The intensification of agricultural trade fosters the commercialization of small-farm production. This growing integration into the market tends to generate a broader change in rural livelihoods, which usually includes diversification of household income, wage labour from off-farm activities, and migration. Household resources, including land, tend to be reallocated in favour of cash crops. This may undermine household food production and womens traditional role as primarily responsible for family food security.
Long-standing constraints faced by rural women, in terms of a lack of access to productive resources (land, credit, inputs, transport, extension services, storage, technical assistance, and market opportunities and know-how), prevent them from adopting new technologies or increasing their economies of scale. Productivity is constrained and their ability to switch into higher-return crops severely limited. In general, women tend to be worse-placed, when compared with men, to shield themselves from the negative effects of trade liberalization or to take advantage of the possible positive effects.
Domestic policies and incentives may force women to reduce the time devoted to attending farm plots, which are the basis of food security, and seek employment in the export-oriented sector. Women may then find themselves responsible for earning an income in addition to fulfilling their role as food providers for the household - added to which is the unpaid work in the reproductive economy that it falls to women to manage.
As market operations become more concentrated and globalized, smallholders - in particular women - are increasingly excluded. Smaller farmers in developing countries are increasingly abandoning or selling farms, leading to land concentration and expanded commercial crop production. Smallholders, often unable to lower transaction costs and remain competitive, are forced to abandon production. Trade liberalization, while opening domestic markets to food imports, may also crowd out domestically-grown food.
Within households, resource allocation is gender-biased, with women often having less control over benefits. The majority of women farmers tend to hold small-scale farms, while medium-scale and large commercial farms are more likely to be owned by men who are thus in a better position to capitalize on the expansion of agricultural tradable goods. Where women are engaged in commercial farming, their sales receipts are often controlled by the men in the family. In Uganda, for example, a large proportion of women are engaged in the export sector but do not market their own produce, and therefore do not reap the benefits from their work.
Gender-based inequalities in control over resources not only influence the ability of women to benefit from trade liberalization but also impact on a countrys capability to respond to trade policy changes. In export-oriented, semi-industrialized countries it may be possible to argue that wage gaps stimulate investment and growth, but this does not seem to apply in agricultural economies. The existence of powerful gender inequalities may hinder a successful export performance in agricultural economies where smallholder producers are predominant. If agricultural countries want to benefit from agricultural trade liberalization and increase agricultural production and productivity, constraints such as access to credits and fertilizers for women should be addressed.
The rapidly changing international environment has placed greater pressure on farmers in developing countries to introduce technological improvements in their farming methods, in order to compete in the domestic market with cheap agricultural imports and with large- scale agrifood companies active in international markets. Those farmers unable to compete in this environment tend to abandon agricultural production. Women, who represent the majority of small and subsistence farmers, are among the least able to benefit from any possible opening of new market opportunities for agriculture.
The impact of commercialization on rural household livelihoods is often ambivalent, entailing an increase of monetary income at the same time as losses in household food production, social activities, childcare, education and leisure. As agriculture becomes progressively more market-oriented, rural households may become increasingly dependent on monetary income to fulfil basic family food needs.
Potential benefits for women from trade liberalization often seem to derive from a movement into non-agricultural sectors rather than from improvements within agriculture. Those opportunities, however, do not always result in improved income and living conditions for women, often being characterized by low wages, lack of social protection and poor contractual conditions. Womens contribution to family income may decline in real terms, which may further lower her bargaining power within the household.
In the short run, women farmers active in non-traditional agricultural exports tend to be better placed to enjoy some of the benefits of export promotion. Longer term, prospects are uncertain and face constraints in view of the non-essential nature of these exports and their low added-value.
Womens participation in decision-making in the agricultural sector is low, and agricultural policy tends to neglect womens concerns and the women-specific factors of rural development. This omission is then transferred wholesale into the formulation of trade policies, where trade negotiations perpetuate the undervaluing of fundamental issues related to the goals of human development and social reproduction.
Traditional social safety nets in rural areas of developing countries tend to wither away during the process of integrating into the global economy. The vulnerability of rural families, and of women in particular given the additional burden they face, increases with the migration of their relatives that results from the decline of the family farm and the move into export-oriented activities.
In the context of agricultural trade liberalization, market privatization and globalization, social policy acquires ever more relevance as an instrument by which to ensure social equity and development. The progressive elimination of trade barriers and reduction of protective measures for domestic farming in developing countries impose a broader challenge to national governments to compensate the costs incurred by specific groups, including women farmers.
An increasing body of literature on gender-related aspects of trade has been emerging over the last decade. However, there is little empirical information available about womens involvement in trade expansion, and the impact of agricultural trade liberalization on womens rights and roles in agriculture and the rural economy, nor on gender equality more broadly speaking.