Rakhi Mondal is a prawn and fish farmer in the village of Kathi in the Bagerhat district of Bangladesh. She started working in aquaculture in 2012, managing two “ghers” or fishponds. Her business was thriving until the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the family suffered large financial losses. Supply chains diminished, feed stopped being delivered on time and the fish markets had closed under lockdown.
The village where Mondal lives with her husband and son is in the southwest region of Bangladesh, known as a haven for aquaculture. However, the area is also under threat from climate change and the intensification of storms like Cyclone Yaas, which inundated some fish ponds, aggravating the current crisis. Mondal was a homemaker and mother when she, like many of her neighbours, decided to begin fish farming with the support of the Bangladesh’s Department of Fisheries programme.
One fifth of the world’s aquaculture production is centred in Bangladesh, where women hold about 1.4 million of an estimated 17.8 million jobs in the sector. The fisheries sector generates incomes and livelihoods for 3.5 million people in the coastal areas.
Women in Bangladesh have been deeply engaged in aquaculture production and value chain activities. Before Covid-19, this consistent work made vital differences in their lives, helping to sustain their families and boost livelihoods. The work can be a source of empowerment and it is often the first means of livelihood for rural women. However, the pandemic led to the collapse of many family fishing businesses. Many women told BSCMFP researchers that the pandemic had placed their families in more precarious conditions as fish prices dropped and feed became unaffordable, if it arrived at all.
Empowering women fishers in Bangladesh
Women fishers have long been invisible in many countries, and often their contributions to fisheries can be underrepresented or ignored in country GDP figures. Bangladesh has a strong history of women’s involvement in fisheries, most often through aquaculture, yet more can be done to include women on all levels of business and decision making. Women contribute to a variety of stages of the value chain, from fishing and fish farming to handling and processing. In Bangladesh, poor fishers and women are looking for fuller participation at the higher levels of the sector.
For many women, the work can be empowering and provide a significant contribution to family income. For others, however, their labour is unrecognised as they have less access to finance and do not have decision-making authority. The Covid-19 pandemic added another layer to this set of vulnerabilities, with long periods of joblessness for husbands as well.
Karol Rekha is another fish farmer we met who has benefited from these initiatives.
Rekha is a fish farmer in the village of Dahanadad in the Lakshmipur district, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her daughter is in secondary school and her son has just completed his MBA. With the support of the government, she has diversified her income with poultry and livestock as well as fish farming. But the onset of Covid-19 triggered a crisis for her family as well.
“I could not sell fish in a timely manner, and it has been hard to pay for fish feed,” she said. But the World Bank supported project has helped her back on her feet and she said the economic outlook has brightened. “The financial incentives during Covid-19 have been a significant support for us,” she said.
Now, Rekha is able to buy fish feed and maintain her ponds. Both women are planning to expand their businesses this year, thanks in part to the support.
Through work in the World Bank-funded Bangladesh Sustainable Coastal and Marine Fisheries Project (BSCMFP), agencies have provided emergency support, helped to restore the logistics chain and improved food supply by getting fish to markets. The emergency support provided fishers electronic cash transfers and technical assistance to purchase feed and relieve debt.
The BSCMFP project was conducting community field work when the pandemic struck in 2020. The team had completed aquaculture training in 16 coastal districts where more than 35 million people live. But then an emergency response was needed.
The Department of Fisheries (DoF) under the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock arranged for cash transfers along with the Ministry of Planning, and Ministry of Agriculture, as part of the government’s Covid-19 emergency response through the World Bank project. The transfers have been distributed among 78,074 fish, prawn and shrimp farmers from 75 affected Upazilas, or administrative regions, under the project. More than 4,000 of these recipients are women fish farmers.
“We suffered enormous losses during the pandemic,” Mondal told our team. “We benefited a great deal from the monetary help and we have recovered.”