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A gendered analysis of agricultural trade

A gendered analysis of the functioning of agricultural trade is rooted in the understanding of globalization as a process of transnationalization of capital and expansion of the market economy. Decisions about resource allocation and countries’ economic specializations now tend to be defined beyond national borders. It is in this context that states and traditional national stakeholders face the redefinition of their conventional roles, and new economic actors such as TNCs have emerged to play significant roles in food processing and marketing.

Assessing the impact that agricultural trade may have on gender disparities, and how these gender asymmetries came into being, country by country, gives rise to intricate issues. Trade in agricultural commodities take place in a complex environment, where multiple market arrangements and agreements coexist. Liberalization of specific commodity markets may favour some producer countries and certain categories of farmers. Other economies and types of producer may lose their market share, and face further restrictions as their import capacity and purchasing power are affected by the decline in export revenues.

Household food security is a major issue to consider when assessing the impact of the AoA, especially from the viewpoint of a gender analysis. As already shown in section 2, women’s contribution to food and agricultural production in most developing countries is significant. Women represent a substantial share of the agricultural labour force, as independent small farmers or as agricultural workers.

Another pressing issue relates to the functioning of female gender roles, in agriculture and in society as a whole. Women are generally associated with non-economic and unpaid work, most of which takes place within the so-called reproductive economy. The reproductive economy supplies labour and social capital to the economy at large and transmits social and cultural values. Although that contribution is not registered in the system of national accounts since no market value is given to the labour involved, the increased demand for female labour in trade-related activities has huge implications for women’s burden in the reproductive sphere.[27]

Ongoing negotiations over liberalization of agricultural trade, as stated in the AoA, call for substantial reforms in agricultural policies, the elimination of export subsidies, reductions in trade-distorting support and in all domestic support.[28] However, those reforms may end up undermining existing international commitments and national policies adopted to protect fundamental rights, such as the right to food, which has been recognized as a fundamental human right in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 11 of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The impact of the current multilateral trade regime for agriculture on national and household food security, and on rural economies, is of crucial concern for development, especially for the ways in which it exacerbates the existing social and gender disparities described above.

Global market integration and its implications for small-scale farming and gender inequalities

Small farmers in developing countries - and women farmers in particular - are increasingly excluded from the emerging globalized food economy. Smallholders are typically among the poorest of the rural population. Constraints historically faced by rural women (usually among marginalized groups in rural areas who lack access to productive resources), hold women back from adopting new technologies, increasing their economies of scale or more fully participating in marketing channels higher upstream. Trends indicate that smaller farmers in developing countries are increasingly abandoning or selling farms, leading to land concentration and expanded commercial crop production.[29] Two recent examples from Latin America point to ways in which the concentration of production and processing tends to exclude smallholders from agriculture. Over the past four years, 61 000 small dairy farmers in Brazil have abandoned the sector, unable to lower transaction costs and remain competitive under consolidated retail and processing outfits. In Guatemala, meanwhile, where glutted wholesale vegetable markets are giving way to an emerging consolidated food service, one successful farmer cooperative experienced a severe reduction in tomato producers, from 330 down to 6 in just one year. Cooperative members surviving the consolidation purchased land from those forced to exit. [30]

A strong gender imbalance is fostered by this process of agricultural transformation and concentration of production and resources, as most women farmers tend to hold small-scale and family farms while men, more likely to own medium-sized or large scale commercial farms, are in a better position to capitalize on the expansion of agricultural tradable goods (Young and Hoppe, 2003; Joekes, 1999).

Although increased trade may promote investment, and the development of large-scale commercial farming and cash crops for export, it threatens household subsistence farming and small-scale production systems. The rapidly changing international environment has pressured farmers in developing countries into adapting and introducing technological improvements in their farming techniques in order to be able to compete in the domestic market with cheap agricultural imports and the large-scale production units of TNCs. Farmers unable to survive in this environment generally abandon agriculture. Women, usually in the majority among small and subsistence farmers, are not able to take advantage of the opening of new market opportunities for agriculture. As indicated by FAO, women’s agricultural activities are limited by a lack of financial capital as well as constrained by inadequate access to productive resources.[31] Women tend to present low levels of mechanization and technological inputs, which translates into low productivity.

The intensification of agricultural trade fosters the commercialization of small farms. Integration with the market tends to generate broader changes in rural livelihoods and usually includes diversification of household income, and engaging in off-farm activities or migrating to areas in which waged labour is required. This change in income source affects all types of household capital assets, from the physical and financial to the social and environmental, and interacts with other components of the livelihood system.[32] Household resources tend to be reallocated in favour of cash crop intensification, which may undermine household food production and the role traditionally held by women in being primarily responsible for family food security.

