WP:Analysis:Gender and Policy
SD DIMENSIONS / Women and Population / Analysis
Posted 3 June 1996

Gender Impacts on Policy

by Karen Coelho and Michael Coffey
Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA)
University of Arizona, USA
extracted from "Reversing the flow - toward gender-oriented information systems in agriculture" (FAO, March 1996)

The move from making women visible to making policies less gender-blind is not a simple step. It involves not only the capacity to recast familiar and well-used policy tools for a whole new dimension of analysis, it also questions the scope of some of these tools for such an analytical task. This paper examines a variety of methods, some more familiar than others, that offer ways of understanding and reflecting gender variables in policy.

Recasting the toolbox toward more gender-aware policy raises three important methodological challenges. First, it calls for a fresh look at basic units of analysis, primarily the household. The aspects of gender asymmetry that are most invisible to policy makers, and that are at the same time powerful in determining policy outcomes, are hidden within the "black box" of the household. One of the important contributions of WID has been to urge policy makers toward a renewed attention to the diversity and complexity of micro-level realities. This paper reflects this emphasis on a proper understanding of the basic analytical unit of the household, based on which other tools of macro economic policy have to remodel themselves. As Kabeer puts it,

"The importance of proper analysis cannot be overstated since unless the production, extent and effects of gender inequalities are properly understood and integrated into policy formulation, the most radical strategies for change will continue to fall short of gender equity" (Kabeer 1995:4).
The methodologies examined here seek to deal with the processes of gender in their dynamic aspects, with a consciousness of changing patterns in these processes. Second, understanding gender demands an understanding of cross-cutting phenomena and the use of cross-disciplinary methods. Women's unequal access to resources is rooted in cultural and social institutions as much as in economic processes. It has become increasingly apparent that the range of situations in which gender variables impact on economic policies cannot be understood by any one discipline or approach. This paper therefore takes a mixed-methods position. Such a position is not out of its time. Anthropological techniques, inter-disciplinary teams and mixed-method packages such as Rapid Appraisals and Farming Systems Research-Extension are gaining increasing recognition for their role in complementing standard surveys and analyses and in filling in crucial parts of the picture that traditional research methods could never obtain.

Third, incorporating gender variables at policy levels calls for integration not only horizontally, but vertically as well. The challenge of bridging the macro-micro divide means incorporating detailed information on gendered relations of production, consumption and distribution from the intra household dimension as well as from the institutions into a national information system.

The case of Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP) and Market Oriented Economic Reforms (MOER)

This paper approaches the discussion of methods in a problem-solving framework, addressing an illustrative set of practical policy issues in agricultural development where gender plays a central role. To best illustrate the influence of gender on macro-economic policy at every level from intra household allocations, through market and meso-institutional mediation, to national economic performance, the cases of structural adjustment policies and their more recent relatives, market oriented economic reforms, are employed. This section shows how macro policy which does not take into account gendered relations does not have its intended effects. There are several reasons for this choice of example:
  1. First, structural adjustment policies (SAP) are the most dominant, pervasive and influential policy package found globally in the current period. These programs constitute the basis of aid and trade relationships between donor countries and LDCs.

  2. Although they have already been in operation for more than a decade now, these policies are still undergoing modification in design and implementation. Thus there is much discussion and debate as to their impact and changing features, providing more information for the discussion of methodological issues involved in policy-making.

  3. SAP and MOER packages typically include a range of policy instruments that pervade every level and corner of the economy, from large public sector companies, banks and corporations to small family farms and households. Modification of the tax structure, freeing of prices to allow more unfettered functioning of the market, removal of direct subsidies and indirect transfers, dismantling of parastatal marketing and distribution agencies, tightening of credit and incentives to particular sectors of the economy, all have implications for the micro level.

