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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 1: The Feminization of Agriculture? Economic Restructuring in Rural Latin America

26 May 2005

  • Author(s): Carmen Diana Deere


The main trends associated with the economic crisis, neoliberal restructuring, and the growth of rural poverty rates in Latin America include a continued diversification of rural household income-generating strategies, an increase in the number of household members seeking off-farm employment, and the increased participation of rural women as both own-account and wage workers in the agricultural as well as non-agricultural sectors.

The growth in women’s agricultural wage employment has been concentrated in the non-traditional agro-export sector favoured under neoliberalism: specifically, in the production and packing of fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers for Northern markets, now Latin America’s leading agricultural export. In many countries women and children make up half or more of the field labour for these crops, while women constitute the vast majority of the workers in the packing houses geared to export. Such employment is principally temporary, seasonal and precarious in nature. It is difficult to capture quantitatively in national censuses and household surveys. The essay analyses the role of gender-segmented labour markets in increasing the demand for female labour, as well as the significance of women’s increased participation in wage labour for female empowerment.

There is also evidence of a feminization of smallholder production, as growing numbers of rural women become the principal farmers—that is, own-account workers in agriculture. This phenomenon is associated with an increase in the proportion of rural female household heads; male absence from the farm, in turn related to growing male migration, and the decreased viability of peasant farming under neoliberalism.

The principal factor driving these trends is the need for rural households to diversify their livelihoods. The combination of growing land shortage, economic crises and unfavourable policies for domestic agriculture has meant that peasant households can no longer sustain themselves on the basis of agricultural production alone. The response to the crisis of peasant agriculture has been an increase in the number of rural household members pursuing off-farm activities. Whether these are male, female, or include both genders, depends on a myriad of factors, with household composition and the stage of the domestic cycle, and the dynamism and gendered nature of local, regional and international labour markets, being among the most important.

Carmen Diana Deere is Professor and Director at the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Professor of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Florida, Gainesville, United States.

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