Gender included from the ‘get go’ in global small-scale fisheries study

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Gender experts from across the globe have sought out scarce sets of sex-disaggregated data for the Illuminating Hidden Harvests initiative, ensuring that both women’s and men’s contributions to small-scale fisheries are seen.

Just as data tells stories, so too does missing data.

“In fisheries, the lack of sex-disaggregated data is a story in itself,” said Dr. Jennifer Lee Johnson, an anthropologist with Purdue University.

Sex-disaggregated data refers to data collected and analyzed separately on women and men.

In many places across the world, data on women’s roles and contributions to small-scale fisheries are not readily available in mainstream fisheries data systems. In turn, women are often overlooked in fisheries policies and programs, including in licensing systems.

In Uganda, for example, this has affected the “sustainability narrative” around fisheries.

“The dominant framing focuses on maintaining exports of industrially-processed fillets of an invasive species—the Nile perch,” said Johnson.

“Importantly, this export fishery limits women’s access to fish and limits the availability of fish for local and regional consumers of fish in eastern and central Africa, and it criminalizes the work of women who process, trade, and prepare fish for these markets.”

Fishers in Ntoroko, Lake Albert, Uganda. Photo by Cambria Finegold.
Fishers in Ntoroko, Lake Albert, Uganda. Photo by Cambria Finegold.

Johnson’s comments come after the wrap up of the Ugandan case study for the ongoing Illuminating Hidden Harvests study.

Led by FAO, Duke University and WorldFish, in partnership with the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems, the study due out in late 2020 will provide a snapshot of the diverse contributions of small-scale fisheries globally.

A key feature of the study is 50 case studies—drawing on secondary data—from countries that have significant small-scale fisheries production or depend heavily on the sector.

Johnson was one of 28 gender experts from across the world that were each connected with a local IHH case study team.

As the gender advisor for the Uganda case study, her role involved reviewing the secondary data from a gender perspective and sourcing any obtainable missing sex-disaggregated data.

Johnson said it was a “unique opportunity” to distil lessons she’s learned from her long-term fieldwork in island and mainland fishing communities around Lake Victoria.

“Without the extra gender insights, the larger questions and concerns around how legality, sustainability, and the economy itself are framed in Uganda’s fisheries would not have been a part of the broader IHH country case,” she said.

Joining forces

Women removing the shell from mangrove mudshells in Malaita, Solomon Islands. Photo by Wade Fairley.
Women removing the shell from mangrove mudshells in Malaita, Solomon Islands. Photo by Wade Fairley.

The aim of involving the gender experts was to “make the data as good as possible,” said Dr. Danika Kleiber, a co-lead of the IHH gender analysis.

“[The IHH gender team] was concerned that if the country case study teams didn’t have gender expertise, they wouldn’t know where to look for gender data or even realize they were missing data,” said Kleiber, who’s doing the work as part of her postdoctoral fellowship with WorldFish and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“We wanted to make sure that the data coming in would include women from the get-go.”

Much fisheries data are “markedly sexist”, due to the conceptualisation of fisheries as a male domain, said Dr. Meryl Williams, technical advisor of the IHH gender analysis.

“In many countries, women working in harvesting cannot even be registered as fishers; the areas of the fish value chain in which women dominate, such as processing and marketing, are not covered well by the fisheries agencies; and most fisheries policies ignore women,” said Williams, who’s the chair of the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Section (GAFS) of the Asian Fisheries Society.

“It’s no wonder, therefore, that data on women are sadly lacking and a major effort like Illuminating Hidden Harvests is now needed to start redressing this data sexism. Even after this start, we will have a long way to go in putting women on the small-scale fisheries map.”

From Malawi to Spain

Chikondi Manyungwa-Pasani (right) at Kachulu Beach, Lake Chilwa, Malawi, waiting for fishing boats to land. Photo by WorldFish.
Chikondi Manyungwa-Pasani (right) at Kachulu Beach, Lake Chilwa, Malawi, waiting for fishing boats to land. Photo by WorldFish.

For gender advisor Chikondi Manyungwa Pasani, participating in the Malawi case study highlighted the “limited and scant availability” of sex-disaggregated data to the research team.

“There are a lot of sex-disaggregated data collected by NGOs that carry out needs assessments, university researchers who conduct surveys and government sectors that undertake various studies,” said Pasani, who’s a fisheries officer at the Department of Fisheries in Malawi.

