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Gender Issues in Small Scale Inland Fisheries in Asia: Women as an important source of information

"There is a growing recognition that women are active not only in post-harvest activities but also in harvesting fish."

Gender and Development Studies
School of Environment Resources and Development
Asian Institute of Technology
Pathum Thani, Thailand

The international community is paying more and more attention to women and their role in maintaining the health of the world's fisheries. But our knowledge is sketchy, and our ability to reach out is limited. Until quite recently, the macho image of the fisherman colored much of our thinking, but that image is changing fast. Meryl Williams, Director of the World Fish Center, Future Harvest website


Meryl Williams of the World Fish Center estimates that at least 50 million developing country women are employed in the fishing industry (Future Harvest website). Small-scale inland fisheries play a significant role in the country's development by providing inexpensive protein to the poor and generating employment in the rural areas (CIRDAP, 1989). In some countries in Southeast Asia, inland capture fisheries provide an important export item. The largest export item in the border market in Poipet, Cambodia is fresh fish (Sok Sothirak, 2002). In many other places, inland fishes are consumed either at home or in the domestic market.

Fishing has long been considered a male occupation and women were thought to be involved only in post-harvest activities. However, there is a growing recognition of women's contribution in capture fisheries in all activity spheres. In China, rural labour force statistics for 1991 showed that women accounted for 26.3% of the rural labour force in fisheries (UNDP/FAO, n.d. quoted in FAO/SD website 1). In Asia, women are active in both artisanal and commercial fisheries. In parts of India, women net prawns from backwaters; in Lao PDR they fish in canals; in the Philippines, they fish from canoes in coastal lagoons (FAO/Gender in Fisheries website 2). In areas where male migration is prevalent, women are bearing heavier responsibility in fisheries (Suwanrangsi, n.d.) and with the feminization of fisheries, women's roles in fisheries and aquaculture are becoming increasingly important.

Studies on women in fisheries so far have been more or less concentrated on fish processing and preservation techniques and activities, extension, and socio-economic status of women (Vega, 1989) and on women's participation in fisheries or in aquaculture (Harrison, 2000). There has been less focus on looking into gender relations or examining how gender relations in the household and community affect fisheries related activities. That is, women's activities have been treated as separate activities and the complimentary and conflicting roles and relations between women and men have been given little attention (Harrison, 2000).

This paper provides an overview of current studies that focus on women in fisheries and discusses the challenges we face in bringing gender perspectives into fisheries. To successfully address gender issues, information and statistics have to be collected accordingly. The final section of this paper offers recommendations on statistics gathering to better understand gender relations and the mechanisms of womens' subordination.

What do women do in inland fisheries?

There are different levels of involvement in inland fisheries. Some fishers, especially around large lakes and reservoirs, are engaged in capture fisheries as a primary source of income. In many areas, inland capture fisheries are a secondary income source or a supplementary source of protein for home consumption. Ahmed et al. (1998) in their survey in Cambodia found three equally important reasons for choosing fishing as a preferred activity: fishing is the only alternative available for food and income; fishing is part of traditional food collection for family food supply; and it is cheaper to catch fish than to buy it from the market. Engagement of women and their contributions would be different for different levels of fisheries activities.

In developing countries fish handling, sorting, preservation and processing have been carried out by women. In Southeast Asia, marketing of fish has also been dominated by women. Ahmed, Rahman and Chowdhury (1999) noted that in Bangladesh, tribal women around the Kapati reservoir were involved in fish harvesting, marketing, drying and post-harvest activities such as carrying fish from the pontoon to land, sorting, icing, packing and loading the transport vehicle. Twenty-two percent of their women respondents were involved in retail marketing. Women were responsible for small fish trading while men were responsible for trading large fishes. Unlike in Southeast Asia where net mending is done more by men, in Bangladesh it is women's work.

In China, rural labour force statistics for 1991 showed that women accounted for 26.3% of the rural labour force in fisheries.

