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Promoting Gender Rights in the Agriculture Sector through an Inclusive Trade Policy

Women's Role

Agriculture plays a significant role in most African economies because it contributes an average of 30 to 40% of the gross national products. It also accounts for about 60% of total export earnings and employs about 70 to 80% of the work force. Agriculture in the West African region is mostly dominated by small holder farmers who cultivate less than 2 ha.

Generally, it has been reported within the value chain that women are responsible for up to 80% of food production, 60% of food harvesting, 80% of storage and transport from fields to villages, 100% of food processing, and 60% of marketing activities. Studies have also shown that women and men are not evenly represented among the different agricultural sectors such as livestock farming or export crops as these sectors are affected differently by trade liberalization, hence the consequences for women and men are different.

Trade plays a very key role in every economy and is seen as an engine of growth because it offers opportunities for the production of goods and services, new markets, and new opportunities to create new production factors. Similarly, trade creates new jobs, contributes to social and economic distribution to individual empowerment, poverty reduction and indeed development of both men and women. Cross-border trade could be formal or informal.  Formal cross-border trade has been defined as the transportation of goods through official checkpoints, while informal cross-border trade involves the transportation of goods through informal areas using footpaths or streams only known to local residents. Men and women alike are involved in cross-border trade either as producers, traders and consumers. However, because of the critical differences in their positions in the economies and societies of West Africa, and in trade in particular, the benefits women derive and the challenges they face are mostly not recorded and recognised.

Reports have shown that a higher percentage of women are involved in informal cross‐border trade and according to UNECA (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa), informal trade which is inclusive of cross‐border trade, domestic trade and re‐export is the major source of job creation in Africa. It provides between 20 and 75 percent of total employment in most countries, with the exception of South Africa. In the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, informal cross‐border trade contributes around 30 to 40 percent of intra‐SADC trade, with a value of US$ 17.6 billion per year.  Traditionally, women were more confined to jobs that were close to their homesteads, but presently, they are more involved in cross‐border trading of a varied range of goods and services which create an informal distribution network and credit systems that sustain livelihoods. Cross‐border trading has resulted in new trans‐national networks supported by common languages, culture and kinship.

Reports have shown that trade provides women with 60 per cent of non‐agricultural self‐employment in sub-Saharan Africa and these women also constitute the bulk of informal traders in Southern and Western Africa. Women’s’ active involvement in small-scale trade is linked with the gendered construction of the colonial economy and society, which makes allowance for males’ access to formal education and employment and other forms of formal employment. Formal and informal cross-border trade in West Africa has been on the increase since the 1990s as a result of economic liberalization policies, population growth and urbanization. This expansion has been credited with deepening regional integration, improving economic growth and benefiting the population through employment, market and product diversification, increased outlets for goods produced and manufactured in the region and improvements in food availability.

Policy, particularly trade policy, has often been assumed to be ‘gender-neutral’, having equal effects on both women and men in different categories (e.g. young people, elderly people, rural workers, disabled people, women and men from various ethnic groups, educated or unskilled workers etc). Yet the effects of trade liberalisation are more positive for those already employed or located in industries and sectors with a comparative advantage in international trade.  Although, globally, there has been an increase in the proportion of women in the labour force, it is still necessary to question and understand the likely impact of trade liberalisation measures upon them.   Informal and casual workers can be exploited in the global trading system when there is increased pressure to be competitive and firms try to lower their employee costs. Payments by firms to social security are often avoided, and commitments to provide benefits such as maternity leave with pay, health insurance, etc. can be overlooked in the race to be competitive and provide dividends to shareholders in the global marketplace.

Some key issues needs to be considered within the context of trade liberalisation in the Agriculture Sector and also regional integration.  Occupational segregation, both vertical and horizontal, along gender lines, is a good predictor for determining the impact of trade. Do trade policies reflect concern with the possible differential impact on gender equality in terms of strengthening or suppressing areas in the Agriculture sector where women predominate? Does Trade Policy create unequal opportunities in terms of undercutting local production of goods through import substitution; in terms of dedication of land formerly used for domestic consumption for export crops?

Has Sustainability Impact Assessments (SIAs) been conducted on trade policy to assess the possible consequences of a trade agreement and to identify measures to enhance positive and mitigate negative effects on women farmers? Have results been integrated into Member States Agriculture & Economic Policies?  Are sex-disaggregated data available on these issues? Are studies being conducted to assess the gendered impact of economic reforms?

E.g. the impact of transition on women’s situation in the Agriculture labour market?

Are women working in agriculture unpaid family workers? Do they benefit from an increase in price for the goods (crops, products, services) they are instrumental in producing? Is the promotion of export crops made at the expense of food crops placing increased pressure on women to concentrate their energies on such export crops, sometimes inadvertently affecting the nutritional status of the whole family? Typically, women are involved in subsistence crop production, which may be regarded as secondary in importance to cash crop production, which is often under the control of men. 

Sarah Edewor, PhD Student, FUNAAB  & Chris Addy-Nayo, Trade Expert

The above are some of the issues that our governments and other regional bodies need to take into consideration when Trade Policies and Programmes are being developed to facilitate inclusive sustainable development and poverty reduction which takes into consideration gender empowerment and the promotion of women’s Rights in the Agriculture sector.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this website do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union

Njala University


Federal University of Agriculture