  4. SAPs and MOERs have special implications for the agricultural sector and for rural populations. The broad design of the programs is aimed at removing urban bias and bringing better prices to agricultural producers, providing incentives for increasing production, particularly of internally tradeable and export-oriented crops. However, accompanying these price changes are higher prices of inputs caused by the removal of state subsidies and the indirect taxation of imported inputs via currency devaluation. The matrix of changes in production and consumption incentives causes re-allocation of resources between sectors, between crops and products and within the household.
How does this play out? The following pages examine relationships within the rural household, agricultural economy and macro-economic policies. These discussions lead up, in the following chapters, to the formalization of such relations into frameworks of analysis, and a review of such frameworks as methodologies for understanding gender in the context of policy-making.

The discussions below shows how structural adjustment policies and market reforms, by failing to take into account gender factors both intra-household and in the larger economy, fail to achieve their intended re-allocations. The absence of a methodological tool for understanding how these gender factors operate at the intra-household level and at wider levels is part of this problem. Postfacto, some excellent analyses have emerged examining these issues, among them Elson's work on the "male bias'' in the design of structural adjustment policies and Ingrid Palmer's theoretical framework linking the design of adjustment programs and the structure of gender relations (Palmer 1992). One of the central aims of SAP, Palmer shows, is to remove price distortions (arising from government policies to protect or subsidize particular sectors of the economy) in order to reflect the true opportunity cost of resources and to achieve a more efficient allocation of resources. However, Palmer argues, the policies have failed to recognize and address gender-based market distortions. The following draws on these analyses. Four interlocking sets of issues in SAPs are taken as examples.

(a) Women's labor availability and labor allocation between unpaid housework and agricultural production activities for the market

This relates to allocation decisions about women's primary resource: time. How do policies aim to optimize the use of a woman's time for better returns to her, to her household or to the economy?

The most fundamental instance of male bias in macro-economic planning lies in its ignoring of the amount of labor and the resources required for maintenance of the household. Structural adjustment policies mirror this bias. By excluding consideration of domestic work both its labor and material requirements, the design of policies deflects benefits of added income opportunities away from women or else adds to their existing labor burdens, creating what Palmer refers to as a tax on women's work. In other words, women's responsibilities of child care and household maintenance distort the labor market because they "channel part of women's labor to where market forces would not direct it" (Palmer 1991:12).

In addition, cutbacks in public expenditure generated by SAP increase the tax on women's work by relocating many hitherto state-provided health care and child care services back to the household, and by eliminating food subsidies and other welfare benefits that helped women meet some of their family's food needs. In other words, the policies shift the cost of health care and other services from the state to women within households, inhibiting their ability to take advantage of the incentives offered by higher prices for crops. Success in re-allocating female labor from the unpaid sector to the traded commodities sector is thus compromised by constraints that are endogenous to the design of the program, another example of the way in which the policy is gender-blind by being gender neutral.

Elson builds on this analysis, making the crucial point that market forces can have only a limited impact in re-allocating resources between the household and the market, due to the difference in the nature of the goods in question. The obligations of housework and child care that women face remain, beyond a certain level, unresponsive to market signals, as they have an intrinsic, not merely instrumental, value. Mothers do not abandon their children if incentives for their market labor are high enough or if there is no demand for a reproduction of the labor force. In Elson's words,

"Changes in relative prices cannot, in fact, secure adjustment without additional burdens on many women because there are limits to which changes in relative prices can restructure one important non-tradeable sector, household production of non-tradeables.... There is a limit to which inputs of child care, cooking and health care can be reduced without impairing human resources.... But there is also a limit to the time that women are able to spend in child care and household management if they also have to engage in income-generating activities. There is a limit to the way in which household patterns of labor allocation and expenditure are switched in response to changes in relative prices, given the structure of gender relations within households." (l992:153-4)
The critical flaw in the design of macro-economic policies is their failure to recognize these limits and to build them into the calculations. Women's unpaid labor is implicitly treated as infinitely elastic. But it is not. Eventually women's capacities to sustain the double burden will reach their limits, and either women u ill no longer be available to work, or household food security and welfare will suffer.