FAO Distance Survey on gender impacts of small farming commercialization

In 2001, FAO launched a project to research the implications of small-farming commercialization

(SFC) on gender relations at the intra- and inter-household, and how development projects are addressing those effects. A distance questionnaire was submitted to a sample of practitioners working on 16 SFC projects assisted by international organizations and NGOs in 14 developing countries (Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Tanzania, Zambia, Cambodia, China, India,

Myanmar, Pakistan Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras).

According to the survey informants, development of small-farming commercialization is part of a more comprehensive change in rural livelihoods, which, in the majority of cases, includes off-farm activities and migration. This change affects all types of household capital assets (physical, financial, social and environmental).

According to the survey findings, the origins of commercialization should be sought in the spontaneous development of the market economy or in major policy interventions such as trade liberalization and agrarian reform. A variety of factors enable or constrain the subsequent development of commercialization. Survey findings also indicate that SFC initially tends to be based on intensified staple crop production but, in most cases, is replaced by some form of crop diversification in subsequent stages. Various site-specific combinations of staple crop intensification and crop mix diversification were identified, suggesting that the intensification and diversification aspects should be considered, in the form of in-depth case studies, as two complementary and often overlapping dimensions of SFC development.

In most cases, rural households paid significant economic and social costs to attain the benefits of SFC. The increased income made possible by commercialization required, in almost all the cases surveyed, a parallel increase in household workload although no significant gender difference seemed to exist in carrying this workload. Findings suggested the ambivalence of the impact on rural livelihoods: monetary income brings purchasing power but entails losses in the human economy and social reproduction. The cost of buying in replacements for household food production, child care, social activities, leisure, education, creative expression, and so on may outstrip the purchasing power of the extra cash. There is a need to better understand (and if possible quantify) the costs and benefits involved in the ‘labour for money’ exchange taking place in rural livelihood systems as a result of SFC. Women involved in SFC, however, had a double economic disadvantage when compared with men. First, women continued to be fully responsible for ‘reproductive’ work such as pregnancies, childcare, housekeeping and so on. Second, men controlled the income generated by SFC, even if women had invested an equal or higher amount of labour in its generation.

The social benefits of commercialisation, such as self-reliance, social status and empowerment, were perceived by informants throughout the sample to be evenly distributed between men and women. In about half of the cases, SFC’s impact on women in terms of household decision-making and status in the community were considered neutral or negative.

All respondents expected some kind of positive effect on gender relations as an outcome of project-assisted commercialization activities, but only one-third of the surveyed projects conducted a thorough gender analysis. An additional third of informants believed that actions aimed at strengthening the promotion of gender awareness in the community are needed to improve the gender sensitivity of SFC-supportive activities. This suggests that those development practitioners consulted felt the need for better integration between ‘commercialization’ and ‘gender’ in the project approach.

Source: Distance Survey on Gender Impacts of Small Farming Commercialization, Final report, FAO, 2002

As FAO’s research shows, rural households bear significant economic and social costs to attain the benefits of small farm commercialization (SFC) and the expansion of tradable goods. The increased income generated by commercialization requires a parallel increase in household workload. Findings suggest the ambivalence of this impact on rural livelihoods: monetary income brings purchasing power but entails losses in the human economy and social reproduction.

As agriculture becomes progressively more market-oriented, rural households can find themselves dependent on monetary income to fulfil family food basic needs. Women in rural areas are traditionally responsible for providing food for the family and may be forced to diversify their livelihoods, seek off-farm employment or emigrate. As a result, rural women find themselves with an increased work burden; they continue to hold their traditional primary responsibility for household tasks while integrating into the labour market.

Moreover, the switch over, in market-oriented economies, of agricultural land use to cash crops and exports appears to impinge on food growing; the new land use and management strategies do not attempt to sustain household and community livelihood strategies as a safety net and solely reflect a short-term economic profit-oriented focus.

Expansion in commercial crop production may have an adverse impact on smallholders and local domestic markets but, at the same time, export-oriented production may help to increase off-farm employment opportunities for women in the short term. Although wages are low, off-farm sources of employment for women in Ghana and Uganda seem to play an important role in yielding the lowest and most rapidly declining rural poverty rates for female heads of households.[33]

Women who have traditionally grown their family’s food and move out in search of off-farm employment may suffer from a shortage of food supply from the family plots, with implications for the family’s nutritional status.

New economic opportunities for women in agriculture?

The increased input of female labour into agroprocessing and manufacturing export activities tends to be associated with the ongoing process of liberalization in trade and investment, and with the expansion of TNC operations in developing economies. These new job opportunities do not always result in improved living conditions for women and their families. Heightened demand for female labour is not usually associated with higher wages but is widely observed to be associated with an increase in flexibility of the labour market. This generally goes hand in hand with low wages, lack of social protection, and poor contractual conditions such as very short-term contracts with reduced benefits, long working hours, and no rights of association, all of which exacerbate the exploitation of women and child labour.