“But this data is not easily accessible to the public and is not analyzed or presented in a format that is easy to be used.”

Pasani said this highlights a “clear need” to address data gaps now and in the future.

“We must promote the integration and collection of sex-disaggregated data as standard practice in small-scale fisheries,” she said.

In Spain, gender advisors Dr. Elena Ojea and Diego Salgueiro chose to combat the data gaps in the Spanish case study by creating their own sex-disaggregated data.

“This was possible because we designed new research questions and surveys and conducted individual questionnaires on the ground to contribute to a better understanding of SSF and a gender narrative,” they said.

“Without our contribution, most of the data would not be available for the Spanish case study.”

Gender—a foundation of data quality

In Fiji, gender advisor Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai reports that she was able to improve the quality of IHH case study data by ensuring there were gender dimensions captured.

“My involvement provided an opportunity to include information on species/fisheries for which little is formally published,” said Mangubhai, who’s the director of Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji.

“For example, I noticed there are fisheries that are not picked up by the FAO analyses (e.g. sea anemones for consumption), which is one of a number of invertebrate subsistence fisheries in Fiji.”

Sorting through the dried fish, Bangladesh. Photo by Martin Van Brakel.
Sorting through the dried fish, Bangladesh. Photo by Martin Van Brakel.

Bangladesh gender advisor Afrina Choudhury said she guided her colleagues toward more case study data to understand women’s contributions.

“[My support] helped provide a nuanced understanding of the gender implications of the small-scale fisheries sector and women’s involvement,” said Choudhury, who’s the senior gender specialist at WorldFish Bangladesh.

In some instances, an IHH case study member was also the gender advisor, like in Nigeria, enabling gender issues to be fully counted and recognized from the outset.

“By using probing questions, the IHH gender theme turned up much more comprehensive information about the fisheries and this will have a positive impact on the whole study which wants to show the complete picture,” said Dr. Kafayat Fakoya, IHH Nigeria gender advisor and a senior fisheries lecturer at Lagos State University.

“It led to improved analysis, better narratives of the gender dimensions and enhanced precision of the SSF contributions to local, national and global economies.”

Building momentum

Insights into women’s roles and interests in the sector are urgently needed and long overdue, said Williams, who’s been working to raise awareness of gender issues in aquaculture and fisheries since the early 1990s.

“Small-scale fisheries is one of the two major areas—the other is post-harvest in industrial fisheries—where women make huge but unrecognized contributions and can suffer if their roles and opportunities are not counted and valued,” she said.

“Women and gender studies, and also action, has been going on for some decades in fisheries, but it has not gained much traction in the face of the rapid development of fisheries (and aquaculture) and in research.”

One of the dried fish vendors in the local town food market in Oyo State
One of the dried fish vendors in the local town food market in Oyo State, Nigeria. Photo by Brianna Bradley (left). An artisanal fish processor sells smoked and fried Tilapia and Nile Perch in the market, Uganda. Photo by C. Finegold (Right).

This was a driving reason behind Williams and colleagues formally establishing GAFS in 2017—the first network of its kind for the sector—with the aim to promote more research into gender in fisheries and aquaculture, and establish networks of individuals and organizations to support gender equality in fisheries and aquaculture.

In 2019, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research established the Meryl Williams Fellowship, named in honour of Williams’ contributions.

Kleiber credits the ongoing work of Williams and GAFS for making it possible to find and involve gender advisors—most of whom are members of GAFS—in the IHH country case studies.

Kleiber said she’s excited that the “spiderweb of gender experts” has helped to shine a spotlight on fisheries that have previously been ignored.

“Gender tends to go in an iterative cycle—people pay attention, then people think ‘we already did gender, so we don’t need to worry about it’. This is another cycle, we’re building momentum,” said Kleiber.

“There are still some ingrained gender narratives that we have to work with and around—but it’s only going to get better in the next iteration [of Illuminating Hidden Harvests].”

Pre-recorded presentation from Danika Kleiber and Sarah Harper for recent IHH COFI webinar, , during which they spoke about the IHH gender network that's been created.


The Illuminating Hidden Harvests study is led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Duke University, and WorldFish, with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems. Funding for the study is provided by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Oak Foundation and CGIAR Trust Fund.

Related publications:

  • Illuminating Hidden Harvests: The contribution of small-scale fisheries to sustainable development
  • Illuminating gender dimensions of hidden harvests