There is a growing recognition that women are active not only in post-harvest activities but also in harvesting fish. Women are seen to use smaller equipment to fish (FAO/Gender and Fisheries website 2). Women fish individually or assist men in fishing. In Yunnan, China, the Trans-Watershed Water Supply Project has flooded the Lashi watershed. As a result, neither women nor men could carry out their farming activities and became increasingly dependent on fishing (Yu Xiaogang, 2001).

With fishing now the major income source of the household, women are now going out with men in small boats to fish. Some women go alone. Although there is still a strong perception that women are not suited for fishing and cannot fish individually, the following quote of a respondent in Yu Xiaogang's research shows that women are independent fishers, even though their fishing methods and techniques might be different from that of men.

"The dugout canoe is more suitable for men as it is fast but unstable. The fishing nets are also unsuitable for us as they are 1.6 meters high. We prefer smaller fishing nets. Some methods that men use are also not appropriate for women. For example, men often rock boats to drive the fish towards the nets. We cannot do this. However, women practice hard and learn many skills through experience. We feel empowered. In the last decade we have faced so many challenges and uncertainties (Yu Xiaogang, 2001:30)."

In the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Lao PDR both women and men go fishing in motorized boats and use gill nets. Women control the boats, pull nets and take fish from the net while the men dive. If there is no woman to control boat and pull the net, men will hire someone to do the job (Viravongsa, 2000).

Ahmed et al. (1998) found in their survey in Cambodia that out of the 162 female- household heads interviewed in Siem Reap province, 21 percent were engaged in fishing. It was found that in communes with limited access to agricultural land, such as communes located within inundated forests, female members from nearly 30 percent of the households actively participate in fishing (Ahmed et al. 1998:35). The category of fishing in the Ahmed et al. (1998) survey does not include fish selling and fish processing, an area where women are generally more active. The percentage is only for harvesting and the study shows that women's participation is quite high.

Women's involvement in fisheries can change over time. In Yunnan, Yu Xiaogang has found that because of the inundation caused by a water project, women are increasingly turning to capture fisheries, which was before done almost exclusively by men. Yu Xiaogang has quoted one of his respondents saying:

"Before the dam was built, we had land and women practiced agriculture. Women's income was better and more stable than men's income. My family lost more than 10 mu of land (because of flooding by the Trans-Watershed Water Supply Project) and we have only about 7 mu. This year, the rest of my land and home garden have also flooded and we lost almost all our crops. Though our culture does not allow women to go fishing, about 50 per cent of the wives now go fishing with their husbands. Women work to support the family. Staying home will lead to a decline in their position" (Yu Xiaogang, 2001:30).

Because women and men do different tasks, they have different knowledge from their experience.Yu Xiaogang (2001) has attempted to juxtapose the different knowledge of women and men and come up with sustainable fisheries management of the reservoir. Discussion with the men's group revealed that the highest fish yield is from March to June and the lowest from October to February. Discussions with women's groups revealed that fish prices are lowest from March to September and highest from December to February. Farm work, which is done mainly by women, is heaviest in April to June. This leads to an understanding that the newly introduced fishing ban from April to June can be beneficial if men can help women in agricultural activities during this time. This will protect the fish during the spawning season, and thus higher yields can be expected during winter. Women's knowledge shows that the fish price is highest in winter. Thus, high yields in winter will benefit the fishers. Women have more time to participate in fishing in winter, thus would be able to work together with the men. Men's engagement in agriculture during April to June will decrease women's workload in agriculture. By combining both women's and men's knowledge and by adjusting their activities, this case showed that higher benefit and more sustainable use of natural resources can be realized.

Box 1: Misunderstanding gender relations in a fish-smoking project

In Guinea West Africa, women play an important role in the processing and marketing fish, which are generally caught by men. An arrangement known as 'kostamente' between both husbands and wives and women and unrelated men ensures commitment to supply and purchase fish. In this arrangement women either pay fishermen directly for their catch or take it and repay a share of the profits after processing. They may supply fuel, effectively paying for the fishing trip.

Source: Goetz, A.M. Fishy Business: Misunderstanding gender and social relations in a fish-smoking project in Guinea, unpublished manuscript, quoted in Harrison, 2000:11.

