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Gender sensitive measures in the fisheries sector

Gender sensitive measures in the fisheries sector

by Alhaji M. Jallow

Socio-economist, IDAF Programme


The role of women in fisheries development is increasingly making them a target group in fisheries programmes and projects. They have been identified as producers, assistants to men, processors, traders, and prominent operators in activities that are not related to fisheries but essential in family and community welfare. The focus on the larger operations of men overshadowed the economic role of women in fishing communities. The shadow caused a relative neglect of the needs and interests of women.

Since the declaration of the "Decade of the Women" in l 975, efforts have been made to improve the living conditions of women and to correct the disequilibrium between men and women. This initiative was picked up by FAO and several governments in the developing world. These national institutions and FAO became committed to ensuring that women's in general and in fisheries in particular is recognized and supported.

The framework for fisheries development in the Third World was provided by the World Conference on Fisheries Management and Development in 1984, which adopted a strategy for fisheries development. The strategy recognised the prominent role women play in production, processing, and marketing in artisanal fisheries in many countries and endorsed their inclusion in all appropriate development programmes to enhance their role. This conference also adopted the participatory and integrated approaches for the development of artisanal fisheries. The IDAF Programme is based on these approaches for the development and management of artisanal fisheries in 20 coastal African states. It is, therefore, appropriate that IDAF takes up the role of women in fishing communities in West Africa. It has since initiated some measures to address gender issues in the artisanal fisheries sector. Before focusing on the activities of IDAF directed to the role of women in fishing communities, it will be useful to review, in fisheries in general, the role of women in the development of the sector and the project activities that involve them.


The basic objective of involving women in fisheries development is to make them equal partners to men. That will enable them to participate productively and self-reliantly to improve their family's nutritional and living standards. They need appropriate knowledge, adequate skills, and appropriate technologies to contribute socially and economically to their community's welfare. These needs should be provided directly to them and not through the men, as was done before.

The approach had been in the form of providing formal education, adult literacy classes, training and extension services related to their economic and social needs; education in child care, sanitation, and nutrition; introducing improved technologies and methods to ease their burden and increase their efficiency; developing opportunities for more income-generating activities and equitable access to credit; and encouraging women to be active in community activities, decision-making, and in all stages of project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. These support activities are directed to women in fishing communities through fisheries projects.


The projects either focus directly on women as a target group or as one component. The support is provided in broad areas, depending on local needs, resources, socio-economic conditions, funds, and staff. To create and maintain food and income security in the household, the activities are directed to economic, social and communal, organizational, and population related aspects. The design and implementation of these project activities requires a knowledge of the conditions within which the project will operate, as well as being sensitive to the local patterns and methods of work, traditional attitudes and habits, and existing women's roles.

The means of providing adequate and nutritious food to members of a family unit constitutes a primary objective for any fisheries project. That means sufficient food throughout the year and access to it. Women do supply food directly by catching fish or processing it, by growing vegetables, by raising livestock or indirectly by earning money to purchase food through the sale of catch or processed products or income-generating activities. Women's influence on what to buy, what to eat, and how to prepare it determines the family diet. So improving women's capacity to manage the household and contribute effectively to it can produce healthy families that will constitute a real improvement in the socio-economic condition of a fishing community. The improvement can take several forms depending on the resources available to a project. The activities are classified as economic, social and communal, organizational, and demographic.


In the fisheries sector women are given the opportunity and the means to generate resources which help them contribute to the improvement of the standards of living and nutrition of their families and community. In good season they are involved in fisheries activities. When the catches are very low or not available they go into other income-generating activities to produce and buy food.

Fisheries activities

The fisheries economic activities are catching, handling, preserving, processing, and marketing of fish and fishery products. In some regions women go fishing. In The Gambia, for example, women harvest oysters and cockles.

Women have dominated the post-harvest section of the sector. They put a lot of effort in reducing post-harvest losses. A lot of assistance has been directed to improving the technology and facilities available to them. Added to their sun-drying, salting, and smoking functions, they also unload canoes. These roles are time-consuming and physically exhausting, especially when they have to walk long distances to get to landing sites or gather fuelwood. Their work patterns and capacity have been evaluated in many countries and appropriate assistance rendered through projects or local initiatives. So far their post-harvest activities have received the greatest attention in the fisheries sector.

The improvement in road and market infrastructure in several African countries has eased the burden on women in their marketing and distribution of fishery products. Some of the infrastructure development has been directed specifically at the women. The improvements have shortened the travel time and transaction periods, which not only made their operations more efficient but also gave them more time to take care of their families. The efficiency has increased their incomes which they mostly spend on food and other household needs. Basic literacy and numeracy classes are conducted in several communities to help the women to read, write, and take care of their elementary profit and loss records.

