In October last year Tapiwa Mawoma gathered with other residents of Rukangare village, in eastern Zimbabwe, to have her name added to the list of people who were to receive food aid. With the help of the village community, the World Food Program (WFP) had compiled a set of criteria to help decide who was eligible. As Zimbabwe suffered yet another drought, Mawoma, 61, was struggling to feed herself and her family, and due to her age, she was told she would be a beneficiary of the food aid program. But when the time came to collect her rations, she was told her name was no longer on the list.
Mawoma is convinced that the decision to deny her food was politically motivated. The village chief, like many in Zimbabwe’s rural communities, supports the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Mawoma suspects he used his power to scratch her name off the list to force her to switch her loyalties. “No one knows which political party I support, but the village head believes I belong to the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition political party in Zimbabwe,” she says. Food aid has been handed out every month since, but Mawoma is yet to get any: “We have survived on one meal per day.”
El Niño has hit Zimbabwe’s farmers hard, causing two sequential years of severe drought and dry spells, and leaving more than 4 million people in need of food aid. With so many families dependent on NGOs for their meals, rights advocates are concerned that village chiefs, most of them men, are using food aid to boost support for ZANU-PF as the country approaches the 2018 elections.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission says many people, especially women, are being punished for not backing the “right” party, and addresses the biases affecting food aid in a report released in September. “Food is being distributed on party lines; people who are affiliated to opposition parties such as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are never considered for food aid, particularly in most rural areas in Zimbabwe, which are strongholds of the ruling party.” According to activists, women denied aid because of their political affiliation are sometimes forced to turn to prostitution, offering sex with village heads or aid distributors in return for food.
“Humanitarian food aid is male-dominated, as women don’t have a say in the distribution of food aid and rarely have their needs met,” says Sally Dura, head of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe. “The chiefs, district administrators, village heads and community leaders in rural communities in Zimbabwe are largely male. As such, very few women will own this process and gender inequalities ensue.”
With Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe having declared a state of emergency because of the country’s ongoing food shortages, international organizations continue to bring aid to mainly rural communities. Staples such as cereals, vegetable oil and pulses are sent to the worst affected areas. According to WFP country representative Eddie Rowe, the aid is distributed based on need and with input from everyone in the community. “Targeted districts and wards are selected based on the prevalence of food insecurity,” he says. “Village elders and community members, together with partners and WFP staff, fully participate in the selection and identification of the households eligible for assistance.”
But Rowe says the feedback that the WFP gets from villagers indicates that the system is not free from abuse. “We have also received complaints – though a limited amount – about households being excluded for other reasons than their food security status,” he says. “About 62 percent of the feedback we receive is from women.”
NGOs warn that the food shortage is exacerbating gender inequalities in Zimbabwe. Women carry the responsibility of finding water every day, and struggle to keep families fed by trying to grow food in parched fields and skipping meals so their children can eat. As with food, the distribution of economic aid often ends up with women losing out.
Everyone who is part of Oxfam’s cash transfer program, for example, gets $5 a month through mobile money platforms. But according to Oxfam gender officer Nomthandazo Jones, while women are usually in charge of running the household, men often control the money. “We have had to deal with cases of husbands receiving cash transfers into their mobile phone numbers and then running away with the money and not using it to purchase food for the home,” says Jones.
Most villagers are asking for sustainable projects to help them break free from their reliance on food aid and cash transfers. For many women in Zimbabwe, even that is not a viable solution as the majority do not have the rights to their own land. In Zimbabwe, 70 percent of agricultural labor is provided by women, but of the smallholder farmers who benefited from the government’s land reform program, only 18 percent are female; for commercial land, the figure is just 12 percent women.
Jones calls for a thorough gender analysis of communities before the launch of any food aid or cash transfer programs, so that socially excluded groups such as women can be part of the design. She also wants to see more women participate in food aid decision-making committees at all levels, to ensure a gender balance among the beneficiaries.
For Dura of the Women’s Coalition, rewriting laws around land ownership is the key to making sure women get their fair share of aid. Making it possible for women to own land, not just through their spouses, brothers or fathers, “ensures they are not left out when agricultural inputs distribution takes place and results in women having total control over their farming produce,” she says. “The
plight of women is exacerbated in such emergency situations and little is done to address specific gender needs.”
The names of some of the people in this article have been changed to protect their identities.