Non-traditional agricultural exports of horticultural or high-value products increasingly involve women’s labour. In the cut-flower sectors of Colombia, Ecuador or East Africa, for instance, women may have experienced higher levels of employment and direct income in the short term, although these benefits are somewhat mitigated by health and environmental hazards and unsustainable agricultural production methods. In other areas, such as in the production of coffee or cocoa in African countries, the increased commercialization of export crops has shifted the distribution of income away from women, by reducing food crop production on family farms, and is not necessarily associated with higher income.[34]

The greater involvement of female labour in producing export crops does not correlate with a substantial increase in women’s income, owing to low wage-levels, and women’s contribution to family income may actually decline (Joekes, 1999). In monetary and nonmonetary terms, this may further reduce her bargaining power within the household. In addition, since a large part of rural women’s contribution to the household livelihood is not monetary, in order to estimate women’s gains from job remuneration in exports it is necessary to consider the opportunity cost of women’s labour.

There are few cases where women have been able to benefit from the intensification of trade, either as paid labourers or as farmers. In the short term, women farmers in NTAEs tend to be better placed to enjoy some of the benefits of export promotion. They nevertheless face an uncertain future and likely constraints on expansion, given that those exports usually focus on non-essential products or, in the case of medical plants, herbs and species, items of very low added-value, oriented towards restricted markets.

While women in rural areas may benefit from increased employment in the agro-export sector, they also tend to bear a disproportionate share of the costs associated with the conflicts and crises of the trade liberalization era. Following the East Asian crisis of 1997-98, for instance, around 25 percent of those who dropped out of the labour force were women, compared to 7.4 percent of men. Additionally the number of women with more flexible and short-term contracts in agricultural related activities rose.[35]

Two omissions in agricultural trade policies and negotiations: women's participations and social reproduction

Multiple economic, social and political initiatives aimed at empowering women have been undertaken during the last 30 years but women’s participation in public decision-making is still very low. In agriculture, their participation in policy-making is even more restricted because women’s role as farmers in their own right is seldom recognized. Agricultural planning institutions and farmers’ organizations have very few women in decision-making positions, and agricultural policies generally do not integrate women’s concerns or take account of women-specific factors associated with agriculture and rural development. The failure of domestic agricultural policies to consider gender concerns is then reflected in the absence of gender considerations in the formulation of trade policies. The contribution women make to the rural economy and social reproduction remains silent.

Trade negotiations have tended to undervalue the fundamental issues of human development and social reproduction, in which other crucial economic factors - such as the nurturing of human capital and labour, knowledge, social stability, and of individuals’ active participation in the economy as producers and consumers - are also rooted. Discourse on economic development, likewise, has increasingly focused on economic growth and factor productivity within the last two decades, while human development and well-being seem to have vanished as developmental goals.

As national economies further integrate into the global economy, individual countries and even households will become more sensitive to fluctuations in the international market. In this new context, social policy acquires increasing relevance as an instrument to ensure social equity and development. The progressive elimination of border trade barriers and the reduction of protective measures for domestic farming in developing countries impose a broader challenge to national governments to compensate the loss of the population groups that are displaced and driven out of their farms due to external shocks and market reforms.

The loss of traditional social safety nets in rural areas tends to be exacerbated by increased migration and labour mobility resulting from the decline of family farm and the demand for employment in export-oriented activities. The migration of relatives heightens the vulnerability of rural families and in particular increases the burden women carry. Rural families tend to lose traditional support systems, "the ability to retreat to subsistence production, close family links and support from the community", on integration into the global economy; while the social security systems suited to a modern industrial economy are not in place to fill the gap (Stewart, 1998). [36]

[27] Elson, Diane; Evers, Barbara and Gideon, Jasmine 1995. Gender-Aware Country Economic Reports - A synthesis
[28] Negotiations under the Doha Development agenda (DDA)- uncertainty in the MYNs after Cancún Ministerial falls to produce agreement. Website of FAO and Liaison Office with the United Nations, Geneva. FAO-LOGE, 2003.
[29] Brigitte Young and Hella Hoppe, Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2003. The Doha Development Round: Gender and Social Reproduction, Occasional Paper No. 7.
[30] Tom Reardon, 2003. Comments on US AID program steps to help small farmers and firms sell to supermarkets in developing regions.
[31] Ibíd.
[32] Warren, Patrizio, Distance Survey on Gender Impacts of Small Farming Commercialization. Farm Management and Production Service and Gender and Development Service. FAO, 2002.
[33] Constance Newman and Sudharshan Canagarajah, 2000. Gender, Poverty, and Nonfarm Employment in Ghana and Uganda. World Bank Working Paper.
[34] Ibíd.
[35] Asian Development Bank, 2000. Reinventing a new Social Contract.
[36] Social Policy in an Era of Trade Intensification. Asia Gender and Trade Network, 1998.

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