Thus, by ignoring the additional burdens placed on women, these policies fail to make an accurate assessment of costs. The increased tax on women's work remains invisible, but, as Elson points out, these costs will eventually be revealed in statistics on the health and nutritional status of women. More significantly for national development, the tax on a woman's labor force participation may fall on the shoulders of children-either older female children who may have to drop out of school to fulfil the household tasks that their mother previously performed (Rosenzweig 1990) or younger children whose care and feeding may suffer with the absence of the mother (see, for instance Popkin 1980). What is regarded by planners as increased efficiency may only conceal a shift of costs from the paid to the unpaid economy.

(b) Intersectoral resource mobility and changes in crop incentives

Farm-household production decisions on crop choice result from intra-household decision-making, determined by the nature of incentives offered to women and men and the gendered resource-distribution within the household. Once again, how do these choices affect the agricultural economy and household food security?

Women tend to be concentrated in the subsistence food-producing or the non-traded sector of agricultural production. Structural adjustment and market reform policies aims to provoke a re allocation of resources from the non-traded to the traded sector through price incentives for traded commodities. Success in this attempt depends on the extent to which female labor is mobile across these sectors. This in turn depends on how the local agricultural labor market or the factor market permits the entry of women into these sectors; empirically, where higher economic returns are involved, it tends to be men who take over the new opportunities. It also depends on the intra household conditions she faces, i.e., the time available for market work and the resources she can command for shifting to market production.

The existence of a social constraint to such mobility in the form of social norms about "men's work" and "women's work" is also ignored in the design. Such norms exist in all societies, including in the West, although the actual categories of work thus designated differ as much as the relative rigidity or flexibility of the norms. Such norms interfere with the smooth reallocation of labor from one kind of work to another. Specific agricultural tasks are often categorized in such a way. For example, sowing, weeding, transplanting, and harvesting are generally seen as women's work in agriculture, while land-clearing, digging and ploughing are often seen as men's work. Local agricultural labor markets also tend to reflect such segmentation, so that enhanced opportunities for labor will tend to benefit men or women depending on what tasks are involved. Elson illustrates the implications for SAP from the non-agricultural sector, where typically structural adjustment policies aim to move labor from construction and capital goods sectors to export-oriented manufacturing, particularly of garments and radios. Factory work of this kind has come to be designated as women's work. Thus, in these cases, "a more likely outcome than a smooth transfer of labor is unemployment for men, and for women, factory work in addition to the(ir) unpaid (house)work" (Elson 1992:48). Similar trends occur in agriculture.

However, where technologies enter to enhance the productivity of a particular task it tends to become re-categorized as men's work. For example, manual rice-husking in Java, Indonesia was traditionally women's work but with the entry of milling technologies, the work rapidly moved into the control of men (Blumberg 1989:36).

Appleton characterizes the expected outcome of a real depreciation during adjustment, given women's occupational location in the non-traded sector:

"Neoclassical theory suggests that in the short run, if labor is immobile, the returns to workers in a sector will vary proportionately with the price of the output of the sector. Hence in the scenario given, structural adjustment would tend to redistribute income from women to men. Moreover, the relative price changes caused by adjustment call for a reallocation of resources to those sectors whose prices have appreciated. Consequently, in the example given, the onus on mobility falls onto women who would be expected to devote more of their time to the traded sectors. In the long run, with intersectoral mobility, there may also be different welfare effects by gender if male and female labor is not perfectly substitutable and can be regarded as separate factors of production." (1991:17-18).
In a situation where women are less mobile than men and unable, for reasons discussed above, to relocate to the traded sector, Appleton predicts that "such lock-in effects will worsen existing gender inequalities in the distribution of income and impede the efficacy of structural adjustment as a whole" (ibid: 18).