Non-Fisheries activities

Fisheries activities are seasonal. During the low season some women get unemployed or underemployed. The supply of protein also gets reduced. These two conditions reduce income and supply of food in the households. This shortfall makes it essential for the women to search for and engage in non-fisheries activities.

The type of activity to apply by a project or programme depends on local resources, the local economic structure, the community's need for and capacity to absorb goods and services, the women's traditional work pattern, and their skills and interests. The most common viable activities initiated by projects or programmes in this area have been small-scale and home-based.


Individuals and families belong to and depend on their social environment. The level of nutrition and living standard depends on the social and communal support. If the fishing community, at least half of which is composed of women, is to be strengthened the participation of women in the functions of the social structure should be increased.

In spite of the variations in the needs of the women, the social services, and the type of participation, they should always be conscious of their important role in improving the welfare of their community. Fisheries projects have contributed to women's opportunities in developing and exercising leadership and sharing in decision-making that affects their future and that of their community. They need and are given information on nutrition, health practices, and sanitation which help them to reduce disease and malnutrition among their children and themselves.

In recognition of their important role in the social and communal structure of fishing communities, women are now increasingly accepted as active participants rather than the hitherto passive beneficiaries of community development.


Technical and financial support are important elements for domestic, social and economic activities. The support can be in technological research, extension and training, banking services, or credit facilities. But without functional groups the participation of the women in the mentioned support activities gets hindered. The functional groups cannot be formed and operated without organisational support. The recruitment of men as trainers and extension staff further pushes away the women.

So project designers have recently adopted guidelines that can assist the implementing officials to strengthen existing self-reliant groups and assist the beneficiaries in forming and operating functional organisational support groups. Lately, most of these groups have continued after the projects have ended.


The socio-economic improvement of artisanal fishing communities cannot be sustained if the demographic aspect is not addressed appropriately. The fundamental element of concern is the population growth rate vis-a-vis opportunities and facilities. Therefore, it is imperative that population education or information and other influential factors are identified and addressed. This consideration has influenced the inclusion of population related activities in several fisheries development programmes. The activities and the expected results not only help women space births, feed the children well, but also allow them to have more time to concentrate on economic operations that provide food and income.


As described above, a lot has been covered in addressing gender sensitive issues in artisanal fishing communities. However, if the activities are not properly identified and studied, the programmes can be counter-productive and further isolate the women beneficiaries. The degree of their involvement and role in artisanal fisheries development in the region covered by the IDAF Programme have not yet been studied in a detailed manner and on a long term basis. IDAF's concern with this status quo influenced its initiation of a Working Group to brainstorm and to undertake more detailed studies on the role of women in fishing communities. The members are eleven scholars and technicians involved in rural development in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Côte D'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon.


A meeting was convened in Cotonou, Benin to elaborate a methodology and strategy for the studies. The studies analysed in detail the role of women in fishing communities, identified their problems, and suggested realistic and practical actions to improve their socio-economic conditions.


The Working Group members spent September 1995 in the field in one or two fishing communities in their respective countries to analyse the women's activities. The results of the field work were presented and discussed at the second meeting in Cotonou in October 1995. Specific aspects were identified for further detailed studies.

The specific aspects were developed from the problems identified. A regional similarity list was deduced from the country problems. The common problems are:

From the respective country reports certain things of interest have emerged. These were:

The opportunities identified from the studies are classified into three categories. The women should take advantage of these opportunities through extension services and appropriate information service.

The Present Process

At the end of the second meeting in October 1995 the Working Group identified areas to be further studied, the countries to use for the studies, and the objectives. The perspectives were given as below. For each of the themes a methodology for the study has been agreed.


Target Countries


Women organization and gender approach and development

Ghana, The Gambia,
Côte d'Ivoire

reinforce the organizations in a sustainable way at fishing community level

Economic role of women

Nigeria, Benin, Guinea

calculate costs of production and revenues from household activities and for employment within the community

Nutrition and hygiene in fishing communities

Senegal, Cameroon

evaluate the nutritional condition of the children, quality of the products, the working environment and its effect on the women

All three themes have been selected and apportioned to some members of the Working Group for study. The organizational aspects are being studied in The Gambia, the economic role in Nigeria, and the nutritional and hygiene in Senegal and Cameroon respectively.

The results obtained from these studies will provide a basis for an approach to interventions on improving the condition of women in artisanal fishing communities in West Africa. The information acquired will strengthen the strategy of project and government planners in designing gender sensitive measures in the development of artisanal fisheries.

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