Blue Growth blog

On International Women’s Day, recognizing women’s role in fisheries

At the global scale, estimates illustrate that every one seafood worker out of two is a woman. Yet that work is far too often ‘invisible’

8 March marks International Women’s Day (#IWD2016) around the globe.

It is a day to celebrate the important role women play in their families, their communities, the workforce and society as a whole.

This day is also an ideal time for those of us interested in promoting Blue Growth to reflect on the role of women in fisheries and aquaculture, and we’re including below some of FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture's recent activities related to women and their role in the sector. 

The  frequently ‘invisible’ role of women in the seafood industry

An interesting FAO GLOBEFISH study, GLOBEFISH report: The role of women in the seafood industry was released last May.

Women are essential contributors to the seafood industry, including primary activities, secondary industries and service related to fisheries and aquaculture.

At the global scale, estimates illustrate that every one seafood worker out of two is a woman.

In many African coastal communities, the work of the fishermen is done when they return from fishing, but the women’s responsibilities for cleaning, processing, smoking and selling the fish at market begin as soon as the fish are landed

While men continue to dominate capture fisheries – particularly offshore and industrial fishing— women across all regions are often relegated to processing, local sale and support roles, including cleaning boats and bringing fish to market.

These jobs are typically lower paid – in some cases unpaid – and less recognized for their contribution to the economy, employment and food security. Too often, the unofficial status of this work does not afford the women performing it to access the credit and financial resources that could make her work more efficient.

But the study points out that it is not only an issue limited to small-scale fisheries in developing countries.

The publication also examines the situation in developed countries, illustrating the frequent lack of consideration for women’s role and work in the industry, their invisibility to industry players and policy makers, and their surprising absence in the boardrooms and executive positions of major seafood companies.

This is occurring even as women’s management positions in compatible global food industries is visibly improving.

Women in Côte d’Ivoire spend long days over traditional smoking ovens

Out of the world’s 100 top seafood companies, only one company is currently run by a woman as CEO.

At a time when the industry must sustainably scale up production to meet a growing demand, companies need to select the best candidates, and cannot afford to exclude 50 percent of tomorrow’s potential leaders.

Adopting simple technologies can have a tremendous impact

Simple, relatively inexpensive technologies can have a huge impact on the health, lives and earnings of rural fishers and processers. Fish dryers in Burundi were able to double their prices and decrease waste by converting to simple drying racks promoted by FAO.

In Côte d’Ivoire, more efficient fish smoking kilns made a dramatic difference in the lives of women who spend their days working over them. Smoked fish is extremely popular in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring West African countries.

Adopting relatively inexpensive technologies like these FTT ovens can dramatically improve the final product and the health of the workers

The women smoke the fish their husbands catch or what they buy from fishermen and then sell it at the local markets or to middlemen to be sold to neighboring countries.

But the simple smoking techniques used by most of the women are dirty and unhealthy, often leading to health problems for the women and to the children who are frequently present as their mothers work at smoking the fish.

Simple technologies can radically improve both the quality of the finished product, thereby fetching higher prices at market, and also the health and welfare of the women who spend much of the day transforming the day’s catch into smoked fish.

One simply technology is the FTT ovens, which are more energy efficient, require less wood, produce a better quality finished product and do not impact negatively upon the health of the women who work at them for much of the day.

Always making women’s voices heard

Sudanese men, women and children gather along the Nile to collect the daily catch

When FAO Fisheries’ colleagues Lori Curtis and Paula Anton set out as two of a four-person team to travel 4000 km across the Sudan to meet with Nile River fishing communities in order to assess fishers and aquaculture farmers’ livelihoods along the Nile River, they met separately with men’s and women’s groups in each village that they visited.

Separate questionnaires were designed as a guide for the focus groups for the fishers, women’s and traders and marketing information, and incorporated the anticipated unique context of each group.

Additionally, the questionnaire for the women’s group tried to anticipate questions for those women who were involved in the fisheries sector as a part of their livelihood, as well as those women who had a more indirect role in the sector. 

“The survey questions geared at women’s groups were carefully designed to obtain all the key information related to the role fish play in their daily lives,” said Paula Anton. “Even when the women were clearly not involved in work aspects of fisheries, the survey was designed to ask questions about the role of fish in local diets, how fish are prepared and cooked, and its role in household nutrition.”

FAO Fisheries’ Paula Anton speaks with a women’s group in a fishing community in rural Sudan. Gathering information about women’s role in the fisheries sector is key to devising strategies that will benefit everyone
Surveys such as this in the Sudan assessing fishers and aquaculture farmers’ livelihoods along the Nile River must be carefully designed to gather input from both men and women in fishing communities

Lori Curtis added , “It’s been our experience working with these type of surveys throughout the Near East region that the level of women’s participation varies tremendously from region to region, or even from village to village.

We have learned through experience that women in fishing communities will sometimes say they do not work in the sector at all.

But when we start to dig down deeper and ask specific questions, these same women volunteer that they do indeed clean the fish and dry or process it, or even help to sell it on the market.

Through our experiences, we’ve learned that it’s crucial to design questionnaires that draw out women’s true involvement in the sector. The danger in not doing so is that we miss this important link along the fish value chain in the village or region.”

Fishing: A man’s world?

Our colleague, FAO Fishery Industry Officer Susana Siar spoke recently at an interesting IFAD AgTalk dedicated to the topic ‘Fishing: A man’s world?’

These Small-scale fishers in India are involved in all aspects of bringing the fish to market

In her talk, which can be viewed here below, Siar spoke of the crucial need to include fishing communities in a participatory manner when devising fisheries management policies, and to incorporate their local knowledge into the discussions.

She spoke about the difficulties of fishing communities, often isolated and vulnerable, with poor access to education and health facilities.

In her talk, Siar also hoped that the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing  Small-Scale Fisheries would help to improve social development and promote decent work and gender equality.

So today while we wish a Happy Women’s Day to everyone, let’s ensure that those of us working in development sectors, or fisheries and aquaculture, or even within the seafood industry in developed countries consider how we can better promote the important role of women throughout the entire sector.

Happy International Women’s Day 2016!

The women in this West African coastal community cooperative have formed a daycare to help care for the children during the long hours their mothers work cleaning, processing, smoking and marketing the fish caught by their husbands or male family members
In West Africa, it is mainly the women who will sell the fish they’ve smoked at the local markets


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