Women and men's roles are complementary as much as conflicting (Harrison, 2000). It is important to understand the relationships between women and men in carrying out fisheries related activities. As can be seen in Box 1, focusing support only on women's activities can lead to failure to achieve project objectives if the omplimentary or conflicting roles and relations between women and men are not considered.

A project initiated by a UN agency aimed to increase the productivity, income and working conditions of these women. To do this, women were organized into groups and trained in improved techniques for treatment and storage. The project also aimed to be empowering through promoting solidarity among women. The project failed to meet its objectives. The supply of fish broke down for some women and many of the groups failed to function. At the root of the problem were a number of inappropriate assumptions.

First, the project assumed a sharply dualistic division of labor. Because women undertake all fish smoking, it was assumed that men have nothing to do with it. In fact, all production involves interdependent activities between men and women. However, in targeting women alone the project threatened this interdependence. Some men raised their prices because they perceived the women as part of an externally funded project. Many women were more concerned to protect their kostamente (traditional) arrangements than to be involved in the project.

The project also assumed that all women have the same interests. Diversity in age, conjugal rank, class and religion influenced the ability of the women to work together. The idea of female solidarity did not prove sufficiently strong to hold the groups together. A further assumption, that women's time is elastic, also proved to be wrong. The project imposed regular hours for attendance and work that conflicted with the many other claims on women's time.

Marketing fish

In most countries in the Mekong Basin both women and men are involved in marketing captured fish. There are two segregated markets and market routes. The formal markets are dominated by men and deal with large fishes from reservoirs and lakes and are often transported to the capital and exported. Women dominate the informal markets that sell small fishes and serve local demand. Most of this fish is either consumed at home or bartered. These transactions seldom enter the cash economy accounts.

Around the Kapati reservoir in Bangladesh, rural women account for 49 percent of the small retailers. One of the reasons why women trade only clupeids and small prawn is because the investment requirement is low (Ahmed, Rahman and Chowdhury, 1999).

In Cambodia, fishes from Tonle Sap Lake serve the domestic markets and are exported to Thailand and Viet Nam. Large fishes from the Tonle Sap are bought by licensed fish traders under the supervision of a formerly state-owned fish export company (Seyha et al., 2001; Sothirak, 2002). This market route is dominated by men and most of the fish is exported to Thailand. Women dominate the retail trade of small fishes from the Tonle Sap Lake and from rice fields. These are sold in domestic markets or smuggled into Thailand on a small scale and sold to smaller middlemen on the Thai side (Sothirak, 2002). The women's market route is more significant than the formal trading route in terms of providing the poor with protein. It also employs many independent traders and creates employment for low-income women.

In the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Lao PDR, fish marketing is controlled by a fish dealer company and small fishers are not able to sell directly in the market (Viravongsa, 2000). Women are also not able to sell the processed fish products. Fish processing is one of the most lucrative activities in the area. The community received external support in credit and equipment to improve their fish processing activities. However, since women did not have any access to the market, they are not able to get as much benefit as they should. Women in this area, like other women in Southeast Asia, are responsible for household financial management. Since they are not able to get income from the fish processing activities, they have to seek cash income from other activities such as banana planting, home gardens and raising livestock (Duangchith, 2000). This has increased women's workloads. Since their husbands concentrate on fishing, agriculture is women's sole responsibility, and women are engaged both in fishing and agriculture. Duangchith (2000) found that women in fishing groups work on average 12 hours for productive work, of which 7 hours is for fishing. Men spend an average of 6 hours concentrated time fishing. Her case study has highlighted that difficulty in access to markets has affected both women and men but has affected women more because they had to make up for the lost opportunity.

Access to technology and resources

Most women involved in fishing lack access to tools and credit, a voice in decision-making and opportunities to receive training (Future Harvest, website 3). Women also have less time available to adjust to take advantage of the growing opportunities. Women's time is less flexible because of their reproductive responsibilities (Elson, 1992). Compared to the activities that women do in fishing, studies on women's access to resources and decision-making is less. It is a well-established fact that women are not represented in community fishing management committees. Based on the wealth of research on women's participation in agriculture, it is anticipated that a similar situation regarding women's access to training, credit, and other production resources exists in women's participation in fisheries.

