Issues Magazine

The Global Food Crisis – Gender Issues in Fisheries

Issues 89: The Global Food Crisis

Issues 89: The Global Food Crisis

By Meryl J. Williams

Major changes in fisheries and aquaculture over recent decades have affected women and men differently. In the myriad activities that bring fish onto people’s plates, women’s and men’s agency, as well as needs for support, is starting to become clearer.

In any economic or social sphere, how you are affected by change will often depend on whether you are a woman or man. In 2009 in this publication I highlighted the shift from hunting to farming fish, and then suggested in a small box that gender roles in fisheries were still barely understood; in particular, women’s participation was under-estimated and under-valued. Since then, gender in aquaculture and fisheries has started to gain greater attention.

Many fish sector changes are gendered: they arise from processes in which women (and less powerful men) have little role in decision-making, women and men are impacted differently and gender-specific needs that result from the changes are not adequately addressed. The changes affect women and men differently according to their economic circumstances, their ethnic and cultural group, age and family relations. All of these factors make for context-specific consequences, but gender is among the most important factors affecting outcomes.

Gender has received little attention in the fish sector, which is assumed to be overwhelmingly male in its make-up. Over the past 30 years, even the little attention given to gender has waxed and waned and has been stimulated mainly by external events.

In the 1980s, following the adoption in 1979 of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a modest flurry of activity on women in fisheries and aquaculture ensued. These early efforts mostly petered out in the 1990s, but others started due to more local and essentially endogenous stimuli. For example, the feminisation of the Indian workforce, including the employment of thousands of women in shrimp processing plants, raised some interest on women in fisheries. In Cambodia in the 1990s, after the internal wars killed many people (and men suffered even higher mortality than women), national reconstruction, including in fisheries, focused on the need to support the economic contributions of women and help the many female-headed households.

The 2000 Millennium Development Goals stimulated another burst of interest in gender in the fish sector, partly because the international development assistance agencies began to insist on gender/women’s elements in projects. Broader thematic women’s programs, such as those addressing domestic violence, girls’ education and health, rarely reached the fish sector, leading me to conclude that gender programs have to start with efforts from within the sector. In addition, they have to go beyond the current efforts, which focus mainly on women in isolation, so that men and their concerns and potential support related to the creation of gender equity are considered, and because many men also experience negative forms of gendered change.

I would like to update and illustrate the impact of change in the fish sector with some general and specific features of how women and men are affected, and in so doing highlight that women, who are often taken to be simply victims of their circumstances, are also capable of great agency that, with some forethought, could be much better supported to achieve better overall social and economic outcomes.

Women Make Up Half the Global Fisheries Workforce

In the fish sector, men are portrayed as the lead actors – on boats, hauling nets and lines, or on the beach and in ponds, mastering machinery and technology in risky conditions. Women are nearly invisible except on the peripheries, such as on the beach when the boats, men and fish return, on the factory floor, and selling and buying fish at the market.

According to the latest estimates from the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the WorldFish Center, nearly half of the workers in the fisheries branch of the sector – 47% or 56 million people globally – are women. Women fill many different roles, ranging from powerful commercial and financial actors to small-scale workers, harvesters and cultivators. Women’s participation in the fisheries workforce varies from over 70% in Nigeria and India to 5% or less in Bangladesh and Mozambique. Unfortunately, similar global figures are not available for aquaculture.

Fish Sector Changes, Development Responses and Gendered Impacts

Where production from wild fisheries stocks has reached a plateau, declined or even crashed, the human impacts are always gendered but rarely recognised as such. Under scarcity, the pressures on fishing households often cause women to seek work outside the household and even move to towns and cities to seek paid employment, or stay and take over crew work in family fishing. Women’s own fishing is often the least secure because women in many countries lack legal recognition as fishers, even in developed countries such as in Europe and Japan. Fisheries management and conservation activities, such as co-management and marine protected areas, are gender-blind and usually male-dominated. In most fisheries, women have minor roles in management and their needs in the fishery are not taken into account.

One of the best cases studied of the impacts on women of a fishery collapse is in Canada. Twenty years ago, the collapse of the cod stock caused severe social dislocation in coastal communities, especially for families that depended on the inshore Newfoundland fishery. These people experienced the effects years in advance of its ultimate and more public crisis in 1992 when the offshore part of the stocks, exploited by large vessels, collapsed. Research revealed how women’s and men’s social status were shaken in different ways, how the tasks done by women and men in fishing and the home changed, and the increasing conflicts within the home. Out-migration for work was common. In the Philippines, similar social upheaval has been reported after fisheries crises.

