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Mainstreaming Gender in Fisheries, Aquaculture: Recognition to Reality

Sustainability Politics +2 more

This article from the FAO's 'The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012 Report' looks at the acceptance of women in aquaculture and the promotion of women in aquaculture to help develop education, training and economic prospects.


The issue

Gender mainstreaming is not only a question of social justice but is necessary for ensuring equitable and sustainable human development. The long-term outcome of gender mainstreaming will be the achievement of greater and more sustainable human development for all.

In 1997, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted gender mainstreaming as the methodology by which the entire UN system would work towards the advancement of women and gender equality goals, noting that: Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making womens as well as mens concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal of mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality.

In 2000, all 193 UN Member States and more than 23 international organizations agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the issue of promoting gender equality and empowering women (MDG 3) was again highlighted on the international agenda. The objective was one of ensuring that, in whatever sector they may be working, men and women should have equal rights to participate in the development process, and their interests and needs should be protected.

Despite this, women tend to be marginalized in a variety of ways and this is very much true for women in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. Thus, more than 30 years after the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, some 15 years after the ECOSOC decision and more than a decade after the Millennium Declaration, and with only 3 years to go before the goal of achieving the MDGs by 2015, the issue at hand is how to ensure genuine and active mainstreaming of gender and the many facets of gender considerations in the fisheries and aquaculture sector.

Indeed, until recently, gender analysis in fishing communities focused mainly on the different occupational roles of men and women, i.e. that men usually do the actual fishing and women are to a large extent involved in post-harvest and marketing activities. While the role of women in the management and utilization of natural resources is generally acknowledged, their role does not carry the same weight as that of men. Given that production goals have tended to be the focus of research and policy, the predominantly male catching sector has remained the centre of attention.

However, with the shift to a multidimensional and more holistic definition of poverty and the increased focus on reducing vulnerability, gender has become more central to fisheries policy and development practice. Fisheries resource management is increasingly being linked to all levels of the so-called deck to dish fish value chain in which both men and women have important roles to play. With almost 45 million people worldwide directly engaged, full time or part time, in the fishery primary sector in 20084 and an additional estimated 135 million people employed in the secondary sector, including post-harvest activities, this is no simple task. Many involved in these sectors are recognizing that it is vital to look beyond the simplified picture of men as fishers and women as processors and to examine the more complex picture of multifaceted relationships between men and women as boat owners, processors, sellers, family members, community members and co-workers.

Information provided to FAO from 86 countries indicates that, in 2008, 5.4 million women worked as fishers and fish farmers in the primary sector and represented 12 percent of the total. In two major producing countries, China and India, women represented 21 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of all fishers and fish farmers. Women make up at least 50 percent of the workforce in inland fisheries, while as much as 60 percent of seafood is marketed by women in Asia and West Africa. Moreover, although comprehensive data are not available on a sex-disaggregated basis, case studies suggest that women may comprise up to 30 percent of all those employed in fisheries, including primary and secondary activities.

Revealing hidden contributions

While reliable estimates are not available, a recent expert panel review paper reported that women are probably more involved in aquaculture than in fisheries but that studies of women and gender issues are more numerous for the fisheries sector than for the aquaculture sector. As the review paper points out, this relative lack of attention to gender in aquaculture may reflect the more recent history of aquaculture and academic interest in the complex sociology and anthropology of fishing communities and practices.

However, it is known that there are vital differences in the power positions of men and women; as a result, women generally have less control over the value chain, their activities are less profitable, and they have access to fish of poorer quality. Women tend to be excluded from the most profitable markets and enterprises, and from highly paid posts in fish-processing factories even though they make up the majority of workers in the post-harvest sector. Compared with men, they are often greater losers from increasing market globalization, and they are more vulnerable to poor services and catch declines.

The most significant role played by women in both artisanal and industrial fisheries is at the processing and marketing stages. Active in all regions of the world, in some countries, women have become significant entrepreneurs in fish processing. In fact, most fish processing is performed by women, either in their own household-level industries or as wage labourers in the large-scale processing industry. For example, in West Africa, women play a major role they usually own capital and are directly and vigorously involved in the coordination of the fisheries chain, from production to the sale of fish.

