Recognizing Women Fishers and Listening to Their Voices

Women are an integral part of the fisheries sector and their communities, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite this fact, their work and labor continue to remain invisible despite various efforts to advocate for recognition. They are underpaid yet overworked while undertaking a wide range of activities in the fisheries sector and in their communities. The situation is not different for women fishers in Southeast Asia. They face challenges over financial and capacity needs as well as opportunities for business and to participate in the decision-making process.

More than a hundred gender experts and practitioners from all over the world met in a webinar on November 29, 2021, to discuss and identify issues and challenges facing women working in the fisheries sector; and identify the political commitments needed to effect change.

“Since the beginning, women have worked alongside men, run their own enterprises and carried out fisheries work that has complemented men’s. They also take care of their households and communities. It’s time to count and recognize all their work and help them achieve decent work and equal opportunities,” said Dr. Meryl J. Williams, Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Section of the Asian Fisheries Society (GAFS) Chair,  in her opening remarks at the webinar entitled, “Women Work in Fisheries, Too!”.

The nature of women's work differs by culture and region and between rural and urban areas. The common factor is that it is rarely seen as "productive". It is often perceived as low social value and an extension of the "domestic" space. 

The space for female fishers to voice out their financial and capacity needs and concerns, as well as equal opportunities to participate in the decision making process, is still limited, according to Ravadee Prasertcharoensuk, Director of the Sustainable Development Foundation in Thailand. She suggested that policymakers should integrate overall labor rights using a gender lens into their organizational systems. The lack of sex-disaggregated data and a mechanism to collect that data is a constraint in systematically addressing gender inequalities.

Both women and men in the fisheries sector and in fishing communities should be able to participate in decision making – on fisheries conservation and management. Both men and women have rights to access resources in their communities, participate in the social security system, and secure food security and livelihoods, and these should be recognized.  

We have to empower women themselves to be a part of change—Ravadee Prasertcharoensuk, Sustainable Development Foundation

Women’s roles in the fisheries value chain

According to the latest State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 120 million people work in fisheries, of whom 97 percent are in developing countries, with 90 percent working in small scale fisheries. The report also highlighted that 47 percent are women, of whom 73 percent live in Asia.

Jariya Sornkliang, Fisheries Management Scientist and Gender Focal Person at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center Training Department (SEAFDEC/TD), said that women’s roles in fisheries are evident from gear mending, cleaning fishing nets, segregating the catch, processing, and marketing. 

There is a need to ensure equal participation of women and men in fisheries policy development—Jariya Sornkliang, SEAFDEC/TD

Ms. Sornkliang added that women’s empowerment in generating income should be considered in programs at all levels. Policymakers need to recognize the diverse roles and perspectives of both women and men, especially as women account for nearly 50 percent of the workforce in fisheries and aquaculture.

Women as advocates against forced labor in fishing vessels

Joe Pres Gaudiano, Plan International’s SAFE Seas Project Manager in the Philippines, shared key findings from this U.S. Department of Labor project. Results from their study showed women often appear to be the lead decision-makers regarding household finances and loans from informal lenders. The women must cope with stress, debt burden, and extra work to make ends meet, while their husbands are at sea.

The study also found that raising awareness alone may not provide a safeguard against forced labor and trafficking in person. However, it is still recommended to educate women on labor rights, legal services, advocacy strategies, and skills development to improve their livelihoods. Female fishers should also be able to access affordable loans and social protection programs so that they do not have to depend on loan sharks leading to forced labor and trafficking in person.

Photo: J.P. Gaudiano, PLAN International Philippines

Benefits to gender equality and social inclusion

Women in developing countries still face substantive challenges in engaging in and benefiting equitably from the fisheries sector. Several studies also pointed out they have poor access to and control of resources. Marketing is still much dominated by husbands and/or male partners.

Nikita Gopal, Principal Scientist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kochi, highlighted a finding that women in fisheries do almost all household work and spend an estimated 7.5 hours on cleaning, cooking, washing, and taking care of children daily apart from fishing work.  Interestingly, higher education is not the factor that enables them to spend less hours on household work.

“Women are a major workforce in fish harvesting. Their work makes significant contributions to household income and nutritional security and should be equally recognized,” she said during the webinar. Dr. Gopal recommended gender equality should be translated into policy and program development for sectors mitigating disasters and other risks to ensure equal access to all resources.

Caterina Meloni, Founder and CEO of Connecting Founders pointed out that companies with higher gender diversity tended to perform better and have stronger brand equity and image, according to a survey among companies in six ASEAN countries.

Two-thirds of 400 Asian companies found gender equity increased business outcomes following a recent International Labour Organization report on women in business and management.

“Private companies, particularly those listed in the stock market, nowadays cannot afford to overlook the issue of gender rights as it could affect their credibility and business risk,” she said. 

Aazani Mujahid, Senior Lecturer and CTI-CFF Women Leaders’ Forum Focal Person at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, showcased food production as opportunities for women in coastal villages to become entrepreneurs, start up their own SMEs, and earn more income. There are cases of local female fishers selling foods made from local products including seafood and fruits. They market their small-scale business online and offline. Consumers’ responses are  positive despite (or maybe due to) the pandemic.

Photo: J. Sornkliang, SEAFDEC

The need for social and gender standards in fisheries and aquaculture

Most seafood certification programs mainly focus on environmental sustainability, but do not include the aspect of labor rights, and community/social or gender issues. The Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC) has developed standards in fisheries that emphasize the complex realities of small-scale production, community rights, women empowerment, and gender equality.

Current certifications are not accessible to small-scale producers; thus ASIC standards have been developed so they could be specifically adaptable to small-scale contexts with or without hired labor, said Rachel Matheson, ASIC Social and Gender Lead. ASIC is an improvement program for small-scale male and female fishers, enabling them to improve their capacities and connect with market essentials for boosting their livelihood and sustainable fishing across the supply chain.

Regional collaboration between private sector and multi-stakeholders is also seen as one of the solutions to tackle social and environmental sustainability challenges facing the seafood industry in Indonesia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. Capacity building and development programs are available for female fishers to participate in training programs and help connect those having high sustainability performance to more valuable markets. 

Working together for decent work and thriving businesses for women in fisheries: A cooperative action plan

One output of this webinar was the development of a cooperative action plan on gender and labor in fisheries, with a particular focus on women working in the sector. A draft outline was presented during the end of the webinar and will undergo a review and consultation process among webinar participants and interested stakeholders. The action plan will be proposed to various groups within the fisheries sector for adoption and implementation to address inequality issues in the fisheries sector and used as a guide for the sector to achieve several of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The webinar was co-organized by the USAID Sustainable Fish Asia (SUFIA) Local Capacity Development (LCD) Activity, the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Section of the Asian Fisheries Society (GAFS), the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF), and the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR/CIFT). The webinar is the first of a series of webinars in the run-up to the 8th Global Symposium on Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries (GAF8), to be organized by GAFS/AFS and ICAR/CIFT in November 2022.

Video and presentation files from the webinar are available via this link: