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by Elvira Baluyut
Inland Resources Development Corporation
Suite 111, Mercantila Insurance Building
Gen. Luna corner Beaterio Sts.
Intramuros, Manila, The Philippines


Since the Proclamation of the UN Decade of Women in 1975, a number of major initiatives have been launched by FAO and other international organizations to draw attention to the contribution of women in rural development and agriculture, including fisheries. For example, in the 19th Session of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Commission (IPFC) on the development and management of small-scale fisheries, several delegations expressed wholehearted and genuine interest in the increased participation of women in small-scale fishing activities. The Center for Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific (CIRDAP) launched its first action programme in fisheries communities in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, convinced that women in fishing commmunities are among the most disadvantaged groups in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region. The Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP), implemented by FAO with financial assistance from the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA), has likewise focused on improving the social status of women, particularly those in small-scale fishing communities, by enabling them to participate in development and to engage in economic activities on equal terms with men.

By comparison with small-scale capture fisheries, little has been published and not much work has been done to improve the scope of women's participation in aquaculture, or to bring women into the mainstream of aquaculture development efforts. This paper attempts to define the present role of Asian women in the various types and stages of aquaculture production, quantifying whenever possible the extent or value of such participation in the countries of the region. It reviews areas where women's involvement can be strengthened or expanded in view of the increasing importance of aquaculture in fish production in Asia and the Pacific.


In traditional fisheries women are not usually directly involved in fishing activities, either on account of the physical strain and the long hours away from home and family, or because of social taboos, customs, and beliefs which prohibit them from boarding fishing vessels. Women are thus confined to shore-based activities, such as fish handling, processing, distribution, marketing, and net-making/mending.

In contrast, the role of women in fish farming, especially in small fish farms, has long been predominant (Yap, 1980a). Women take part in actual production in most types of aquaculture - brackishwater or freshwater fish ponds, fish pens or fish cages - whether on an extensive, semi-intensive, or intensive level on a small, medium, or large scale, and in various stages of fish farm development (planning, construction and actual operation), and from seed production to grow-out/rearing, harvesting, and post-harvest handling.

The scope and magnitude of women's participation in aquaculture production in Asia are influenced to a large extent by the level of aquaculture technology in a particular country vis-a-vis the role and status of women in that society. For example, China, Thailand, and the Philippines, with their high literacy rates and their comparatively liberal value systems, boast of large pools of trained and skilled women fish farmers, technicians, extension workers, and professionals who are directly or indirectly involved in various capacities in fish production through aquaculture.

In contrast, in countries in South Asia (e.g., Bangladesh and India) where 90% of rural women are functionally illiterate (FAO, 1986d) and where prevailing social and cultural values limit their access to training opportunities and development assistance, women are necessarily confined to such domestic-based or auxiliary tasks as feed preparation, fish feeding, and even pond construction.

In China where freshwater aquaculture, mainly of complementary carp species in polyculture and integrated with agriculture and other forms of farming, has attained recent rapid progress the woman undoubtedly plays a key role in fish production. The Chinese woman is an equal partner with the Chinese man in the task of fish production, giving reason to believe that she deserves much credit for the spectacular success of the Chinese aquaculture programme. In 1979, China produced about 813 000 t of fish (or about 80% of total freshwater fish production) and about 41 billion carp fry mostly by artificial fertilization or controlled spawning (FAO, 1983b).

The Chinese woman is involved in all aspects and stages of aquaculture, including pond construction, where she may excavate the pond manually, cut soil blocks, and transfer these to dikes. As most fish ponds in China are made of earth and constructed by manual labour, the role which women play in pond construction alone is significant. One (FAO, 1983b) report states that an average of 1 875 m3 of earth were dug and transferred per man-day at the Baitan Hu-State Farm in Hubei Province. In two consecutive winters, about 1.5 million m3 of earth were moved manually by 4 000 persons working 200 days. As there are about three women in a construction team of 12 to 13 workers, about 1 000 women may have been involved in the earth moving alone. In people's communes, where the work is done by all members, the women must also put in an equal share of labour in pond construction.

The operation of the fish farms also involves women at each step - from preparing the ponds to stocking fry/fingerlings, preparing feed, feeding and harvesting - especially as the farms are mostly integrated and operated by people's communes, whether fish culture or agriculture communes.

