Sisters Kisinyinye and Norkinmunyak Nairiamu working their fields in Tanzania. Image: Oxfam
Sisters Kisinyinye and Norkinmunyak Nairiamu working their fields in Tanzania. Image: Oxfam

Day 8: On the Virtues of Discrimination

28 November, 2012 | Food and Gender: Online Discussion

All things being equal, countries benefit from more open trade. But all things are not equal. For women, the context is almost always one of inequality. To protect and advance women’s rights, it’s time for trade negotiators to start discriminating.

By Sophia Murphy, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Non-discrimination has been one of the core principles of the multilateral trading system since 1947. It means that if two countries are World Trade Organization (WTO) members and agree to trade with one another on a given set of terms, they must offer those same terms to every other WTO member.

As far as it goes, it’s a good principle. All things equal, all countries benefit from more open trade, and the more a country opens its borders, the more wealth its economy generates.

"All things are not equal—and who knows that better than women?"

But here’s the rub: all things are not equal—and who knows that better than women? The world is not a blank slate, created anew each time a trade agreement is signed. The context in which a trade agreement comes into force does not just matter; it is more or less the whole story. For most women just about everywhere, the context is one of cultural, political and economic inequality.

International trade and investment in agriculture has created new sectors in which women dominate the workforce. For example, 80 per cent of workers in Uganda’s cut-flower industry are women, as are 80 per cent of the workers in Thailand’s production and packaging of fruit for export. Important questions remain about the quality of these jobs, but there is no doubt that international trade and investment has created new opportunities for women, many of them trapped by economic dependence in their traditional cultures and glad to have the chance to earn an independent living.

Women farmers I met from Burkina Faso in 2006 made a joke of it: “If you come to see our fields, we’ll have to invent a cover story. Should the men see a European interested, they might find out how much money our cut flowers sell for, and then they’ll take over.”

Yet women are at a disadvantage to men in the face of globalization.

The liberalization of global trade and the deregulation of international investments have tended to favour those with more cash (usually men), more education (usually men), and control of productive assets (men, again). And they have tended to disfavour people with greater responsibility for dependents (usually women), with few or no productive assets (more often women), and those without legal or political protections (again, women).

The new opportunities women have found through globalization tend to be in sectors where barriers to entry, and thus returns, are low.

"The assumption that all things are equal exacerbates existing inequalities."

You could say the dominant model of global trade and investment produces discriminatory results through its failure to discriminate. The assumption that all things are equal exacerbates existing inequalities.

The Green Revolution that swept Asian and Latin American agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s illustrates the problem. The technologies introduced by the Green Revolution worked best for farmers with relatively larger land holdings, greater capital reserves and a higher educational base (far more men than women). By and large, the scientists and extension workers involved in the Green Revolution (again, most of them men) were blind to the contribution that women made to agriculture, reflecting the inherent sexism of their education and culture.

In consequence, the Green Revolution tended to marginalize women in agriculture. It ignored women’s traditional knowledge of seeds, cultivation and marketing; it exposed the millions of women who worked as agricultural labourers to pesticides and herbicides that damaged their health and that of their children; and it worked against their economic interests by increasing the importance of cash in the agricultural household at the expense of non-cash transactions.

In most cultures, cash is predominantly a male not a female realm. The need for cash creates a need for credit and therefore for collateral—which means ownership of productive assets, such as land, becomes important. Again, men are much more likely to own these assets.

The donor community has recently acknowledged the fact of women’s inequality in agriculture. The 2007–2008 food price crisis seems to have focused donors’ attention, and they are now promising to make good on their neglect. Increased aid to women farmers could do a lot to improve women’s ability to engage in and benefit from international trade and investment.

"Rarely do donors talk about women’s rights, or the importance of
investment in women for women’s sake.

Yet much of the motivation is openly instrumental, justified on the grounds that investment in women will lead to faster growth levels and higher total agricultural output. Rarely do donors talk about women’s rights, or the importance of investment in women for women’s sake. If donors only look to raise agricultural productivity, they will fail to reduce gender-based inequity. They may even exacerbate it, as happened during the Green Revolution.

