• Why gender equality matters in fisheries and aquaculture

    Enabling women to fully engage in and benefit from aquaculture
    and fisheries can boost production, reduce poverty and enhance
    nutrition security for millions of fish-dependent households.

In 2014, women accounted for about 50 percent of the workforce in fisheries and aquaculture, when the secondary elements such as processing and trading are included. This reliance is significant given that the sectors support the livelihoods of approximately 10–12 percent of the world’s population and are central to global food and nutrition security. 

And yet, women in developing countries face substantive challenges to engaging in and benefiting equitably from these sectors. At play are a combination of factors, including limited access to and control over assets and resources, constraining gender norms, time and labor burdens of unpaid work, and barriers to sustaining entrepreneurship. The result is women having fewer opportunities and receiving smaller returns from fisheries and aquaculture than men—including lower income—and being left in positions of poverty.

These challenges are significant for more than reasons of social justice. Growing evidence signals that gender equality will play a key role in these sectors’ important contributions to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on poverty reduction and food and nutrition security. In particular, gender equality in fisheries and aquaculture can bring many potential benefits including higher fish productivity and household incomes, as well as positive nutritional outcomes.


Gender equity and gender equality – what’s the difference?

Gender equity, as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), refers to “fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs.” Gender equality, on the other hand, is defined by the ILO as the “enjoyment of equal rights, opportunities and treatment by men and women and by boys and girls in all spheres of life”.

In small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, the circumstances, involvement, constraints, barriers, options, and benefits are often different for women and men. Recognizing this, Worldfish research commits and contributes to gender equality (SDG 5), including through innovative gender transformative approaches. At the same time, WorldFish includes a focus on gender equity, to ensure that research and development interventions are inclusive, equitable in process and outcome, and meet the specific needs of different women and men.

Watch WorldFish Director General Dr. Blake Ratner discuss the importance of gender equity research


  • Globally, women make up 15 percent of people engaged in the fisheries primary sector, and tend to fish in different ways to men, explains Dr. Pip Cohen, Program Leader of Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Research at WorldFish. “Women fish from shore or do gleaning-collecting shells or invertebrates-and are perhaps less likely to be on bigger boats,” says Cohen.

    But even more significant, of the 200 million people employed full- or part-time in the primary and secondary sectors for fisheries and aquaculture, women make up around half of the workforce. In fact, in developing countries, women do up to 90 percent of secondary fisheries activities (e.g. processing). “From all the way to preparing and fixing gear and then after harvesting, they’re involved in processing and selling fish, and in making sure that fish makes it onto plates,” says Cohen.

    The vital role of women in small-scale fisheries
    Women contribute to small-scale fisheries in many ways explains Dr. Pip Cohen, Program Leader of the Resilient Small-Scale Fisheries Research Program at WorldFish.

    When it comes to participation in aquaculture value chains—including for fish, shrimp, seaweed and crab—women’s involvement is even higher than in capture fisheries. The FAO and WorldFish Aquaculture Big Numbers case studies found that in Indonesia, Viet Nam and Zambia, women are reported to comprise 40–80 percent of the workforce in freshwater and cage aquaculture, and women were also found to play important roles in (unpaid) household-based aquaculture.

  • Gendered patterns of paid and unpaid work
    “Women are often engaged in work in fisheries or aquaculture that is unpaid and has an unofficial status,” explains Froukje Kruijssen, Senior Advisor at the Royal Tropical Institute. For example, women do a lot of unpaid work—such as collecting bait, fixing nets, cooking food for fishers and managing accounts—and near-shore fishing using small hand nets. As such, the income returns for their work is lower than men’s, when men are involved in paid labor.

    Women do less-profitable work
    When women are involved in paid work, they tend to be disproportionately represented in less-profitable nodes of fish value chains, including home-based work. In Bangladesh, for example, women are employed in large numbers as processors in shrimp factories, but these jobs involve low pay and working in difficult conditions.

    Additionally, “women do the majority of postharvest activities, and this is the stage when quality losses often occur because there is no access to electricity for refrigeration and storage of fish. These losses cause lower incomes for traders and retailers,” explains Kruijssen. Women vendors may also sell lower-value merchandise due to lack of access to working capital to enter higher-value markets.

    Women have lower rates of entrepreneurship
    Evidence on entrepreneurship in developing countries suggests that women have lower rates of entrepreneurship than men in countries such as Bangladesh and Zambia. In Bangladesh, only four percent of women versus 21 percent of men engage in early-stage entrepreneurial activity. These imbalances suggest that women may be making lower income returns from entrepreneurship in fisheries and aquaculture as well.

  • Lack of access to and control over assets

    Women face barriers in access to and control over key assets such as land, ponds, capital, skills, technologies and extension services, which are integral to achieving secure livelihoods. “For instance, studies in the Solomon Islands show that men tend to own and have access to more productive assets for fishing, such as spear guns, hook and line, and goggles/masks,” says McDougall. Likewise, in Zambia, research shows that where men have exclusive land ownership, women can only access land for aquaculture through a male relative.

    Even when women can access resources, they may not have effective control over how to use them. For example, WorldFish and FAO research in Bangladesh finds that women may work in homestead ponds, but have very little decision making power over them.

    1. Constraining gender norms

    Women’s roles are defined by gender norms—the social expectations of how a man or woman should behave. But some of these norms can be constraining, says McDougall, because they can limit women’s adoption and use of aquaculture knowledge, technologies and practices through extension. “For example, gender norms about work in Bangladesh mean that it is socially taboo for some women to enter an aquaculture pond to do the harvesting, because the job is typically seen as ‘men’s work’.”

    Likewise in countries, such as Egypt, women are expected to stay at home. Or if they leave the home, for example to work as a fish retailer, they need the permission of their husband, which limits the mobility that is a requisite for some forms of livelihood notes McDougall.

    Some gender norms also prevent women from contributing to community decision-making processes, including around small-scale fisheries governance. “In the Solomon Islands, for example, the status quo is that men tend to be the ones that make the decisions in local fisheries governance bodies,” explains McDougall. “This pattern exists in many developing countries, where men tend to hold the leadership positions and dominate these formal public discussions.”

    When it comes to consumption of fish within the household, social norms can affect how fish is distributed among family members. “Even though pregnant and lactating women have high nutritional needs, fish may be served preferentially to others in the family,” notes McDougall. “This limits these women’s—and thus their nutritionally-vulnerable infants’—access to the nutritional benefits of fish, including the micronutrients and essential fatty acids that are needed for brain development and protection from blindness.”

    1. Time and labor burdens

    In many developing countries, women are seen as having the primary responsibility for managing the household, home garden and childrearing, and looking after aging or sick relatives. This can limit women’s time available for paid work and means they may not be able to travel far from their home.

    Moreover, says McDougall, development interventions that target activities for women, carry the risk of creating a heavier total workload for women, as they cannot simply stop doing their domestic tasks. “The demands and strain on women’s time, energy and health that is associated with double or triple burdens is not only a barrier to technology uptake and livelihood opportunities accessed by women—it needs to be recognized and addressed as a significant issue in its own right,” she notes.

    While women’s informal work is an important component of the fisheries and aquaculture labor force in many developing countries, it is characterized by various forms of insecurity. Women workers are generally not covered by public or private sector social protection schemes, may not have employment contracts or benefits, and may not be represented in policy discussions with employers, traders or other important stakeholders. These factors are barriers to women having ‘decent work’, which the International Labour Organization defines as including social protection for families, security in the workplace and freedom to express their concerns.

    1. Entering and sustaining entrepreneurship
    “The literature suggests that women in some countries, for example Zambia and the Philippines, more frequently abandon entrepreneurial ventures than men do,” says McDougall. In the Philippines, one study suggests that more women than men start and grow business at the early and vulnerable stages, but men take over the businesses once stable. In Zambia, women discontinue businesses more often than men because of a lack of finances and for personal reasons—relating to assets and norms—compared with men, who discontinue due to lack of profitability and the attraction of other opportunities.

  • Higher productivity and household incomes

    “Reducing barriers to women’s engagement in small-scale aquaculture may be a leverage point for greater productivity and rural household incomes,” says Ratner. Specifically, in Bangladesh, a 2010 study found that when women engaged in small-scale aquaculture, fish production increased by 10–20 percent. Moreover, “higher production often leads to increased income for the household—so there is link between gender-equitable engagement and potential income returns as well,” notes Ratner. 

    These findings support that of the FAO, which found that gender equality in control over on-farm assets can lead to greater agricultural productivity. Similarly, video interviews produced by WorldFish and partner Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs in Zambia highlight that increasing gender equality in decision making and in men’s and women’s work roles have contributed to greater wellbeing for their households.

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    WorldFish and partners are building on the above by finding ways to address income-related gender gaps and barriers, such as through strategies to increase gender equality in access to and control over credit, and for enabling women’s successful entrepreneurship and engagement in higher value nodes in fish value chains. This will benefit not only women, but also the children and households that depend on them, and the larger communities and sectors as well.

    1. Higher social status, improved fish consumption

    When women participate in small-scale aquaculture that contributes food or income to the household, they may gain a higher status among family members and within the community. Going beyond this, WorldFish is also identifying and testing gender transformative strategies and tools that may contribute to more substantive and sustainable increases in gender equality and in women’s empowerment.

    These increases in equality and empowerment will feed into the production and income-related development impacts, as well as constructively impact nutrition. These are likely to contribute to women having greater influence in household decisions such as how fish is shared at meals explains Ratner. Studies in Cambodia and Bangladesh also show that women involved in aquaculture give a higher priority to homegrown fish being consumed by the family versus men who prioritise selling fish.

    Greater voice of women in this area, thus has the potential to keep a supply of fish flowing to the family, contributing to their nutritional security.

Realizing the potential of fisheries and aquaculture

Gender equality is central to realizing the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to increase fish production, and to improve livelihoods and enhance nutrition security, especially for the most nutritionally vulnerable. “As well as being important in terms of social justice,” explains Dr. Ratner. “From a development perspective, it’s fundamentally inefficient to have inequities and inequalities that block different people’s engagement in, contributions to, and benefits from a sector that is so critical to poverty reduction and food security.”

WorldFish is collaborating with diverse women and men farmers and fishers, government agencies, and research and development partners to overcome these inequalities and inequities and their underlying causes. Through innovative research-based policies and development interventions that close the gender gap in fisheries and aquaculture, without increasing women’s time and labor burdens, together we are creating a brighter future for all.

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