Some of the factors that weaken womens capabilities in terms of participation in decision-making are:

  • lower literacy and education levels;
  • time burdens and constraints;
  • mobility burdens and constraints;
  • participation in less-formal organizations that are, as a result, weaker organizations;
  • fewer or reduced organizational skills in the sense that women frequently associate in less-formal organizations and, where part of formal organizations, frequently do not hold leadership roles such as president and secretary because of poor literacy skills.

Very importantly, the absence of women from most post-harvest statistics means that it is extremely difficult to quantify the number of women and the extent of the value addition and contribution their work makes to economies. Nonetheless, inequalities are beginning to be quantified and publicized.

Possible solutions

Womens participation as equal and productive partners in the fisheries and aquaculture sector has significant impacts on households nutrition and living standards. If fisheries and aquaculture projects generate the data for and, potentially, include analyses of, all gender aspects (livelihood factors, relationships, actions and results), they can contribute to gender equality and promote womens participation as active agents for change in the sector.

Data solutions

Comprehensive and accurate sex-disaggregated statistics are lacking, and this gap must be filled as one of the first steps in gender mainstreaming at the policy level. Quantitative and qualitative gender-sensitive indicators can be formulated with fishing communities to see how well policies and associated development projects satisfy the practical and strategic needs of men and women, and to help reduce existing gender gaps.

At the more macro level, statistical censuses should focus more attention on areas in which women are relatively more active. They should collect sex-disaggregated data on ownership of, access to and control over productive resources such as land, water, equipment, inputs, information and credit.

Macro-level policy solutions

As in other sectors, womens empowerment in fisheries requires examination of the means of production, gender relationships, and how to create equalities. New institutional arrangements are being created in response to climate change, resource depletion, aquaculture development and global trade. All these factors are increasingly affecting the sector, and it is vital that gender considerations are built into the new arrangements. Increasingly, practical manuals for gender mainstreaming and gender analysis are being produced to facilitate just such changes.

Responsible governance of tenure and tenure security, especially of access to natural resources, are issues where mainstreaming gender can have a marked effect. Providing policies that create the opportunities for ensuring equitable resource access rights, access to markets, benefits from aquaculture and codes of conduct for the industry especially for the most marginalized and poorest categories of men and women can empower people to become more equal stakeholders. However, where governance and policies are developed without a strategic assessment of the relative roles of the men and women involved, the effect can be to disempower stakeholders.

Resource control and access

In addition to the responsible governance of tenure, the broader issue of womens access to and control over resources is an important gender consideration. For women to have a real impact on their economic situation and their position in society, it is essential that they have access to and control over aquatic resources as well as appropriate information that enables them to use such resources wisely.

Development arena solutions

Gendered value-chain approaches can be used to recognize and value womens roles and contributions to agriculture and fisheries. To mainstream gender equality in development cooperation programmes and related activities, a number of steps are essential:

  • Require that programmes and related activities generate or obtain sexdisaggregated statistics (not only at the level of project and/or programme beneficiary, but also at both middle and macro levels of policy and governance) and qualitative information on the situation of women and men for the population in question. This information is required.
  • Conduct a gender analysis with regard to: the gendered division of labour; access to and control over material and non-material resources; the legal basis for gender equality/inequality; political commitments with respect to gender equality; and the culture, attitudes and stereotypes that affect all preceding issues. Gender analyses should be conducted at the micro, meso and macro levels.
  • Conduct a gender analysis of a programme or project concept to reveal whether gender equality objectives are articulated in the initial idea, whether or not the planned activity will contribute to or challenge existing inequalities, and whether there are any gender issues that have not been addressed.
  • During the identification and formulation phases, ensure that the gender analysis contributes to the identification of entry points for actions that will be needed in order to meet gender equality objectives.
  • Strengthen the participatory and organizational capacity of stakeholders at various levels so that they are better able to translate gender concerns into actions. This includes strengthening female umbrella organizations that can participate in debates and in project and programme processes.
  • Put in place a gender-sensitive monitoring and evaluation system from the design phase onwards, including the establishment of indicators to measure the extent to which gender equality objectives are met and changes in gender relations are achieved.

