Women in fisheries: an issue, an agenda

22 Nov 2010

Jobs for the girls: while it's entirely correct that gender no longer excludes women from the top jobs in seafood business and fisheries management, it seems it's still a very hard struggle for women "downstairs" to even secure their basic rights as workers, writes Menakhem Ben-Yami.

In July this year, the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF – www.icsf.net)  held an international workshop in Mahabalipuram, India, aimed at ‘Defining a Gender Agenda for Sustainable Life and Livelihoods in Fishing Communities’. Mainly female fishworkers, members of fishworker organisations, fisheries researchers, academicians, and policymakers from 18 countries, and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multilateral agencies participated.

The workshop focused on the impact of current developments on fishing communities, with specific attention to women’s experiences and their organisations in fisheries, and on defining for them an agenda and strategies for the future.

It followed on from national/regional workshops in the Philippines, India, South Africa, Brazil, Thailand, Europe and Canada.

Reading through the workshop report one can see that while there are gender problems specific to fisheries in their respective countries, many of the issues brought up stem from the more general, social, political and cultural backgrounds, and that women often participate in the efforts towards general improvement of the political, and socio-economic status of their communities and of professional fishworkers’ organisations.

Sometimes such participation may produce results not quite desired by women.

For example, Rosetta Ferreira of South Africa told the workshop how women, as part of a network of community-based fishermen's organisations have been fighting for the rights of small-scale fishermen. When, eventually, fishermen have been granted temporary access to selected fisheries resources, they have left women out by selling their catch directly to big companies.

“We were so busy helping men get their rights that we forgot ourselves…Men have not supported us in ensuring that there are livelihoods for women,” said Ferreira.

'Agenda for the Future'

Apart from gender-related social and economic problems, the workshop participants produced an ‘Agenda for the Future’, which comprised an appeal to promote community-based management and allow fishing communities to manage their coastal fishery resources, and the request to manage their fisheries by other than market-driven quota systems, and to recognise the rights of fishing communities to their coastal lands, and preferential access to coastal and inland fisheries resources.

Other general issues on the proposed Agenda cover broader aquatic and coastal management issues, integration of traditional and local with scientific knowledge, resistance to coastal pollution, and respect for the rhythms and limits of nature.

Many issues related to the socio-economics of artisanal and small-scale fisheries were discussed and brought forth in the ‘Agenda for Action’, but they were little different from those raised by general fishermen's organisations.

Among the gender-specific conclusions of the workshop is the demand that the marketing chains give a fair chance to small-scale and artisanal fisheries and fishworkers, and that women get the first right to handle the fish landed.

The workshop called to integrate women in fisheries management-related decision-making, to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and to strengthen the capacity of women to organise, while challenging men’s resistance to their participation in fishworkers' organisations.

Within such organisations, however, and on local, regional, national and international levels, women should be able to organise autonomously and separately. Another item promoted was adopting specific measures to address discrimination against women.

The participants appealed also for applying labour rights to women workers, including working spouses, and didn't miss the opportunity to remind men to take share in housework and to call for freedom and safety from violence and sexual abuse within the household and community.

While most participants reported improvements in the gender situation, or at least positive development of women's organisations, in Canada "women seem to have less voice in the fisheries today than they did 10 years ago, when there was greater openness to the idea of women’s participation".

The blame was put on the privatisation of fisheries, which led to the loss of licenses and access to resources and facilities, inability to commercially sell fish caught in traditional fisheries.

Environmental degradation, industrial aquaculture and market forces have also led to higher levels of stress and violence within families.

In general, gender problems still prevail in most areas. In Africa, women still have to cope with high rates of illiteracy, unsafe, unhygienic and difficult working conditions, and especially where "fish for sex" has become customary.

Problems persist

In India, while in some regions women have had success in gaining transportation to markets, reducing taxes, and getting access to savings cum-relief schemes, various problems persist. These include lack of access to credit, poor sanitation and healthcare facilities, lack of land titles, alcoholism, increase in dowry demands, declining access to fish for processing and marketing (due to both stock depletion and exports), and poor market facilities.

In Europe, women apart from seeking a legal status to women’s unrecognised work, are still struggling for equal representation in decision-making at all levels, social security, and pension and benefits for work-related ailments. In Brazil, in spite of some degree of integration, there, is, however, resistance, among fishermen to women’s participation, particularly at the local level.

Interestingly, this workshop on women's role and plight in fisheries was held at the time when Jane Lubchenko was heading NOAA – the top authority in charge of the US' marine fisheries, Maria Damanaki, was the EU's fisheries and maritime affairs commissioner, María Elena Espinosa Mangana – the minister in charge of fisheries in Spain,  Gail Shea - the Canadian fisheries minister, Gladys Asmah - Ghana's minister of fisheries,  Lisbeth Berg-Hansen - Norwegian fisheries minister, Zoila Bustamante -  the president of Chile's influential national confederation of artisanal fishermen  (CONAPACH), and in the most fisheries-minded and most fisheries-dependent country in the world, Iceland, Johanna Sigurdardottir was elected prime minister. In addition, many women are holding top jobs in large fisheries and fishery-associated companies.

It seems that while there's little that would stop today an able and appropriately educated or otherwise knowledgeable woman to get a top job "upstairs" in fisheries management, associations, or industry, the women "downstairs" are still struggling for their basic rights. And, I'm afraid this is valid not only in the case of fisheries.

The full workshop report can be read on ICSF’s website.

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