Donors need to be part of a comprehensive agricultural strategy that is deliberate about addressing women’s needs and interests at many levels. For women to succeed as producers and as traders, governments need to free women from the time they spend on reproductive care by investing in child and elder care and in affordable, accessible and clean energy. Women need to have control of their fertility. Governments have to invest in secure roads and decent communication networks, not only to allow goods to get to market, but for women to be able to move around in safety. Girls need to be educated; the whole household needs access to affordable, good quality healthcare.

Women need legal protection, too, to be able to benefit from new economic opportunities. Women need the legal right to equal pay for equal work. They need to be able to protect their claims to productive assets, not least with the support of equitable inheritance and marriage laws.

And to engage economically, women need a political voice—in their communities, and in municipal, state and national government.

Governments (and donors) need to exercise discrimination. Public procurement rules should insist the companies receiving public funding have explicit policies to promote women’s rights. This might include a demonstrated commitment to working with women producers and women’s co-operatives, sourcing a minimum amount of product from women, or working with a minimum number of women processors or traders. Foreign investors, too, should have to demonstrate how their investments would provide meaningful opportunities for women.

If women are to benefit from trade and investment, governments have to redefine what counts as a benefit in the first place. Is a rise in GDP or an increase in trade flows enough? No. Governments need to be more discriminating, looking for benefits such as better wages in the poorest paid sectors, or greater employment opportunities for women.

To discriminate, governments need more information. Gender-disaggregated data remains all too rare. New indices, such as Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index, can shed light on women’s reality: the economic value of women’s reproductive work in the household; gender differences in access to and conditions of employment, levels of education, access to credit and finance, access to contraception and family planning; and more.

There are many good reasons to aim for simplicity in international trade and investment agreements. Non-discrimination has the virtue of simplicity. But it fails to satisfy the larger need for multilateral rules that reduce inequalities and protect and promote human rights, including women’s rights.

It’s time for trade negotiators to start discriminating.

Download: On the Virtues of Discrimination


Time for action!

Women’s care responsibilities and time poverty may not often be discussed in food security circles, but there is clearly an appetite for it! Commentators yesterday seemed thrilled to have the issue raised and acknowledged as a legitimate food security concern.

Participants in yesterday’s discussion appreciated Joanna’s practical suggestions for freeing up women’s time, but also called out for more! Once again, the discussion may have raised more questions than answers: What leverage points can we use to bring about socio-cultural shifts in behaviors and attitudes? What policies can be put in place to redistribute care responsibilities between men and women, and between households, states and the private sector? 

What emerges from the discussion is the need for more innovative research, policies and programs to finally address the issue seriously and bring about meaningful change for women. It is high time we collectively move from acknowledging the problem to devising bold proposals for action!

An interesting point that was raised several times yesterday was the impact of rural women’s time poverty on their capacity to organize politically and strengthen their leadership. Many of you called on NGOs such as Oxfam to rethink their traditional economic development programs, which often focus on production and incomes – but not on whose time is spent and who controls benefits. And you suggested that it would be far more transformational to get behind women’s movements and support their political struggles to challenge patriarchal norms!

Today we turn our attention back to global policy and discuss the issue of international trade.

What do you think of Sophia Murphy's suggestion that governments should institute affirmative action policies to ensure that trade agreements and foreign investments provide meaningful opportunities for women?

Policy recommendations are welcome!

Let women cook the system to meet their needs

Thanks for this articles, you focused on trade, but touched on many other issues. I am glad that you have raised the ‘green revolution’ and its weaknesses, especially for women. This is important today when the same male orientated recipes are being cooked for Africa.

Your article also gave a sense of the holistic approach needed if interventions are going to benefit women. We cannot in the name of economic development ignore issues such as access to basic services if we hope for the majority of women to really benefit.