The opportunities in rapid but often risky aquaculture growth depend on access to finance, physical assets and knowhow. These factors all lead to gendered outcomes. The size of the initial investment needed and the increasing competitiveness of the sector make entry difficult for newcomers of limited means, especially many women. Except for well-educated women with higher incomes, most women are active only in small-scale operations as labourers or in post-harvest activities. Opportunities can be made equal, more or less, by active interventions including legislating appropriate rights, training and access to finance.

In southern India, coastal mussel farming on the Malabar coast and seaweed farming on the Coromandel coast and in the Gulf of Mannar developed first as women’s enterprises as part of the Self Help Group movement. Culture of fish in net cages in the sea, needing larger investments, was for men. As mussel farming became profitable, however, men started to take over, and the women’s groups found they had no legal rights to their farm sites. By contrast, men’s rights to cage sites, seen as part of the normal economic sphere, were legally protected.

Fish is the most highly traded food commodity. As a result of modernisation in fish processing and competition to send fish to higher value, more distant markets, women often lose access to raw materials for local processing. Many small-scale women traders have become marginalised, unable to compete with demands for the product in urban, regional and global markets, or unable to find roles in the new supply chains. Little attention has been given to improving local market infrastructure and access to market information for local traders who are mainly women.

Today, women typically are 90% of the labour force in the new modern fish processing facilities that supply the new trade, but their opportunities come at a cost. From Norway to Papua New Guinea, women rarely rise to supervisor and management positions in the factories. Product certification guidelines are usually concerned with resource sustainability and food safety but pay no attention to labour issues.

Studies of women in factories in India and Sri Lanka showed similarities and differences with other feminised labour, for example in garment factories. Seafood processing workers were better paid than those in other sectors because they needed education to understand and implement the product quality standards. However, costs were contained by employing single women demanding few benefits. Women received lower wages than men, and their working conditions allowed little bargaining power and exposed them to health and harassment hazards.

Women often bear the brunt of natural disasters, climate change, environmental degradation and, conversely, are often the mainstay of environmental conservation activities. In Indonesia, women from small-scale fishing families in Java feel the effects of many uncertainties such as sea level rise, super tides, droughts and floods, in addition to fishing, price and market uncertainty. The most vulnerable women are those who support their fishermen husbands, and are thus doubly dependent on fishing and the coast. The women are resilient, however, and make use of local revolving credit schemes, thrifty lifestyles, long work hours, outside jobs in down times, and they are psychologically accepting.

In coastal and riparian development, the fish sector is the most vulnerable, and its living and working space is often taken over by ports, dams, factories, condos, tourist resorts and fish farms. Whole communities can be impacted. In El Oro province, Ecuador, mangroves have been the site of local contention. First, artisan fishers (including cockle collectors, who were predominantly women) lost vast fishing areas to shrimp farmers. After shrimp diseases decimated the industry, a new conflict arose between members of local associations who hold 10-year community-managed concessions and the independent cockle collectors. The concessions were partly from a suggestion of a now-defunct association of female cockle collectors. Throughout, local employment has continually declined. Cockle collecting still is identified with low-status women’s work and thus stigmatised, even though women and men now perform it.

Building Capacity to Support Greater Gender Equity

Most societies do not have gender equity, so fisheries and aquaculture cannot expect that wholesale social change will lead the sector into more equitable practices. Change has to come from within.

This must start with existing fish sector bodies. Existing gender in aquaculture and fisheries networks and mainstream fisheries mechanisms could be strengthened to track and share normative developments and develop new visions and courses of action. Only by putting gender on the fisheries and aquaculture agendas will action be taken.

In addition, gender support agencies should also be encouraged to support the fish sector. In Cambodia, gender and fisheries work is supported from within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and also from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. As a result, the gender in fisheries agenda has progressed further than in neighbouring countries.

Organisations wanting to deliver gender programs will need to have access to gender expertise and support gender-sensitive cultures within. In Bangladesh, CARE’s Agriculture and Natural Resource program discovered this more than two decades ago when it decided to help women farmers and aquaculturists but did not have even any women on its staff. Its first step was to do something about its own staff complement.

Gender and fish sector experts are extremely scarce, and many organisations will find that their new gender and fisheries experts will be junior staff who have to convince more senior staff experts. Senior managers will need to deliberately support the new gender experts in such challenging workplaces.

Many of the current fisheries and aquaculture expert staff need education and retraining on gender matters and how they can support gender equity. The next generation of experts coming through universities needs to be educated from the start on the gender dimension of the sector, regardless of their specialisation.

Finally, current surveys from Scotland to Asia show that more and more of the next generation of fisheries and aquaculture graduates will be women, but experience has shown that this may not always translate into a better balance among women and men in professional careers.