(c) Access to resources such as land, labor, credit, equipment and agricultural inputs, and services such as education, training and extension

How does differential intra-household access to these resources affect women's ability to respond to incentives and policy effects? A fundamental constraint of women farmers, highlighted by the abundant literature on the poverty of female-headed farm households, is their lack of access to the resources necessary to shift from subsistence food production to the traded sector. Such a shift entails access to market inputs such as fertilizers and seeds, and to services such as irrigation and extension. In most societies access to such inputs is through the male. Women farmers also notoriously lack access to credit for the purchase of inputs.

Programming aimed at shifting women's production activities from millet production to rice or cocoa would thus come up against these constraints. SAPs not only fail to recognize women's limited access to production inputs in designing incentives, but actively intensify their difficulties in commanding resources. As Palmer shows (1991), policies that encourage cash crop production introduce competition for household resources (such as land) between tradeables and domestic subsistence crops. Where women's ability to produce cash crops is constrained (see above), such competition results in increasing men's relative income and power within the household. It can also result in compromising the household nutritional status, as women's direct access to income in cash or own production tends to have a direct bearing on food provisioning within the household. Recognition of these constraints and the introduction of enabling mechanisms that open the doors for women's access to credit, extension or marketing facilities, for example, would greatly enhance the "reach" of such policies.

The availability of male labor is a critical factor affecting the ability of women-headed households to undertake new cropping systems. Women farmers have little or no command over non-family labor, but also very limited command over labor within their own households, especially in the polygynous households of Africa (Guyer 1981). The principal characteristic of "women's crops" in a particular area is their labor demand - e.g., groundnuts can be planted and harvested entirely by women, at their leisure (ibid). Barnes traces the shift in cropping patterns among the Lubara in Uganda where, with high rates of male out-migration, women switched from planting millet, which had a high labor demand at specific periods in its cycle, to cassava, which could be left in the ground and harvested at any time. Although millet was preferred as a staple, its labor requirements in the context of female farming systems rendered it too demanding. The dispersal of households with increasing land pressure had made it harder for women to mobilize work groups. The example illustrates how cropping change can take place as a result of changes in social organization.

(d) Gender-specific returns to agricultural growth, women's responses to incentives for household income versus own income, and the implications of women's income for household nutrition

Evidence has been mounting to the effect that the results of income accruing to the household in general (or, more specifically, to a male household head) are very different from those of income accruing to the woman. While there are variations in the evidence, in general it suggests that higher incomes for women translate into higher food provisioning in the household and better nutritional status of children (Bennet 1990, Rogers 1990). Women, when they earn income, tend to contribute a higher proportion of it to household subsistence than men do. "Where women have provider responsibilities, it is generally the mother's, rather than the father's, income or food production that is more closely related to children's nutrition" (Blumberg 1989:8). Income earned by women also gives the woman much greater authority in household decision-making, including on fertility issues (Bennet 1990, Sen 1990).

The fundamental issue for policy is to recognize that household income and women's income are two rather distinct variables, both in terms of their implication for household welfare and for the way that crop price incentives are received by men and women. Blumberg reviews a wealth of evidence to make two important generalizations that are of particular relevance in the African context, where the "separate purses" pattern of income-control between women and men within the household is more prevalent:

"Women will tend to allocate their labor toward activities that put income and/or food under their direct control and, where culturally feasible, they will attempt to allocate their labor away from activities that do not, even if the latter are more profitable." (Blumberg 1989:14).


"Poorer women with provider responsibilities may be more responsive than their male counterparts to either easing of constraints on their production, or new incentives for production (ibid:14).

