Feminization, agricultural transition and rural employment (FATE)



This acronym stands for non-traditional agricultural exports and refers to the shift from subsistence farming to agricultural production for international markets. NTAE comprise 1) crops that have only recently been introduced in a given country (often in response to the emergence of a new export market); 2) crops that were previously produced for domestic consumption and are now being exported on a large scale; and 3) traditional crops that are undergoing a change in quality to meet market demands.


Feminization refers to an increase in the importance of women from both a quantitative perspective (number of women versus number of men) and a qualitative perspective (gendered characteristics of the phenomenon in question, e.g. working conditions). Both aspects need to be verified empirically before a process of change can be referred to as a feminization. The feminization of agriculture is defined as an increase in the number of women working in the agricultural sector. This phenomenon is currently being observed in many regions of the global South. Women’s share in agricultural production differs greatly between regions, ranging from 20 per cent in Latin America to 50 per cent in East and Southeast Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa. While the increase seems to be a general trend, baselines are hard to grasp and data reliability is a topic of debate. Many argue that women’s agricultural activities have not actually increased; but that they used to go unnoticed, whereas now they are becoming increasingly visible, including in recent databases. The feminization of agriculture has often been associated with neoliberal policies and with the deterioration of working conditions in the farming sector – a trend that, although associated primarily with women's workplaces, affects both men and women. 
In the FATE project, we adopt the concept of feminization above all as an analytical perspective that needs to be tested empirically.

Agricultural transition

By agricultural transition we refer to changes taking place in the agricultural production systems of our research sites. The transition we focus on is characterized by a progressive commercialization or commoditization of agricultural production, a phenomenon which has received much attention in development research over the past 10 years. It usually involves high-level strategies – advanced by the state, by international organizations, and/or by private investors – to promote an industrial type of agricultural production that is geared towards export. At the local level, smallholder families shift from subsistence agriculture to more capital-intensive modes of production, often combining or replacing subsistence farming with wage labour. This transition's "livelihood-enhancing" and "livelihood-eroding" effects (in the words of Jonathan Rigg) and their gendered nature are at the heart of our research interest.

Capability approach

Amartya Sen's capability approach is our theoretical point of reference for assessing the developmental effects of this agricultural transition and of employment creation via the introduction of NTAE. Sen's framework offers tools for assessing development in terms of people's actual well-being. According to Sen, the ultimate goal of human development is not an increase in people’s income or economic growth, but the expansion of people’s capabilities. In Martha Nussbaum’s words, the capability approach takes a perspective that goes beyond the resources a person may have: it asks how these resources actually do or do not go to work enabling a person to function in a fully human way. 

Sen makes a point of accounting for differences between individuals, who may value different "beings and doings", which he also calls functionings. Sen proposes that social arrangements should be evaluated according to the extent of freedom that people have to promote or achieve functionings they value and have reason to value. In this respect, the capability approach emphasizes the role institutions play in improving the conditions for disadvantaged groups, whose freedom to choose may be impaired. Institutions are key in enabling all people to achieve the set of functionings they value – a state which Sen calls "flourishing", and which others have referred to as "the good life".