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Gender Equality & Trade Policy

Gender Equality and Trade Policy
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VI. Trade, Agriculture, Food Security and Gender Equality

In most developing countries, women are predominantly engaged in the agricultural sector and typically in subsistence production. Trade liberalization has often had the effect of increasing the production of export (cash) crops, while increasing imports of food crops that compete with locally produced crops and therefore depress their prices. This affects men and women differently, as women are usually small-scale food-crop farmers, while men are typically more actively engaged in the production and marketing of agricultural commodities traded in regional and international markets.(see note 72)

Women as small holders of farm land

The experience of the last decades in developing countries has shown that agricultural subsistence-oriented small landholdings, many of which are managed by women, have not benefited from trade liberalization. Cheap imports have depressed the prices of locally produced food crops and made small-scale farmers production unprofitable. In several developing countries, small farmers who are unable to compete with cheaper agricultural imports are abandoning or selling farms at an increasing rate, leading to land concentration and expanded production of commercial crops, which in turn can contribute to food insecurity.(see note 73) At the same time, given the low-import content of small holders’ expenditures, they are not likely to gain much from a reduction in the import prices of goods. Moreover, at times when import prices fall, retail prices do not follow suit, due to rent capturing.

Women-owned farmlands face many more constraints in adapting to higher levels of competition as they receive fewer services and lesser support than those owned by men. In Africa for example, women receive seven percent of the agricultural extension services and less than 10 per cent of the credit offered to small-scale farmers.(see note 74) Furthermore, small-scale women farmers tend to be at a disadvantage when the liberalization of agricultural markets occurs because they have limited access to credit, agricultural inputs and marketing knowledge; all of which are part of the technological upgrading required to successfully compete with both import products and in the international markets.(see note 75) These disadvantages reduce women's productivity and competitiveness as actors in the agricultural value chain, as well as their overall market effectiveness.

Therefore, all policies aimed at increasing rural women’s access to land, other capital and credit, at facilitating their acquisition of improved agricultural technologies and inputs (eg, seeds, pesticides, fertilizers) and at providing training in improved agricultural production methods are likely to enable women farmers to benefit from the opportunities offered by trade liberalization. Such policies, however, should not conflict with the search for more sustainable patterns of agricultural production.

Women in subsistence agriculture affected by trade

Subsistence agriculture is largely considered a harsh and risky way of living, with little margins for improvement. Nevertheless, the rapid switch to export-oriented cash crops is to be thoughtfully considered against the current situation of food insecurity. The 2008 food crisis and new spikes in food prices recorded since mid-2010 (see note 76), have brought renewed emphasis on traditional staple food crops and urban/peri-urban agriculture, at least as a coping mechanism in situations of scarcity of affordable food. Traditional crops can still be a means to enhance women’s economic empowerment if substantial marketable surpluses of these crops can be produced and locally traded at fair prices. This strategy to “dynamize” the traditional food production sector may involve a shift to agribusiness, which could benefit women food producers.(see note 77)

On the other hand, in order to ensure that women benefit from a more dynamic agricultural sector and engage into more productive forms of agricultural production, other obstacles related to "time poverty" have to be addressed. A more active role for women farmers has to be combined with a change in the allocation of household responsibilities; otherwise, the overall work burden for women would increase. Also, male out-migration from rural areas and the rise in number of female-headed households must be analyzed for it can further exacerbate the work burden of women. Provision of appropriate labour-saving technologies and infrastructure would also alleviate "time poverty". Thus, strategies to open new opportunities for women’s economic empowerment need to address the link between trade of food crops, food security, women’s status in agriculture production, technology availability and more equal intra-household sharing of domestic responsibilities between men and women.(see note 78)

Women as custodians and users of traditional knowledge in land management

Women also contribute to food security in their role as custodians and users of traditional knowledge in land management, including in the management of seeds, which are critical for rural food security and the maintenance of agricultural biodiversity.

UNDP’s recent research points out that informal exchange of knowledge and seed sharing is central to farming practices in the developing world. The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and other bilateral and regional trade agreements that incorporate TRIPS-based provisions may impact these practices by introducing monopolistic and exclusive rights regimes into plants and seed varieties. Women farmers may be negatively affected by intellectual property rights (IPRs) regimes that encourage the privatization of agricultural resources and of service preserving ecosystems, which were previously managed as communitarian goods. If public lands and biodiversity resources are privatized and therefore become increasingly monetized and expensive, women will not retain access and will be obliged to rely on shrinking and increasingly degraded common property resources. (see note 79)

International instruments and multilateral conventions can establish a balanced approach to address the issues of food security and agricultural biodiversity, with effective and gender-responsive safeguards. But most developing countries have not taken advantage of existing flexibilities and the policy space for this kind of provisions has become increasingly restricted in recent bilateral agreements.(see note 80)

Women in export agriculture

Within the agricultural sector, an increasing number of women are employed in the non-traditional agricultural export sector, such as horticulture. However, they are often concentrated in temporary, casual and seasonal work. In the Chilean fruit industry for example, women represent 50 percent of temporary workers, and only 5 percent of permanent workers.(see note 81) Similarly, in South Africa, women represent 53 percent of the deciduous fruit workforce, while 65 to 75 percent of total employment is temporary, seasonal or casual.(see note 82) While job insecurity affects both men and women workers, women who are more likely to be found in non-permanent employment are benefiting to a lesser degree than men from the job opportunities created by international trade in agricultural products. Women experience disadvantages by working in export-oriented agricultural industries and are often unable to benefit from decent working conditions. Nevertheless, in a context of limited alternatives, jobs in these industries can provide many women with opportunities for improving their lives. (see note 83)


72 Fontana M, Joekes S and Masika R (1998). Global Trade Expansion and Liberalization: Gender Issues and Impacts, Bridge Development - Gender, Report No 42.

73 Young B and H. Hoppe (2003). Gender agenda in the WTO. The Doha Development Round, Gender and Social Reproduction. Gutachten für die Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

74 New Agriculturist (2008). Gender revolution: A prerequisite for change, http://www.new-ag.info/focus/focusItem.php?a=493

75 UNCTAD (2009). Op. cit.

76 According to FAO Food Price Index, world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January 2011, for the seventh consecutive month. This is the highest level (both in real and nominal terms) since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.

77 UNCTAD (2009). Op. cit. Paragraph 26

78 For example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is an organization of poor, self-employed women workers and has been active towards their full employment and self reliance. SEWA has been working with its rural members to help them improve their livelihood through various initiatives in technical training, microfinance, market linkages and natural resource management, across a number of trades. SEWA adopts an integrated approach towards its members encompassing organizing (for bargaining power, collective strength), capacity building (skills, access to market infrastructure, technology, education), capital formation (asset ownership, access to financial services), and social security (healthcare, childcare, and shelter). Source: www.sewa.org

79 UNDP (2010). Intellectual Property, Agrobiodiversity and Gender Considerations. Issues and Case Studies from the Andean and South Asian Regions, http://content.undp.org/go/cms-service/download/publication/?version=live&id=2857545

80 Ibidem.

81 The World Bank, FAO and IFAD (2009). Gender in Agriculture: Sourcebook, pp. 344-345, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTGENAGRLIVSOUBOOK/Resources/CompleteBook.pdf

82 Smith S. et al. (2004). Op. cit.

83 The World Bank, FAO and IFAD (2009). Op. cit.

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