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Friday, 3rd November 2023

Gender Inclusion in Small-scale Fisheries: Recognising Barriers and Exploring Opportunities

By Ellie Kimber

Within the Global South women account for over 40% of workers within the small-scale fisheries sector, in roles primarily relating to pre and post-harvest, such as collecting bait, processing and trading.  Despite this, the contribution of women within fisheries is often overlooked and underrepresented due to gendered labour divisions. Divisions which have led to the act of fishing itself being recognised and valued as work, while other activities associated with fisheries are undervalued. Thus, perpetuating the perception of the fisheries sector as a male domain. In recent years, however, gender inequality within fisheries has begun to receive attention worldwide. With an increasing number of publications, research papers and toolkits engaging with the issue, financial investments toward gender outcomes within small-scale fisheries is gradually increasing. 

The role of women within small-scale fisheries presents a unique combination of challenges and opportunities. While gender inequalities within the sector perpetuate the marginalisation of women, fisheries can also offer key entry points to enhance gender equality and represent a high-impact opportunity for women’s economic and social empowerment. Yet, for women to achieve empowerment within the fisheries sphere, they must be provided with opportunities to meaningfully participate in decision making processes. 

Community-based fisheries management offers a key opportunity to do just that, as it emphasises the role of resource users as decision-makers. However, while the approach aims to broaden participation in the management process, it also comes with its own set of challenges and can reproduce existing power imbalances and perpetuate the exclusion of already marginalised groups. As customarily, women have been systematically excluded from resource management on a global scale, it is vital to work towards improving women’s experiences of inclusion in the management of fisheries.

Garth Cripps Copy SL - Weighing lobster
Woman in Elodrato weighing lobster for purchase

Achieving this, however, can often be difficult, especially when facilitating community ownership of fisheries projects and management processes. In the context of Madagascar, conservative cultural and gender norms dictate that women have little to no engagement in the management of local fisheries. The fishing communities of Sainte Luce and Elodrato, where SEED’s Project Oratsimba supports the community based sustainable management of the local lobster fishery, are unfortunately no exception. Reflecting trends globally, women within these communities are engaged in a number of fishery related activities, such as trading and sourcing bait. However, as SEED supports a model in which the community itself elects those in charge of the management of the fishery, engaging women with management processes has been a particular challenge of the project. Project Oratsimba has sought to tackle the issue in a number of ways, including through training female marine ambassadors from each of the communities. Recognising avenues for engagement has also been key to strengthening opportunities for women’s inputs in decision making.

One such avenue has been through gender inclusive financial management training, targeting both fishers and their partners. A key outcome for Project Oratsimba is to not only strengthen livelihood outcomes through the sustainable management of the fishery, but also strengthen the financial resilience of fisher households. This is especially pertinent considering decision making concerning local fisheries management is linked to the financial wellbeing of fishing communities. In the communities of Sainte Luce and Elodrato, women often control day-to-day household expenditure, providing an important opportunity to enhance women’s decision making input when it comes to allocating income from fisheries. Strengthening gender-inclusive financial strategies has been found to help legitimise co-management of fisheries resources in other fishing communities. As Project Oratsimba plans to expand financial training to more fisher households, this is hopefully something which can be explored in the future. 

Woman participating in Financial Management Training
  Woman Participating in Financial Management Training through Project Oratsimba

The commencement of community data feedback sessions across both Sainte Luce and Elodrato has also provided an opportunity to engage women in the fishery management process. Successful management of small-scale fisheries relies on the availability of accurate fisheries data to give insights into fishery health and the effectivity of management measures. Within sessions, data collected through Project Oratsimba’s participatory monitoring programme was shared with the wider community in order to engage those not normally involved in the management of the fishery. The eight sessions were attended by over 80 women, who were encouraged to give their input on the data and share their experiences and thoughts on the fishery.

Oratsimba’s project partners Blue Ventures, have found data feedback sessions a successful tool in encouraging communities to recognise the contributions marginalised groups, such as women, can provide to fisheries management. Equally, as data feedback sessions focus the decision-making process on data and observations, rather than traditional power structures, they can provide a key opportunity for women to influence monitoring and management decision-making. Through enabling women to access and understand fisheries data, they are hopefully provided with the tools necessary to engage with decision makers themselves. This can be done through more formal pathways, such as during sessions, but can also be through informal discussions within households. 

Exploring pathways which can improve women’s experiences of inclusion within small-scale fisheries is key to advancing gender outcomes within the sector. While gender inclusion has become an internationally recognised best practice of sustainable small-scale fishery management, a number of key barriers still exist to mainstreaming gender in fisheries worldwide. Including a lack of gender data on women’s roles and impact in the fisheries sector and deeply entrenched socio-cultural traditions, like those in Madagascar. Acknowledging these barriers, on both a global and local scale, is a necessary step towards addressing gender inequality and recognising approaches which can meaningfully facilitate gender inclusion within fisheries.