If in a fish commune composed of thousands of families, as in the Lelai People's Commune in Guangdong Province, the only female adult is the wife, there would be 17 000 women workers doing fish culture-related tasks in a production area of 2 400 ha, and helping to produce the commune's annual production of 7 700 t of food fish and 140 million fry (Table 1). This scenario is likely to be repeated in various other similar communes in the rest of China, as well as in hatcheries and associated industries.

In commercial hatcheries, which produce about 95% of over 40 million fry produced in China per year, women are involved in the various stages of hatchery/nursery operation. For example, in broodfish selection and transfer, weighing of broodfish and induced breeding, spawning and egg incubation, artificial fertilization, packing, and fry transportation.

Women are also employed by State Farms to work as officers or technicians in charge of supervising fish production activities. They are also female researchers and technicians who conduct experiments on fish culture, for example with the intensive culture of grass carp and Japanese eel at the Quingshan Reservoir.

Table 1. Main features of a people's commune specializing in aquaculture

People's Commune

Lelui PC Guangdong

Surface cultivated

4 950 ha


Number of persons

91 000

Number of families

17 000

Production brigades


Production teams


Integrated, agricultural production

fish, sugarcane, mulberry trees, silk-worms, livestock (mainly pigs)

Industrial production

glass, paper, printing, plastics, alcohol, oil, tools, medicines, electronics, agricultural machinery, boats, insecticides, limestone, bricks, etc.

Annual average income per caput

Yuan 260


Production surface

2 400 ha/8 350 ponds

Annual production

7 700 t food fish

140 million fry

Percentage total income


Cultural system

Semi-intensive polyculture

Source: FAO, 1983b

The presence of the Filipina in the aquaculture industry is all-pervasive and her contribution to its impressive growth in the past decade substantial.

A number of significant pioneering efforts in Philippine aquaculture have been made by women. For example, the highly successful fishpen technology was developed and introduced in Laguna de Bay in 1971 by a Filipina. This technology has raised fish production in Laguna de Bay substantially, yielding some 84 000 tons of highly valuable tilapia and milkfish valued at about Philippine pesos 1.4 billion (or about US$ 0.7 million) from some 25 000 hectares of fish pens and cages in 1984.

Similarly, the rapid growth of the penaeid shrimp hatchery industry in the Philippines has been helped substantially by the wide adoption of the eyestalk ablation method pioneered in the country by a female researcher at the SEAFDEC Aquaculture Department in the mid-70s.

At present a number of women figure prominantly, either directly or indirectly, in the Philippine aquaculture production scene. One of the biggest milkfish fish pond operators in the country is a woman; one of the more successful commercial shrimp hatchery operators is a woman, as is the owner-manager of one of the bigger tilapia hatchery farms in the Philippines; it is also a woman who runs one of the leading Filipino management consultancy firms involved in planning, development, and operation of aquaculture projects in the Philippines.

The Filipina is usually involved in all phases of fish farm planning, development, and operation; in all types and scales of aquaculture, and in all stages of fish production. She may be any of the following: owner/operator, fish farm manager, hatchery or pond technician, fish pond caretaker or worker, technical consultant, or any combination of these.

As owner/operator, she manages the farm herself with the help of technicians and caretakers, or hires a fish pond manager, who could also be a woman, to supervise the project on her behalf. As fish pond manager, she is responsible for overseeing the various operations of the fish pond through the different stages of development - from planning to construction to operation. An increasing number of fish pond owners/operators in various parts of the country have, in fact, expressed preference for female resident managers or technicians because of their diligence, conscientiousness, patience, and their trustworthiness. For example, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Tilapia Fish Farm Project in Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija, has a female project manager; and a fish pond owner in Lubao, Pampanga, has three female technicians in his technical staff of six.

As shrimp hatchery technician, the Filipina woman is involved in specific aspects of hatchery operation - as induced maturation, larval rearing, and natural food production. As shrimp hatchery owner/manager, she supervises the different areas of hatchery operation to ensure that production targets are attained and problems are minimal.