What perhaps you did not have space to elaborate on is the many ways that within the WTO system and other so called ‘free trade’ deals there is a continued ‘affirmative action’ for the already powerful nations who set many of the rules. Just one example is the European demands, in Economic Partnership Agreements, that developing countries give up the right to use tariff protection while the Europeans refuse to discuss the elimination of the subsidies they use to distort the market in favour of their farmers.

So yes, if trade is to contribute to creating a more equitable food system it will have to discriminate in favour of the less wealthy and less powerful and women will need to be part of shaping how that can be done to meet their needs. A failure to do so makes trade a vehicle for greater and greater accumulation for the already rich in an already very unequal world. In the context of dominant patriarchy trade, local or global, will have to discriminate in favour of women and I would argue grassroots women, not just a few elite women.

well said

yes, trade rules must be considered part of the equation, and the donor countries must look in their backyard, how much they take away from developing countries through terms of trade which is far bigger than what they give through foreign aid..

women and trade

Thank you for the articles on trade and discrimination. This is very good exchange.

Yes, in many cultures, mostly in nomadic societies,  trade dominated by men and cash holding also by them mostly. In this case training and capacity building of women and men for  trade equality and sharing  its benefits more important. In these cultures women are dominated in small hand amde goods, food items and others. Therefore donor organizations and governments shall  focus on how to building capacities in these areas. In our cases we are promoting women groups  to organize the following activities among women: supporting women’s income generation activities (e.g., handicrafts, felt-making, vegetable growing), learning from each other (teaching their skills to other members of the community, learning from other communities, organizing various trainings for women on sustainable livelihood options and NRM), exchange of experiences between the communities and between study sites (community products exhibition, study tour visits to other sites; e.g., inter-site women groups’ meeting and  stakeholders’ meeting about updating the co-managament  agreements), and participatory monitoring and evaluation of the community co-managament  efforts.


Yes, discriminate! ... and then?

Sophia, it is always great to meet you and ... to read you.

Things were not equal and the prevailing model has generated more poverty and inequality. On this ground, as indicated by Sophia, the WTO (support from practically all countries) approved the Free Trade rules and procedures. And then, during the last 15 years we have seen this incredible race to force countries in the South to sign FTAs with the USA and with the European Union. Only few Southern countries (those with bigger economic power) have managed to resist. In all of them women have been relegated to poverty and marginalization.

We have to understand that this is clearly the result of the national, regional and global political processes. The political process has generated more wealth which has been concentrated. If we see carefully how the FTAs and the RTAs have been approved, in all of them we will find that social movements (including women movements) were defeated. The same happened in the national parliaments and the same happened in political spaces like the European Union. We were defeated and now women are at disadvantage.

In the case of the European Union, civil society in North and South has demonstrated via impact assessments that FTAs hinder development and threaten human rights, putting women and other vulnerable communities and groups at higher risk, because the agreements increase pressure on land, on natural resources, jobs ... it’s sad but it is still happening this way!

Trade unions on both sides, human rights organisations, development NGOs, victims' organisations and indigenous and farmers' organisations are rejecting these agreements, and  parliamentarians remain deaf to their claims.

The specific results will express on the freedom of association, labour rights, social dialogue, impunity, protection of the environment.

Being this the new specific context, how to discriminate in favour of women? If the  discrimination proposed by Sophia opens its way, will women take the responsibility to validate rights that had been lost during the last 20 years of free trade agreements? We need to find the way to fight in all the fields!

gender and trade

Thanks to Sophia for a fantastic commentary. I agree with the points raised. One concern is that donors who are now recognizing the important role of women in agriculture are more concentrated on inputs at the micro level: how to invest in women's cooperatives, how to support public procurement for women, how to train more women agricultural extension agents, etc. Few take on the macroeconomic policy itself. And, both have to be part of their agenda and ours.