An excellent illustration of the first point is provided by the example of the Cameroon SEMRY-I Irrigated Rice Project (Jones 1983), where women's own returns to labor were crucial in determining how much rice they grew. Rice cultivation on the irrigated SEMRY fields was done by husband and wife, but the income was received by the husband who then paid his wife as he saw fit. The labor requirements of the rice competed with a woman's sorghum production on her own lands, from which she obtained her own income. Jones established, using regression analysis, that there was a very strong relationship between the amount of compensation women received from their husbands and the number of days they worked on the rice fields. Even though the labor on rice gave better returns to their labor than that on sorghum, married women tended to allocate only a limited number of days to the former, spending the rest of their time on the latter, over which they had more control. On the other hand, independent women such as widows who grew the rice on their own account allocated much more labor to rice cultivation. The implication for the project was that many of its irrigated rice fields went untilled as women were unwilling to allocate all their labor where returns went to their husbands.

In another example from the Gambia, cited by Blumberg (1989:18), the development of irrigated rice farming was targeted on men, even though women were the traditional cultivators and income beneficiaries of swamp rice. In order to assure women's labor on irrigated rice, men blocked women from owning and/or cultivating irrigated rice on their own account. Women, as a result, refused to work on the men's fields, and rice production decreased under the project.

Several other examples from Africa cited in Blumberg (1989) reiterate the point that women's preferences in re-allocating their labor, and their response to market incentives, are related to their control over the benefits, especially in societies where there is marked intra-household separation of income and responsibilities.

The implications of this for structural adjustment or other policy efforts are that incentives will have to directly benefit women if they are to redirect their production efforts toward tradeables. Palmer further predicts that when women's access to land worsens and labor becomes more asymmetrical in the household as a result of the policies, women will tend to seek wage employment rather than work full time for their households (1991).

All of these factors may help to explain why changes in price policy and trade regimes have been generally ineffective in providing incentives that can reach women farmers. The above discussions illustrate the crucial processes of gender differentiation that take place within the household, compounded by processes in markets, local institutions and national policy. They highlight the need for a proper conceptualization of the household, representing its asymmetrical and conflictual aspects, in order to identify gender variables relevant for agricultural policy making. The need, as stated earlier, is to identify indicators that reflect the process of gender differentiation, not merely outcomes.

Prepared under the direction of Helen Henderson, with the assistance of Claude Bart and Ellen Hansen


Appleton, Simon (1991). "Gender Dimensions of Structural Adjustment: The Role of Economic Theory and Quantitative Analysis." In "Researching the Household: Methodological and Empirical Issues, IDS Bulletin" 22(1): 13-22

Blumberg, Rae Lesser (1989). "Making the Case for the Gender Variable: Women and the Wealth and Well-being of Nations." Technical Reports in Gender and Development No. 1 Edited by Mari H. Clark. Washington: USAID Office of Women in Development

Elson, Diane (1992). "Male Bias in Structural Adjustment" in Haleh Afshar and Carolyn Dennis, eds., "Women and Structural Adjustment Policies in the Third World", Macmillan, London

Guyer, Jane I. (1981). "Household and Community in African Studies." African Studies Review" XXIV:2/3: 87-137

Jones, Christine (1983). "The Impact of the SEMRY I Irrigated Rice Production Project on the Organization of Production and Consumption at the Intrahousehold Level." Washington: Report prepared for USAID, Bureau for Program and Policy Coordination

Kabeer, Naila (1995). "Envisioning Gender and Development Issues in the Coming Decade: Paper prepared for SIDA workshop on gender and development cooperation" in "A Vision for Gender and Development", Ministry of Foreign Affairs, London

Palmer, Ingrid (1991). "Gender and Population in the Adjustment of African Economics: Planning for Change", ILO, Geneva

Popkin, B.M. (1980). "Time Allocation of the Mother and Child Nutriture", "Ecology, Food and Nutrition", Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 1-14

Rosenzweig, Mark R. (1990). "Programme Interventions, Intra-household Allocations, and the Welfare of Individuals: Economic Models of the Household". In Beatrice Lorge Rogers and Nina P. Schlossman, eds., "Intra-household Resource Allocation: Issues and Methods for Development Policy and Planning. Papers prepared for the Workshop on Methods of Measuring Intra-household Resource Allocation, Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA, October 1983." Tokyo: United Nations University Press. pp 176-184.

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