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Making Lake Tanganyika fisheries a better place for women

Tanzanian fish processors learn from women’s groups in African small-scale fisheries

5 December 2023, Dar Es Salaam – Women empowerment is key to improve female participation in Lake Tanganyika’s fisheries, says Professor Anna Sikira, ahead of a meeting of African women’s fisheries groups in Dar Es Salaam. 

In this interview, Prof. Sikira talks about her work, which contributed to a gender study by the global fish value chain development program, FISH4ACP. She is now helping to bridge the gender gap in Lake Tanganyika’s sprat, sardine and perch value chain.

“Women along Lake Tanganyika do fish processing and trading,” says Prof. Sikira, a gender specialist and Associate professor at Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA). “They are not allowed to go fishing. Tradition says that if a woman goes fishing, she will bring bad luck to fishers. It’s a taboo.”

Among the four countries bordering Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania is the main producer of sardine, sprat and perch. It accounts for around 85% of annual catches from the lake. Lake Tanganyika’s fisheries are predominantly artisanal and their workforce of 27 000 fishers and 11 000 processors follows a strict division of labor: men do most of the fishing and women dry and process the fish for selling. 

FISH4ACP is an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) implemented by FAO with funding from the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) that helps Tanzania to strengthen the Lake Tanganyika sardine, sprat and perch value chain. 

One of FISH4ACP’s priorities is to support women’s participation in the value chain, for example by providing women with the tools to organise themselves in groups. Last year, FISH4ACP and Tanzania’s Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries helped set-up a Lake Tanganyika chapter of the umbrella organization Tanzanian Women Fish Workers Association (TAWFA). 

From 5-7 December, six members of the new chapter learned more about collective action and building organizational capacities to improve their position in the value chain at a meeting of women’s groups in African small-scale fisheries in Dar Es Salaam.

To prepare the ground for its work in support of women in Lake Tanganyika’s fisheries, FISH4ACP conducted a study on the constraints and opportunities related to gender in fishing communities by the lake. 

“Behind the taboo on women going fishing is the idea that fishing is too difficult for a woman, and that it keeps her away from the role of taking care of the family,” says Prof. Sikira, who was involved in the study. When it comes to processing, she adds, there is another constraint: “Women are not allowed to own land. They must lease it to process and to dry their fish, which means that their profits will go down.”

Women’s earnings are also affected by poor access to financial services, inadequate processing equipment and a weak bargaining power, Prof. Sikira explains, reducing the quality of their fish and the price they get on the market. 

Other challenges that women face include gender-based violence, early pregnancies, and HIV-AIDS, Prof. Sikira says, adding: “During the dry season, when there is not enough fish in the lake and women really struggle to feed their families, they can be exposed to transactional sex in exchange for the fish they need.”

What many of the gender constraints have in common, Prof. Sikira found out when visiting Lake Tanganyika’s fishing communities to discuss the findings of the study, was the root cause behind them: “Most of the problems result from cultural norms and traditions.”

Consequently, creating awareness is at the heart of the gender mainstreaming strategy that FISH4ACP has started implementing in Tanzania. “This will help foster understanding of those norms that prevent women to participate on an equal footing in the fish value chain.” 

Prof. Sikira is well aware that changing traditions is no easy task. “This is why we will be empowering both men and women, and why we will engage policymakers, local authorities, as well as religious leaders to make sure that women get a fair share and equal opportunities.” 

Change will come gradually, according to Prof. Sikira. “If women work together, they can improve their access to financial resources, reinforce their processing activities, and strengthen their position on the market,” she says, adding: “In the next couple of years, I can see how Lake Tanganyika fisheries is going to a better place for women.”