When an ethanol company first came to Qhelani Mahanya’s town in southeastern Zimbabwe to establish its biofuel project in 2008, the 29-year-old farmer says many in the region thought it would lead to greater opportunities for development and employment.
Ten years on, she says, the company has only brought misery.
Villagers were not consulted during the land allocation process, Mahanya says. And when compensation plots were given out, many women farmers – including herself – were left out. As a result, she now struggles to feed her two children.
“Before the company came, we were able to plow our maize and provide food for our families and still have a bit extra to sell off. Now, we are just suffering,” she says. “If we try to plant anything, they plow down our crops.”
Rights advocates say the company has also continuously breached the boundaries of the land it was initially allocated, encroaching on land reserved for the community.
“This is not new … and it’s clear that things were simply not done the proper way,” says Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform of Youth Development (PYD), a local nongovernmental organization. “This shows us that there are elements of land corruption at play.”
Across sub-Saharan Africa, women farmers are losing out in cases of land corruption, says Transparency International in new research that shows the problem is widespread and disproportionately affects women like Mahanya.
In a resource book on Women, Land and Corruption, published last month, Transparency International says: “Worldwide, one in five people report having paid a bribe for land services; however, in sub-Saharan Africa every second client of land administration services is affected.”
Women are more vulnerable to land corruption for a wide range of reasons, including social discrimination, poorer access to education and information, poverty and vulnerability to sexual extortion.
“Women are particularly dependent on land across sub-Saharan Africa,” the report’s authors state. “They make up the majority of the agricultural workforce and have fewer opportunities than men to earn an income by other means.”
In Zimbabwe, women produce around 70 percent of agricultural labor and produce an estimated 60 percent of output, but in 2016 only 18 percent of rural women said they were active participants in land decisions, compared to 30 percent of men, according to the report.
“Communities based on small-scale and family farming rely significantly on the work of women farmers, yet legal and social structures and family dynamics often limit women’s access to, ownership of and control over land and income from its use,” Kate Muwoki, Transparency International’s regional adviser for Southern Africa, says.
“If women do own land, it is often of a lower quality and smaller size than that owned by men. Even where legislation exists to guarantee women’s equal land rights, there are often limits to its effectiveness.”
But there are organizations working to counter land rights abuses, and the report highlights a few that have found innovative approaches to giving women farmers more control over their land. There are groups creating digital platforms for reporting land corruption, others amplifying women’s voices through videos about land ownership and organizations training paralegals to support women’s land rights.
One of them is the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII), which is promoting the use of community-based dispute resolution. The group has trained people to work as paralegals, providing women with information, advice and advocacy relating to land rights.
Michael Okai, GII’s project coordinator, says the organization initiated the project after realizing that poor and vulnerable women in Ghana have trouble getting legal help in the struggle to protect or get fair compensation for their land.
“Legal procedures are very complicated, lawsuits take a long time to conclude, and pursuing a case often requires the assistance of lawyers whose fees are too high for many of these women,” he says.
Okai says the paralegal program, which has been running since 2016, has been successful in helping women become more aware of their land rights and how to fight for them.
“Issues which previously would have been swept under the carpet are now getting attention and being resolved as these paralegals have been able to support widows and the marginalized in securing their land and property rights.”
On the other side of the continent in Zimbabwe, Muhanya is still holding out hope that her community will one day get justice.
“I don’t know who can help us as we have been waiting for help since 2008,” she says. “But we need help as everyone is suffering.”