In terms of setting policy, gender impact assessments are important from the beginning. If impact assessments come after the policy has been set, then it is much harder to make a change. And, trade negotiators need to allow for the policy space that helps countries to protect national food security initiatives, land reform,  traditional knowledge, biodiversity, agricultural production and rural development, access to basic services, etc. and to do this from a gender perspective.  We know that women are deeply impacted by rules set in TRIPS, the Agreement on Agriculture, TRIMS, GATS (and that they are inter-connected). The International Gender and Trade Network (IGTN) did a lot of work on this in the last decade. One of the the main arguments was that gender has to be at the center of alternative policymaking so that it does not turn into either a gender mainstreaming discussion or one that gets stuck in 'safety nets.'  Of course, this is more challenging to do and there is no big movement on trade.

As I mentioned in my commentary on women's leadership, we need it at varying levels on various topics so we can effectively negotiate and challenge those rules that are not working/will not work/could possibly work for agriculture. Otherwise, we will continue to see dribbles of money coming into to women at the village-level without seeing that structural change.

No to dribbes of money and yes to structural change

This is great piece, and terrific comments. Thanks to Sophia and one of the commentators for highlighting the point that all this talk by donors on investing in agriculture, and in women farmers, is openly instrumental, justified on the grounds that investment in women will lead to faster growth levels and higher total agricultural output. Now, having said that I do believe that women’s groups can take advantage of this “instrumental opening” and use it to demand the kind of positive policy discriminations that Sophia highlight. But this will not lead us to the kind of systemic change (e.g. care economy, equal pay, etc.) that is needed to truly empower women and achieve gender equality. It is what happens outside of agriculture – in health, education, etc. that will make a huge difference in the lives of women. Also, more engagement and exchanges need to happen between urban women’s organizations and rural women’s organizations. I see too little of this.

land rights of ethnic/minority women

While discussing about women's involvement in agriculture,it is now very important to note that many ethnic and/or minority women are facing land rights problem and the trend of grabing this section's land in many developing countries increase day by day.The national government as wellas international bodies like UN should take stern actions on it.THIS IS URGENT,I BELIEVE.

Thanks for all the comments.

Thanks for all the comments. I've really enjoyed this forum! Here are a few more thoughts. First, I have been going back and forth with a good friend over the last week about this Women and Ag project. He has been challenging me -- what do we want women's rights for? He wants a bigger vision in which to anchor women's rights, so it's not just more of the same, with women, but really a transformation. And I have been saying women's rights are fundamental. They are not for something or someone else - not for our kids, our communities, or a corporate bottom line, but just because we are human. And just by having our rights – by making the world a more equal place – we start to change things.

 But I appreciate that it quickly becomes more complicated - as Consta points out, the system is terrible - if women’s rights are better protected, can that alone bring change? Yes, I think it can. Just like Tinna’s example of making a rule about how groups are composed changes outcomes – include more women in decision-making, and you get different answers. But we also know it cannot stop there. Getting women into parliament and around corporate board tables has taken a long, long time – and the fight is hardly over. And yet having women in positions of power has not stopped wars nor ended human rights violations.

 A discriminatory trade policy does not mean just adding women to the existing mix. It implies that governments must be deliberate about who they favour. As Marc says, the system we have now, though it is based on non-discrimination, does in practice discriminate in favour of those with power. What we want is to make the discrimination overt and to direct it to deliberately create opportunities that women – and others facing disadvantages – can use to gain empowerment. And we want to think about this at every level, but especially where macro-economic policies are set. No to dribbles of cash and tokenism! Yes to structural change!

Thanks to you all for your ideas and encouragement.

is small holder agriculture becoming even more unviable?

While we campaign for womne's visibility and control over farming and agriculture; we should add to the mix the questions that define the viabilty of smallholder farming itself. Another point to consider is -  incetives driven change do work, and hence yes, more pwerful value chain actors can help create the spaces for women's more visible and profitable role in agriculture. Yet, that is only half the equation. Sociatal values on gender relations are deep-seated, as we know only too well. Internal dialogue and debate in the communities and sociaties are fundamentally critical to bring any system wide and lasting change. Donor/ State resources or Market actors are only one side of the solution. Otherside, i.e. sociatal debate and dialogue, must remain integral part of the change equation.  too.   

Enjoyed reading the blog, much appreciated!