1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World

From Chapter 6 – The changing terms of rural living

Famines and food crises expose the precariousness of the livelihoods of those affected. In 2002 several countries in southern Africa experienced serious food shortage. The effects were widespread: 14 million people suffered hunger and hardship. The immediate causes were drought and severe local flooding, but the impacts were made greater by the lack of food security to which many households were already acutely vulnerable. The ravages of HIV/AIDS had helped erode assets and social support networks. As critically, the onslaught of economic liberalization over two decades, undermining smallholders’ ability to construct viable livelihoods, had helped to deepen rural poverty.

At around the same time, India experienced a spate of suicides by hopelessly indebted cotton farmers. In response to rising world prices for cotton during the early 1990s and official encouragement as trade was liberalized, farmers had converted to cotton land that had been under food grain cultivation, particularly in Andhra Pradesh but also in northern Karnataka and Punjab. After a peak in the mid-1990s, world cotton prices suddenly declined. In the early 2000s, swamped by debt, thousands of farmers committed suicide, often by swallowing pesticides.

These examples of severe distress are connected. Both, whatever their incidental causes, are unanticipated outcomes of systemic policy choices by powerful governments and international financial and institutions. The food crisis in southern Africa threw a spotlight onto what had been happening to the lives of farming people in poverty-stricken and indebted countries forced onto a diet of liberalization. The story of cotton encapsulates the risks associated with reliance on the export of volatile primary commodities—cotton is by no means the only case—whose prices in global markets are unstable and which experience sharp, sometimes prolonged, falls. At the end of 2001, real non-fuel commodity prices had plunged to about one-half of their annual average for the period 1979–81, leading to the build-up of unsustainable external debt in the non-oil commodity exporters. Such crises, of which many other examples could be cited, raise serious questions about liberalization as a universal policy model for developing countries with high proportions of rural populations dependent on agriculture.

The distortions within the current agricultural trading system, whereby European and US farmers enjoy protection and subsidies and Southerners find their produce excluded from Northern markets, have been strongly protested by governments from the South; despite protracted negotiations within the World Trade Organization, these tensions remain unresolved and the future directions of agricultural trading policy remain unclear. Such grand-scale North–South discrimination within the global trading system attracts widespread attention. But other ways in which the outcome of economic liberalization in the agricultural sphere discriminates between social groups are frequently overlooked. The gender perspective—differentiated impacts on women and men, girls and boys—has been neglected.

This chapter scrutinizes agricultural liberalization from a gender perspective, highlighting the changes in rural women’s, as compared to rural men’s, earning opportunities, farming and family responsibilities, and access to resources. Liberalization has contributed to the vulnerability of smallholders, and to women’s workloads, but without producing the anticipated growth rates and the sought stimulus to production, to technological change and to a restructured composition of the rural economy. It has also shaken up social relations and triggered changes in gender relations.

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