Dominant arguments about women’s land access stress the vulnerability of single women’s land rights in customary tenure areas. The vulnerability is based on long-held assumptions about customary tenure land governance, land use and gender relations. The paper seeks to contribute to the debate on customary tenure area land access, landlessness and understanding customary tenure evolution. Although single women have increasingly insecure tenure on customary tenure lands, in those systems spaces exist for single women to negotiate access to land. These spaces remain hidden in customary tenure analysis that focuses on the primary-secondary rights dichotomy and the use of land as an agricultural asset.
Drawing on case studies of 22 women in a customary tenure area in Zimbabwe, the paper shows that although resource governance systems in customary tenure areas are male-biased, more diverse opportunities of access exist than previously thought and single women have more room to manoeuvre. The paper (i) explores the logic for the existence of vacant land in an area of land shortage; (ii) identifies opportunities this presents for those without primary access to communal tenure especially single women; and (iii) evaluates the sustainability of these new opportunities of land access to provide a basis for more informed analysis of customary land tenure systems and the implications for marginalised groups.