Women's time constraints and their decision-making power in the household indicates that a household is not a single unit where all the members share the same needs and benefit equally. For example, improved technology can increase the catch and benefit the household income. However, whether the increased catch would result only in increasing the workload of women or would increase women's independent income and decision-making power in the household needs to be examined.

Newly introduced technology can affect the present activities of women. For example, technologically advanced fish processing with ice plants and transportation systems can eliminate small-scale fish processing and trading that are now being carried out by women (Harrison, 2000; Suwanrangsi, n.d.).

Most women involved in fishing lack access to tools and credit, a voice in decision-making and opportunities to receive training.

Since extension officers have assumed that fishing is men's work, extension work has not particularly targeted women. When technologies for women are conceptualized, they tend to focus on small-scale, simple technologies that will bring little improvement in yields compared to more advanced technologies. For example aquaculture technology for women concentrate on home-management and backyard-garden techniques (FAO, 1995). Women's aquacultural activities are considered an extension of household activities and technology promoted for women is 'simple'. As Dehadrai (1992:371) noted, "Rice-fish technology is not sophisticated and could easily be adopted by women". Such pre-conceptions of suitable technology for women will limit the possibilities of women's access to better technologies. Rather than pre-determining and defining suitable technology for women, it is important that the extension system takes an approach that can allow women wider choices and also to adjust the technology based on their experience and knowledge.

The understanding that women are resource-less leads to the popular strategy of forming women's groups (Harrison, 2000). The assumption is that through these groups, women will be able to help each other, pool their scare resources and increase their bargaining power by acting collectively. However, whether or not groups function as expected depends on how the groups were formed and whether or not women see it as relevant and necessary.

At the same time, it has been pointed out that women do not have an organizational basis (CIRDAP 1989) for their problems and issues to be heard and influence decision-making. Women's groups often do not provide women with an adequate organizational basis since they tend to be separate from the mainstream decision-making body and tend to be too small to exert enough pressure to influence decision-making. Women's groups do not always have a perspective in improving women's positions or in challenging existing decision-making bodies, but rather follow and justify the decisions of the mainstream thus further strengthening the present power structure (Goetz, 1997). It is thus important that women's participation in existing decision-making bodies such as cooperatives and community committees are realized.

Conclusion and recommendations

Based on the above review of the literature, four main points can be highlighted. First, women are involved not only in post-harvest activities but are also active in harvesting fish. Women are active in small-scale processing and marketing that caters to poor people's diets, while large-scale traders aim for export where profit margins are higher. It is important that women's activities are fully supported so they will be able to continue to contribute in providing inexpensive but high quality protein to the country's poor.

Second, women's roles in fisheries are changing. As in the case from China, women's involvement in fishing changes with environmental and economic changes. People's perceptions are slower to change than what women and men are actually doing. Both women and men consider fishing as men's work but women are almost equally involved in fishing activities. Gender division of labor cannot be assumed to be static.

Third, because of gender division of labor in fisheries and in other activities, women have different experiences than men. Because of these different experiences, women have different knowledge about markets, tools and techniques of catching fish. It should also be noted that women are not a homogeneous category. Since women of different age, ethnicity, and class are engaged in different activities, their experience and knowledge will also be different. Fourth, a household is not a monolith and there are both complimentary roles and conflicts of interest and needs between different members in the household.

Recommendations improving statistics on inland capture fisheries

1) Collect information on gender division of labor in the household

A household is not a single unit. Information gathering should not take the household as a unit but be aware of the different activities that each member does and the different needs each member has. It is important to gather information on gender division of labor in the household. To understand women's and men's workloads, information should be gathered not only on gender division of labor for fisheries related activities but for all the activities including household and community work. It should also be noted that gender division of labor is not static and can change with environmental, economic and demographic changes. Thus, it is necessary to update the information on gender division of labor periodically and not to assume that the same division of labor will continue forever.

