 clearly states that women are citizens equal to men, but social and material inequality has continued at national and household level. Instead of comprehending women’s situations and supporting their needs, the Government has simply clamped down on their survival strategies.

Gaidzanwa condemns the Government’s deployment of police unit, Operation Chinyavada (Operation Scorpion), around beer halls, sheebens and brothels, which arrests any woman seen in and outside those buildings at night. Of course, only women are arrested by Operation Scorpion; their male clients are not considered ‘criminals’. Gaidzanwa argues that the operation and arrests are a violation of women’s rights to freedom of movement and choice. The Government seeks to combat sex work and HIV and AIDS with the criminalisation of sex work, a sign that it does not understand the broad and complex nature of the phenomenon, which is much more than simply women who sell their bodies for money.


The Government needs to recognise and acknowledge that a large number of households are now female-headed and start mobilising support for them to access land and fulfil their social responsibilities. It is questionable, however, whether the Government will be motivated and able to do so, considering that it is probably largely driven by ‘traditional’ patriarchal ideas itself. Instead of addressing the symptoms of poverty and patriarchal thought systems, the Government needs to first rid itself of this thought system and then put tremendous effort into supporting the mothers of the nation.

NGOs and other aid distributors need to have the same mindset, however. What use is aid when it is simply absorbed by the usual crevices and creases of corruption instead of flowing to those who really need it? Development programmes and so-called ‘interventions’ need to keep in mind the contexts that their beneficiaries live in as well as the power structures that regulate those contexts. This is complicated and certainly much harder that simply throwing money or food at the issue, but a sustainable solution to food insecurity and its impact on women’s lives is more than necessary – it’s the right thing to do.


(1) Godfrey Maringira is an External Consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit.
(2) Charlotte Sutherland is Research Manager: Gender Issues for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit.
(3) UN-HABITAT. 2009. The state of Sub-Saharan Africa. Implications for poverty reduction.
(4) Crush J. (2006) HIV & AIDS, Migration and Population Mobility.
(5) Gaidzanwa, R. 2004. Women and Land rights in Zimbabwe. UZ publications, Harare.
(6) http://www.zimbabweansituation.com. October 2009: Distribution of food aid and farming inputs in rural areas of Zimbabwe.
(7) Nyangairi, B. 2010. Migrant Women in Sex Work: Trajectories and Perceptions of Zimbabwean sex workers in Hillbrow, South Africa, MA thesis by Dissertation submitted to Forced Migration Studies Programme. University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

- Godfrey Maringira is an external consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit and Charlotte Sutherland is Research Manager: Gender Issues for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit.

This article is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

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