Empowering the hidden hands in a global workforce


Image by Ishay Botbol (Pexels.com)

Women play a vital but hidden role in the global fishing industry.

Current debates about fisheries often revolve around sustainability and ocean conservation.

Controversial documentaries have painted a grim picture of the industry, while we’ve seen it scrutinised for human rights breaches and threats to community livelihoods.

But so rarely is the fishing industry looked at through a gendered lens.

Women’s contributions and voice have been historically overlooked in fisheries policies, laws, and programs despite their critical role in small-scale fisheries, which contribute approximately 40% of the world’s global catch.

Of the 108 million people employed worldwide in the industry, 45 million women make up just under half of the workforce, yet gender inequalities continue to plague the industry.

Alongside marine and coastal catch, inland fishing and aquaculture contributes 41% of the world’s finfish production.

Around half of the 59 million people involved in inland fisheries are women.

Dr Abigail Lynch is a research fish Biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and works with InFish, an international voluntary network designed to help address issues in inland fisheries.

She said she sees the value in assisting people and communities engaged with the sector.

“In the case of inland capture fisheries, most of which are on the small-scale side, low-income countries account for about 80% of that total reported harvest.

“When we’re thinking about where these fisheries have value, in many cases it’s very vulnerable communities,” she said.

The FAO marked 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA), aiming to address challenges faced by small scale fisheries (SSF) through its voluntary guidelines.

Dr Lynch says IYAFA has been a useful platform for the InFish group and sharing the issues of highly dispersed groups which often aren’t integrated to a global scale.

“The value of this international year is in its ability to put small-scale, artisanal, inland fisheries, and all these issues on a global stage,” she said.

“I think inland fisheries, and women within those fisheries, are often very underrepresented when thinking in terms of sitting at the policy decision-making table.”

Small-scale fisheries, big impacts

Small-scale fisheries are vital to the livelihoods, food security, and economic development of many coastal communities, such as those in the Pacific region, who are working towards sustainable fisheries.

Addressing the limited data surrounding women-specific contributions to the sector is just one important part of closing the gender gap.

Tooreka Teemari has been in the industry since 2012 and currently works as the Director for the Coastal Fisheries Division at the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development.

A person posing for the camera
Toreeka Teemari. Image by UoW Women in Fisheries

With experience in market chains, harvesting, and post-harvest processing, she said recognising women’s contributions is vital to overcome challenges.

“I was involved in programs encouraging women to process their own catch and add more value to it,” Tooreka said.

“We need more women to participate in the programs, so we know how much they contribute.”

Gender equality is recognised as a fundamental human right, yet women in fisheries are often confined to low-paying jobs and part-time work thanks to domestic responsibilities, which can further hinder social protections and work security.

Tooreka said women are often busy with their jobs or commitments in the home.

“But the lack of support is one of the major challenges we need to focus on,” she said.

Women rarely seen in fisheries positions of power

Despite making up 85% of the workforce in manual labour jobs, women are rarely seen in top management positions.

Tooreka said this is the case where some islands remain conservative in their culture.

“In some parts of the [Kiribati] islands, some women are not considered important in decision-making.”

Active participation and female management in small-scale fisheries has seen benefits like a 77% income increase in Brazilian arapaima farms, women securing additional income and rights in Chile, and formally entering the male-dominated workforce in Saudi Arabia.

In other corners of the world, there are female-led organisations advocating for greater women’s empowerment, raising awareness, and promoting a more equitable sector in small-scale fisheries.

Initiatives to improve the disproportionate data, such as Illuminating Hidden Harvests (IHH), suggest though vital, the consideration of gender in small-scale fisheries can be confronting.

Dr Kafayat Fakoya, the IHH gender advisor and contributing author for the Nigeria case study, spoke of gender-related imbalances in the industry in an interview for Our Shared Seas.

“Women in SSFs are generally multi-tasking and undertake many fisheries-related activities in their homes or vicinity of their households, such that nuances between productive and reproductive activities are almost inseparable or hidden,” she said.

Dr Fakoya said addressing the data gap will assist the Sustainable Development Goals on local and global levels as women play a significant part in food security.

“In many places and contexts, social norms and culture dictate that women in small-scale fisheries are the backbone in fishing households saddled with the primary responsibility to maintain a sustainable supply of food for their families, both in and out of the fishing seasons.”

Women supporting women

In the Kiribati Islands, Tooreka Teemari suggests female community groups are encouraging women to voice their concerns. She said the women are great management role models.

“They could be the ones to run the organisation smoothly because of their nature.”

Studies suggest acknowledging women’s participation in small-scale fisheries, and including them in policy and decision-making, will create wider social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Tooreka said women’s ability to expand their nurturing role as mothers to the workforce could benefit the sector significantly.

“It’s challenging, but it’s good that we empower ourselves to ensure we address both needs, our family and our workforce.”