Coates (2002) noted that official statistics on the activities carried out in inland capture fisheries are not able to cover the wide range of activities that are actually carried out. Data on women's involvement is all the more scarce and the only information available is in scattered case studies. Although these case studies provide insights to the possible range of contributions that women are making to inland fisheries, it does not seem to be enough to eliminate the popular misconception that fishing is a 'man's occupation' and not suited for women.

2) Ask women for information

Since women and men do different things, women have different information from men. Thus, it is important to ask women directly for information especially for activities that they are doing by themselves. Perceived needs in fisheries will also be different between women and men because they are engaged in different activities. For example, women are probably a better information source on food preferences and nutritional needs in the households.

Women are generally not experienced in answering questions from outside interviewers or participating in group discussions, especially when men are around. Women perceive that (or act as if) men can answer better so they leave the men to reply to the interviewer's questions.

To directly access information and knowledge that women have, it is important to interview women one-on-one or to organize a women-only group discussion separate from a men-only group discussion or a mixed-group discussion. For women to better communicate it is effective to have women interviewers or women extension officers do the interviews.

Women-only group discussions should also be treated with care. It should not be assumed that every woman would be able to express her opinion freely in a women-only environment. Even among women there are power relationships and some women would find it difficult to express their opinions in a group.

These 'silent women' tend to be the most marginalized. Individual interviews with these women should always be combined with a group discussion.

3) Women are not a homogeneous category

In collecting information, differences among women according to their age, ethnicity, marital status, conjugal position, class and position in the fish market chain should be noted. Different women have different roles, activities, knowledge and information and also have different access to and control over resources. There are conflicting and complimentary relationship among and between groups of women and men.

4) Analyze resource requirements for each activity

When examining the gender division of labor in fisheries related activities it is also important to collect information on the necessary resources to carry out these activities. Do women and men have access to and control over these resources?

Resources will include credit, labour, markets, supply of raw material, tools and equipment, knowledge and information, extension services and time. Special attention is needed for the dependent relationships between actors. Do women need men's approval or help to carry out their fishing or processing activities?

It is also necessary to know the relationships between different institutions. What are the relationships between extension service institutions and credit service institutions? Do they have any linkage? Are they targeting or providing access to the same people?

5) Increase women's participation in decision-making in the community and other organizations

Women are currently under-represented in public decision-making bodies. This is all the more so in fishing-related organizations because of the perception that fishing is a man's occupation.

By improving women's participation in decision-making bodies (either for statistics gathering or policy-making) women's contribution to fisheries activities, the specific problems they face and their needs would be better highlighted.

6) In-depth case studies for non-reported activities

As Coates (2002) observed, many inland capture fisheries activities are not noted because it is informal and small-scale and people do not see it as an important activity. This is even more so for women's involvement in fishing. It is small-scale, and mostly for home consumption. Women themselves often do not consider it important and thus fail to report their activities. Therefore, it is important to conduct in-depth case studies to note and observe the non-reported fishing activities of women and their importance to household nutrition. By using the knowledge from case studies, it is possible to come up with questionnaires with better coverage on activities and benefits of small-scale capture fisheries.

7) Monitor the changes in women's control over resources and their position in the household

Improvement or deterioration in fishing activities can affect women's empowerment. It is important to monitor the impact that fishing activities are having on women's control over resources and women's position in the household.

Are women gaining access to and control over resources more than before? For example, are women gaining on aspects such as access to fishing areas and control over decision-making in the use and management of the fishing area, access to and control over fishing gear, access to and control over technology and extension services, access to and control over household income from fishing and decision-making over household expenditure? Has gender division of labour changed so that work burdens are shared equally between women and men?

The recognition of women's labour and knowledge should also be monitored. How much of women's work is reported by men? Are women's contribution to the fisheries seen as important by other members of the family? How much do men think women know about fisheries?


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Website 1: (downloaded on 5 August, 2002)

Website 2: (downloaded on 5 August, 2002)

Website 3: (downloaded on 5 August 2002)

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