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Agriculture is an important component of the economy of many developing countries as it significantly contributes to domestic production and employment. It is also of key relevance because of its contribution to ensuring food security, which remains a major concern in many developing countries and especially least developed countries (LDCs). Women and men are not evenly represented among the various agricultural sectors such as livestock farming or export crops. These sectors are differently affected by trade liberalization, and therefore the consequences for women and men are not the same. Existing gender gaps may increase or shrink. Additionally, since women and men often have different education, income and skills, their capacity to respond to changes in policy also varies. Because women and men in developing countries have different roles in agriculture, and have historically been placed differently in relation to access and use of productive resources, the effects of trade liberalization will necessarily have diverse impacts and effects on both.

Agriculture underpins food security, export earnings and rural development in most developing countries. FAO statistics suggest that farming remains the only source of income for an estimated 70 percent of the world’s rural poor, many of whom are smallholders. Millions of people around the world depend on agriculture, directly or indirectly, to ensure their livelihoods.

Agriculture throughout the developing world, however, continues to struggle. Estimates of per capita agricultural production for domestic and export markets were in decline throughout the 1990s. LDCs in particular continue to be marginalized from world agricultural markets, accounting for just one percent of global agricultural exports in the late 1990s. Indeed, for all the economic opportunities associated with increased globalization and international trade, small farmers in the developing world are often not in a position to compete in overseas markets, while frequently having to compete with foreign imports in the domestic market.

Smallholders, both women and men, in many developing countries face a particular set of constraints relating to a lack of credit and technology, inadequate rural infrastructure and land tenure systems, and in some cases, civil conflict. Reduced overseas development assistance to the farming sector, along with the typical reduction in associated direct foreign investment, have contributed to the ongoing challenges of smallholders, particularly in the LDCs. But it is the use of agricultural subsidies and tariffs by many developed countries to support their own farming sectors which continues to have perhaps the greatest adverse impact on the sustainable development of agriculture in many of the world’s poorest countries.

The challenges discussed above are often exacerbated by agricultural systems in which the gender division of labour tends to be inflexible and where traditional approaches are increasingly undermined by the process of globalization.[1] Generally, food crops produced for household consumption or for the domestic market are cultivated and marketed by women; this is the case, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa for most vegetables and tubers. More commercial or industrialized crops such as cotton or sugar, cultivated on a much larger scale for direct export or further processing, are more frequently within men’s economic domain (Koehler). FAO estimates that, in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce as much as 80 percent of basic foods, while in South and Southeast Asia, 60 percent of cultivation work and other food production is done by women. These pronounced differences in how women and men participate in the cultivation of food crops as opposed to the commercial activity of raising cash and export crops mean that asymmetric support in developed countries, as well as adjustments in agricultural sectors to trade liberalization and the integration of markets, may threaten women’s and men’s livelihoods and food security in very many ways.

Traditional analysis and regulation of trade is most often presumed to be gender-neutral; however, an increasing body of literature on gender-related aspects of trade has emerged over the past decade. Researchers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations have undertaken a number of studies to discuss the gender equity implications of trade, trade liberalization and the globalization of the economy. However, there is still very little empirical information available about women’s involvement in trade expansion, the impact of agricultural trade liberalization on women’s rights and roles in the agricultural and rural sector, and on gender equality in general.

Many interrelating factors gear the current transformation of farming but, given the lack of gender-differentiated agricultural statistics, it is difficult to generate an in-depth analysis of the gender-related dimensions of this process. The possible implications of the ongoing trade reforms for agriculture are equally difficult to gauge without such data. Assessments of the gender-differentiated impacts of trade liberalization and adjustments are increasingly called for, particularly as "seemingly neutral market mechanisms and macroeconomic policies can reinforce social biases and inequalities."[2]

This paper discusses some relevant gender-related issues regarding the implications that the agricultural trade expansion and liberalization have on aspects linked to gender inequalities that exist in the agricultural and rural sector. Section 2 provides a general framework together with a brief review of women’s contribution to agriculture. Section 3 gives an analysis regarding the experiences of selected developing countries, from which some conclusions are drawn out about the impact of the agricultural trade development on aspects like agricultural work, land use, women access to productive resources and to new productive opportunities in agriculture. Section 4 considers the main features of trade liberalization agreements, both multilateral and regional, and in particular provides an overview of four key commodities for developing economies. Section 5 makes some considerations on the main implications of liberalized agricultural trade for small-scale farming, questions the conditions in which are provided the new economic opportunities for women, and indicates other aspects of relevance from a gender perspective that are ignored in trade policies and negotiations on agricultural commodities. Section 6 highlights some major considerations and conclusions that arise out of the examination conducted throughout this article.

[1] Gabrielle Koehler, Agriculture and Commodities: Gender Issues Proposed for Research, Division on Investment, Technology and Enterprise Development, UNCTAD, 1999.
[2] Gammage, Jorgensen, McGill and White, Framework for Gender Assessments of Trade and Investment Agreements, Women’s EDGE Global Trade Program, Washington, DC, 2002.

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