As fish pond technician or worker the Filipina usually takes charge of the lighter tasks, such as application of fertilizers and pesticides (after the ponds have been excavated and prepared by the men), preparation of feeds, fish feeding, growth monitoring, assistance in harvesting, and post-harvest handling (sorting, icing, transport), and marketing.

Unlike the women of China, India, and Bangladesh, the Filipinas are not generally involved in manual fish pond construction. In rare instances, though, they may help the men while the latter construct the fish pond manually - for example, by acting as relays in the physical transfer of cut soil blocks from the area of excavation to the site where they are to be used later in dike construction.

In addition, Filipina women are indirectly involved in aquaculture. As wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters of fish pond owners/operators or of fish pond/fish pen caretakers, they assist in the performance of their menfolk's various tasks, keep house at the farm site, and manage the financial resources.

In the Philippines, therefore, there may be at least 20 650 women indirectly involved in brackishwater pond production, if it is assumed that for every ten workers in a farm there would be a woman assisting them in routine tasks (Table 2). If marine and freshwater farms are included, the total number of women involved in aquaculture production is much greater. Seaweed farming alone involves thousands of coastal village women in the growing, harvesting, and drying of seaweeds, mainly of the Eucheuma variety. Women are also involved in the post-harvest handling of oysters and mussels in many parts of the Philippines. The SEAFDEC/PCARR (1977) socio-economic survey of the Philippine aquaculture industry (as cited in Yap, 1980a), estimates that the females comprise only 1% of all employed help in fish ponds in the Philippines. This figure is now much increased as the industry has grown rapidly in the past decade.

Thailand has a progressive aquaculture industry which has been the focus of development. Thailand has large areas for aquaculture and several important fish species suitable for farming (Potaros, 1987). Thai women are extensively involved in aquaculture production - both in coastal areas where shrimp farming and mollusc culture are the dominant activities, and in freshwater areas where the major cultivated species are various catfishes, carps, and the giant freshwater prawn, Macrobrachium rosenbergii.

In the majority of the small fishing villages in Thailand, women are generally involved in fishing activities at a subsistence level, with their domestic activities such as duck, poultry, and pig raising combined with fish farming. Women also manage the small backyard shrimp and fish hatcheries while their men work elsewhere. In large fishing villages and towns, the women are actively engaged in fishing on a commercial scale, the most important being fish processing and freshwater fish farming.

Although no official statistics are available on the number of women involved in aquaculture production in Thailand, it could be safely said that each fish farm would have at least one woman working on the farm. That means that there would be at least 43 613 women involved in aquaculture (Table 3), of which some 35 751 would be working in the country's freshwater farms (Table 4), about 5 332 in coastal shrimp farms (Table 5), and about 2 530 in mollusc farms (Table 6), not including the professional women directly or indirectly involved in fish farming.

Table 2. Resume of information on brackishwater fish ponds in operation, 1980-84







Area (in hectares)

176 230.55

195 831.89

195 831.89

196 269.16

206 525.35

Investment (thousand pesos)

1 762 3051

5 874 9572

5 874 9572

5 888 0752

6 195 7602

Men employed3

176 230

195 831

195 831

196 269

206 525

Production (metric tons)

135 951

170 431

180 484

183 773

198 729

Value (thousand pesos)

1 386 700

1 874 741

2 184 392

3 122 698

5 116 683

Source: BFAR (Philippines), 1984

1 Based on the average development cost of P 10 000 per hectare
2 Based on the average development cost of P 30 000 per hectare
3 Based on the average of one-man employee of every hectare

Table 3. Number of fish farms in Thailand

Type of Farm




28 942

Paddy field

5 634







5 332


2 530


43 613

Source: Department of Fisheries (Thailand), 1983 and 1984

Table 4. Quantity and value of production from freshwater farms in Thailand in 1983

Type of Farm

Number of Farms

Area (rai)*

Production (t)

Value ($'000)


28 942

52 247

26 071

679 622

Paddy field

5 634

179 747

19 697

289 551



1 693


18 087





18 319


35 751

233 733

46 966

1 005 579

Source: Department of Fisheries (Thailand), 1983

*1 rai = 1 600 m2

Table 5. Present and potential shrimp farming areas in coastal Thailand



Potential Area (ha)

Area (ha)

