The economic crisis of the 1980s, structural adjustment programmes, armed conflicts and drought are believed to have affected women more severely than men. This has led to what has been termed by the United Nations as the "feminization of agriculture", that is, the increased concentration of agricultural tasks in the hands of rural women in developing countries. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his report to the Economic and Social Council's Substantive Session of 1999 on "Social and human rights questions: advancement of women", outlines the impact of global trends and their policy implications for the situation of rural women and considers questions of access to productive resources, inputs and services.3 In the report, the Secretary-General states that the context within which the above issues are considered has changed significantly as the process of market integration that has characterized the global economy for some time has accelerated. The greater interdependence among different national economies sets new priorities and poses new policy considerations for governments.

An understanding of the different elements and the situation of rural women can assist in the formulation of gender-sensitive policies and agricultural planning, responding to the needs and priorities of rural women and men.


Male labour force migration, displaced people (i.e. resulting from environmental and civil conflicts) and the breakdown in traditional family structures (increasingly high separation and divorce rates) deprive many rural households of male adult workers and leave women in charge of the day-to-day farm management and the support of their families. Wars and diseases such as AIDS also result in cases where women (wives, grandmothers and sisters) must assume complete responsibility for raising, feeding and educating young children.

Studies have shown that women heads of household tend to be younger and less educated than their male counterparts. They also generally have less land to work and even less capital and farm labour to work it with. With a shortage of labour and capital, women heads of household are often forced to make adjustments to cropping patterns and farming systems. These adjustments have resulted in decreases in production and, in some cases, shifts towards less nutritious crops. Not surprisingly, these households often suffer from increased malnutrition and food insecurity.

Microstudies on the gender division of labour and time use in farming systems generally substantiate the fact that rural women in poor households work longer hours than men and that their responsibility for domestic and agricultural tasks is considerable. Hence, for rural families primarily engaged in farming, male migration and other factors, which result in labour shortages, are often drastically changing the traditional division of labour. The net effect of this change is often to increase women's workload and, in some cases, lower agricultural productivity because of the shortage of male labour, especially for tasks that women now have to take on, such as clearing land and ploughing. Labour shortages in female-headed farm households may often hinder the adoption of new technologies or improved land conservation practices.

Women make up for the lack of male labour by organizing labour exchanges with other women, working longer hours themselves or, if they have the means from remittances and other income sources, they hire labour. They may tend to cope by adopting strategies such as reducing the area under cultivation or by switching to less labour-intensive but less nutritious crops, both of which may compromise household food security. In addition, environmental degradation and the scarcity of natural resources substantially increase the time needed for rural women to collect fuelwood and water and hence their total workload is increased.


Economic, demographic and political trends are changing the rural landscape and affecting activities carried out by women. Economic globalization has affected the overall context for rural development in the developing world in several ways:

With globalization, agriculture is becoming more and more vertically integrated, coordinated and responsive to market forces. Agricultural policies in developing countries are becoming more oriented towards reliance on markets and private agents. Policies of economic liberalization and privatization aim at the creation of a macroeconomic environment favouring economic growth. While this is expected to bring widespread benefits in the long term, such policies are having negative impacts on small and poor farmers.

Liberalization of trade and markets affects both women and men engaged in small-scale agriculture and agroprocessing, particularly when agricultural subsidies are removed or reduced and with the opening of markets to cheaper imports. Unable to compete, small farmers and entrepreneurs may lose their livelihoods. Opportunities for wage labour may or may not offset the loss of food and income from their small-scale agriculture.

Structural adjustment programmes in particular have had a major impact on agriculture in reforming countries through the elimination of trade barriers and the reduction of government-financed price supports for basic agricultural commodities. From the regional to the community/household level, however, these reforms have also led to the following:

The negative effects of economic change in rural areas, especially economic restructuring with its heavy emphasis on market forces, are being felt disproportionately by rural women. This is because they are ill-equipped to benefit from the introduction of change in agricultural production processes and the rural economy. They have less capacity than men in terms of education and training, less time to devote to productive resources and less command over important resources, such as land and capital. They also have less incentive, with regard to control over income from their labour as well as economic assets, to respond to economic signals.

The commercialization of agriculture is one of the most important trends affecting agricultural development. With commercialization, the marketplace has a more important role to play than in the past. The simplest example of this process is the shift by farmers from subsistence agricultural production mainly for food production to the cultivation of cash crops. More often than not, commercialization also entails modernization of agriculture, which relies heavily on the intensification of production processes, as well as the introduction of new technology and mechanization. While modernization and mechanization can improve farm productivity and income, they can also reduce the need for manual labour and therefore reduce options in rural communities. The impact on women and men is frequently different, depending on whose tasks are mechanized, how workloads are affected, and who loses opportunities for paid work.

In the light of the above discussion on social and economic trends, three fundamental barriers can be highlighted for improving rural women's situation. These are:

There is little ground for optimism in supposing that current macroeconomic trends, with their strong focus on market mechanisms, will significantly improve the lot of rural women unless they are better prepared to enter into and take advantage of the new dynamics. The challenge is to help rural women ride the waves of change. This involves promoting a systematic strategy directed towards:

3 Economic and Social Council's Substantive Session of 1999, Item 14(a) of the provisional agenda, "Social and human rights questions: advancement of women".