On the ground closing the gap in social capital

Building womens social capital can be an effective way to improve information exchange and resource distribution, to pool risks and to ensure that womens voices are heard in decision-making at all levels. This includes strengthening womens organizational abilities and roles and developing the capacity of women to take on leadership positions and engage with decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Functioning as production cooperatives, savings associations and marketing groups, womens groups can promote production and help women maintain control over the additional income they earn, as has been demonstrated by a project based around polyculture fish production in Bangladesh. As the project proved successful in providing additional incomes, the position of women within the household and community was also strengthened. Indeed, in communities with a high level of gender segregation, single-sex groups may lead to more desirable outcomes for women.

However, excluding men can sometimes generate unnecessary obstacles. A project to introducing the new livelihood strategy of mud-crab production to supply hotels on Unguja Island, United Republic of Tanzania, excluded men. The resultant anger among the men added transaction and input costs as women had to rely on a small number of male fishers for seedstock and feedstuffs.

The clear message here is that interventions within the local sociocultural dynamics should base their interventions on the specific context including the gender segregation within a community and the underlying problem.

Recent actions

The issues of women, gender and fisheries have been highlighted in a series of international and now global symposiums and other related initiatives:

  • The Global Conference on Aquaculture 2010 delivered the Phuket Consensus and responded to the recommendations of Expert Panel VI.3 (Sustainable Aquaculture by Developing Human Capacity and Enhancing Opportunities for Women Development) by including a recommended action to: Support gender sensitive policies and implement programmes in line with globally accepted principles of gender equality and womens empowerment.
  • The 2011 Special Workshop on Future Directions for Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Action, Research and Development (Shanghai, China) prepared a working draft of a working vision statement for mainstreaming gender in the aquaculture and fisheries sectors: To promote and achieve gender equity in the aquaculture and fisheries sector in support of responsible and sustainable use of resources and services for food and nutrition security, quality of life of all stakeholders, primarily women, children, vulnerable and marginalized groups/communities.

Other ongoing initiatives that have contributed to increasing attention on gender issues in fisheries and aquaculture include:

  • the triennial symposia on women and gender in fisheries and aquaculture organized by the Asian Fisheries Society;
  • the Women in Fisheries publications of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and Yemaya (published by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers);
  • the Asia-Europe Meeting Aquaculture Platform (AqASEM09) project work on Empowering Vulnerable Stakeholder Groups.


No single blueprint exists for closing the gender gap as yet, but some basic principles are universal, and its seems plausible that governments, the international community and civil society will work together to:

  • eliminate discrimination under the law, improving womens endowments, opportunities and agency to help shape more positive outcomes for the next generation;
  • promote equal access to resources and opportunities, reducing barriers to more efficient allocation of womens skills and talents and helping to generate large (and growing) productivity gains;
  • ensure that policies and programmes are gender-aware, increasing womens individual and collective agency to produce better outcomes, institutions and policy choices;
  • make womens voices heard as equal partners for sustainable development.

In addition to helping to achieve the MDG of promoting gender equality and empowering women, mainstreaming gender is an essential component of alleviating poverty, achieving greater food and nutrition security, and enabling sustainable development of fisheries and aquaculture resources.

Gender considerations should be firmly placed on all fisheries and aquaculture policy agendas at all geographical and institutional scales. Attention to gender is needed in order to help improve womens productivity and enhance human justice. Increasing awareness on gender and being gender-sensitive are no longer sufficient. A coalition of gender champions, informed researchers, expert networks and policy advocates will be necessary.

An opportunity to alleviate poverty and ensure greater food and nutrition security

Women who are offered and provided with the best circumstances to enhance their socio-economic empowerment will also be able to contribute meaningfully to food security, poverty alleviation and improved well-being for themselves, their families and their communities. In short, they will help to create a world in which responsible and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources can make an appreciable contribution to human well-being, food security and poverty alleviation.

An opportunity for economic empowerment

Economic empowerment should be the end goal of a road map on gender in fisheries and aquaculture. Economic empowerment is not narrowly focused on the financial component but rather on having the ability to recognize and exploit opportunities to make wealth and to make the right decisions, which means having the capacity for analytical thinking and this boils down to having a good education (formal or informal) and appropriate human capacity development.

An opportunity to contribute fully

By mainstreaming gender in the fisheries and aquaculture sector, women will be given a chance to recognize and appropriately exploit opportunities to generate wealth and to make the right decisions in terms of more responsible fisheries and aquaculture practices and sustainable development.

July 2012