Number of Farms


2 881.28


Samut Sakhon

6 640.80

1 039

Samut Songkhram

5 056.96




1 210.56



Prachuap Khiri Khan



1 280




1 600

Surat Thani

1 592.32


3 200

Nakhon Si Thammarat

8 658.40

1 733

4 800








2 560








3 200









Chon Buri








Samut Prakan

7 840.96




















1 040






36 903.36

5 332

23 160

Source: Department of Fisheries (Thailand), 1985

Table 6. Total area and production from mollusc culture in Thailand


Area (hectare)

Number of Farms

Production (t)

Green mussel



62 226

Bloody cockle

1 533.7


16 560



1 841

5 731

Horse mussel



14 281

Pearl shell



2 986.3

2 530

98 798

Source: Department of Fisheries (Thailand), 1984

While there is a general awareness of the important role women play in small-scale fisheries development in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the women are subjected to a restrictive division of labour by sex in that all domestic work is done by them. As a result, their participation has been generally limited to such auxiliary functions as fish marketing, post-harvest handling (fish drying and salting, shrimp paste-making), prawn seed collection, and net making/mending, among others (Ayazi and Utbult, 1980).

In India the role of women has always been supplementary to that of bread-winners - although their contribution to the family is positive, their activities are only part-time and restricted mainly to cooking and tending the household (Chandrasekharan, 1979). Moreover, their participation is constrained by lack of education and training, a low literacy rate, and a total lack of training facilities.

In Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, their involvement in aquaculture has been limited to prawn seed collection from estuaries and brackishwaters which is not profitable as aquaculture is not yet important in coastal areas of India.

In Sri Lanka only a minority of women are active in every aspect of small-scale fisheries in fishing villages. In a survey conducted by the Women's Bureau of Sri Lanka in eight fishing villages, only 8% of the women from fishing families did work connected with fishing, or any income-generating activity, for that matter, as most women remained at home. Women have therefore not been considered a target group for fisheries development activities, as the scope for promoting their employment and developing their skills in fisheries is believed to be limited.

The situation is much the same in small-scale fishing communities of Bangladesh - where women only operate households and take part only indirectly in fisheries activities. Recently, some women have been turning to aquafarming and prawn seed collection (Ayazi and Utbult, 1980), on account of a number of schemes in rural and coastal areas supported by national and international organizations. For example, the FAO/SIDA-sponsored Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP) initiated a pilot project in three fishing villages near Chittagong, Bangladesh, with a combined population of more than a thousand. It helps fishing families, particularly the women, to improve their lot through a number of productive, home-based activities including carp culture. In one village, two fish ponds were leased for the culture of three varieties of Indian carp (Catla catla, Catla mrigala, and Labeo rohita). The women were trained to provide supplementary feed (oil cake and rice bran), to put sticks into the pond to discourage poachers, and to protect the ponds.

Despite recent efforts to integrate women into economic and social development, rural women in Bangladesh are, to a great extent, subjected to a restrictive division of labour by sex, to social taboos which hinder their socio-economic development, and to a value system which does not acknowledge and appreciate their contributions to national development and progress As a result, they have limited access to social services and technical assistance which in turn could be the most likely reason for the failure of certain fish farming projects (Natpracha, 1986).


There is much scope for increased participation of women in aquaculture production, particularly in Asia where aquaculture has risen to prominence as a major source of food fish. Aquaculture is a logical answer to problems of depleted marine resources and displaced fishermen and their families.

The scope for increased women's involvement exists both in terms of large potential areas for development (and therefore of recruiting more women into production) and of increased responsibilities given to women, especially those who are now involved. In those countries presently engaged in aquaculture production to a great extent (as in China and in most countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, (ASEAN), more women could join the ranks of fish farmers and/or be trained in new skills which would enable them to take up additional or alternative tasks in specific aspects of production.

In coastal aquaculture alone, Shang (1986) estimates that the potential area for coastal aquaculture development in just six countries (China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India) is over 3.3 million hectares. Based on estimates of coastal aquaculture production and the corresponding labour employed in these six countries in 1984 (about 2.4 million t of fish, shellfish, and seaweeds from approximately 772 000 hectares and employing more than 570 000 persons), the potential area for expansion of coastal aquaculture would require an additional work force of about 2.4 million (at the present average ratio of 0.7 persons per hectare). If at least one woman is employed per group of ten workers, that would mean an additional 240 000 women recruited into the coastal aquaculture production sector in Asia if the potential expansion area is utilized to the full in the six countries alone. If other countries in the region, and new areas for expansion are considered, the labour demand would be very impressive, especially if one realizes that countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have yet to exploit aquaculture even partially.

In addition to the considerable scope for entry of large numbers of females into the work force in Asia, there is also substantial scope for expansion of their role in production. In Asia, particularly in India and Bangladesh where female literacy rates are low and where women are unaware of public services for infrastructure, credit, welfare, or extension, the greatest need is in general education and training for a variety of skills (FAO, 1986d) which could effectively increase their contribution to the development and promotion of aquaculture (Yap, 1980b). Women can be trained for pond management (pond preparation, stocking, feeding, fertilization, harvesting), handling, transport, and marketing - activities which do not involve highly sophisticated methods and techniques (Table 7). Integrated fish farming can also be promoted as a means of better utilization of land and water resources, and as a source of additional family income. In addition, there is opportunity for more women to be involved in the highly technical aspects of aquaculture, as in hatcheries or seed production units, where they can be trained in many of the simple procedures.

Before all of these opportunities can be taken, however, there must be a basic recognition by governments that women can contribute substantially in aquaculture development, especially if they are given the necessary technical assistance and extension to gain new skills, or improve on old skills, in fisheries-related activities.

Table 7. Possible areas of training for women in aquaculture production

Aspect of production

Training required


- of fish ponds
- of fish pens/cages

Techniques of manual pond construction Fabrication of nets and attachment of sinkers and floats Preparation and cleaning of bamboo poles prior to installation


Pond preparation

Pond weeding, drying, or draining Control of pests and predators Fertilizer application/manuring Regulation of water entry into pond prior to stocking pH management by liming



Timing of stocking Acclimation of fry/fingerlings to pond temperature before stocking Counting of fry/fingerlings by aliquot sampling



Formulation and preparation of simple feeds Determination of feed quantity as percentage of fish biomass Apportioning of daily feed ration Feed distribution by broadcast or trays Monitoring of feeding and recording



Regular sampling of fish and vital water quality parameters Data keeping


Pond water management

Water exchange practices Pump operation/control Pond gate operation/regulation



Methods/techniques of harvesting Recording of harvest data Counting of fingerlings (from nurseries)


Post-harvest handling

Washing, sorting, and icing Methods of packing and transport (especially for fry/fingerlings) Simple methods of preservation (drying, smoking, salting, or even canning)

In addition, it has been suggested by FAO (1985) that women's projects, in order to be successful, have to incorporate the following four key elements:

(i) Preliminary fact-finding,
(ii) Provision of incentives
(iii) Careful monitoring, and
(iv) Women's participation in decision-making


In contrast to capture fisheries where they are traditionally limited to the shore, either by force of necessity or because of social customs and beliefs, women have been active participants in Asian aquaculture production - whether secondary to their men as in most of Asia, or as their equals as in China after 1949. The extent of this participation varies from one country to another and is usually a function of the state of importance of aquaculture and the level of technology on the one hand, and the existing socio-cultural value systems on the other. Women in China are involved in practically all aspects of aquaculture (from pond construction to harvesting), and rural women in Bangladesh and India confined to pond construction and prawn seed collection because of their limited education.

With increasing emphasis placed on aquaculture as an alternative source of fish protein and employment for the masses of Asia, the present role of women can be greatly expanded - both in terms of increased recruitment into the industry and of greater participation within the sector.

With the support of local and national governments, and assistance from multilateral aid agencies and international organizations, the problems of rural communities in general, and of rural women in particular, can be more adequately and directly addressed by means of well-planned projects which put emphasis on manpower development at the grassroots level.


I wish to acknowledge many personal communications in the preparation of this manuscript, particularly T. Bhukaswan of Thailand, and S. C. Castro and R. Esguerra of the Philippines. I also wish to recognize the resources of the Bay of Bengal Programme of FAO and the Swedish International Development Authority, and the many relevant articles published in the BOBP News, particularly those written by L. O. Engvall, S. R. Madhu, D. Tempelman and M. Wanigasundara.

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