When you think of the fishing industry in Africa, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For the most part, its traders selling fish in an open market. Typically, these traders are predominantly women with huge heaps of produce in well-known city markets. As Africans, we typically have a reliable lady who is always ready to supply our monthly dose of fresh produce and in this case, fresh fish.

Because of this perception, the idea that the fishing industry is dominated by women—the very visible ‘salespersons’ of the industry—is pervasive. This is, for the most part, true. Women are the public face, but they also face gender disparity challenges that are not publicly visible.

Within the industry, pre-defined cultural norms pose a challenge for women’s pursuit of the higher-value opportunities which are automatically ascribed to the male gender. The disparity diminishes the recognition of women’s value within the industry. In turn, this perpetuates gender-based social and economic imbalance within fishing communities where women struggle to realise their potential. This is quite ironic considering that female economic autonomy is a key link between subsistence and sustainable development. For the value and unrealised potential that they hold as drivers of food security and economic development in Africa, women in fishing ought to be accorded more recognition.

Drivers of Gender Disparity in Africa’s Fishing Industry

Women today still work in low-status, less-skilled and low-paid jobs and on informal, casual and temporary contracts. This disparity is manifest in Africa’s fishing industry, where women constitute about of the labour force—even be higher in different parts of the continent—working both in the primary and secondary sectors of the local fishing economy.

More than 90% of fish caught and consumed in Africa is produced by small-scale fishers. Within fishing communities, value chain activities are highly gendered as traditional norms define different roles for men and women. Normative domesticity typically prescribes such activities as traditional post-harvest processing and trading to women while fishery contributions are associated—with reinforced masculinity—to the male identity as men venture out to catch the central product. Even though women play an essential role in the value chain as processors, marketers, also participate in fishery and even lend money to male fishers, men still garner higher status and incomes for their role.

The Bigger Picture

Why is a gender-centric perspective on Africa’s fishing industry important?

Gender discrimination touches on wider systematic disruptions such as lack of land ownership, high debt levels, and poor access to health, education and financial capital as well as social and political marginalisation. In the fishing industry specifically, women’s comparatively limited access to capital, credit, value-adding technologies and training deny them equality in opportunities to raise their status and incomes.

Yet, the fisheries value chain is shaped by the interplay between male and female stakeholders’ in complementary activities. They influence each other’s efficiency, the overall value of the industry, and the health of the communities they participate in.

Some factors and effects of the disparity in the different roles undertaken include:

  1. The women’s involvement in the fishing industry being perceived as an extension of domestic work excludes their contributions from important discourses. There is a lack of evidence-based data on the roles, contributions and needs of women in fishing. This is a blind spot for efforts seeking to address their needs and driving sustainable development in Africa’s fishing industry and communities. A 2017 study in Zanzibar noted a focus on male-dominated fishery activities with only superficial acknowledgement of women-dominated activities to the detriment of legislation and plans seeking to enhance coastal management. Unreported contributions made by women also limits understanding when addressing economic security and survival challenges within their communities.
  2. Women face more problems accessing factors of production including technology, capital, mobility and education. They are often less able to make investments in their work or themselves that can widen and secure their sources of income. Women typically assume responsibility for domestic and subsistence affairs which sometimes drastically impairs their ability to provide. In their marketing activities, for example, they are less adaptable to local price fluctuations where cultural pressures limit their market opportunities to locations that are close to their homes. Limitations to women’s productive capacity threaten the economic resilience of the households they are a part of.
  3. Women enjoy fewer opportunities for self-actualisation and less protection from abuse. Working in an industry that dominated by men and undervalues women, they are passed over by opportunities to ascend and participate in the management of their industry. They are also vulnerable to various kinds of gender violence including verbal, physical, mental and sexual harassment that isolates them. Alienating half of the fishing industry slows down the progress of development and can result in gains that drive gender inequalities deeper.

Strengthening the ‘Woman’s’ Position

Women are a key link to sustainable development and we should encourage their contribution to economic growth. To empower women in the positions they currently hold and help them rise within other areas of Africa’s fishing industry, we should consider the following:

  1. Improve the quality and availability of data and information on the neglected gender and social dynamics of the fishing industry. The invisibility of the contributions that women make, the way they work, and the challenges they face is a hindrance to improving the state of their participation in the industry. Greater awareness of the weight of issues that women face is the starting point for meaningful social and industrial change. Informed decision-making in policies, programmes and investments that realise transformative impact depends on data that is as representative of the actual state of affairs as possible;
  2. Establish women-centred, trade unions or cooperatives that drive women’s empowerment at the community level. It is necessary to make an organised push for economic empowerment, capacity building and advocacy for women in fishing to drive far-reaching and sustained empowerment. There are organisations and informal groups in Africa that have achieved some impact, including problem-specific initiatives such as ’No Sex for Fish’ which this year recommitted to its efforts to empower women against the rampant sexual exploitation in Kenya’s Lake Victoria region. The wide and deeply-entrenched challenges that women in the fishing industry face call for more investment in the organisation of gender inclusivity initiatives for Africa’s fishing industry;
  3. Avail education and professional training opportunities to women in fishing communities that enable them to play active roles in improving their communities. Changes in fishing methods and, in general, the rapidly digitising and globalising world make it even harder for women to contribute to, let alone compete in, the fishing industry. They fall behind male counterparts who have easier access to resources. experiences and opportunities that can aid them optimise their activities and raise their status. Education and professional training can empower women to participate in innovation, industry management and contribute to discourses towards inclusive and sustainable development in the fishing industry and within their communities.
  4. Strengthening conducive workplace environment policies in informal spaces. Informal workers are excluded from social protection schemes that depend on formal structures including centralised accountability which are absent in informal workplaces such as fish landing sites and markets. Informal, unregulated workspaces are unconducive to the progressive realisation of human rights in terms of decent work and equitable remuneration for women. We need to recognise the economic value of public spaces where informal work occurs and adopt policies and legislation that support them through improved security and access to public human rights services such as anti-harassment offices, complaints desks and community policing.

Empowering women in Africa’s fishing industry is—to be clear—empowering Africa.

Gender disparity in the fishing industry means that women in the small-scale fishing sector are unnecessarily less-able to improve on their work, attain equal bargaining power, and tap into promising opportunities. This prevents them from playing their role in developing African fishing into a high-value industry. In this way, gender exclusion is one of the reasons Africa contributes least to the amount of fish consumed, produced, and traded globally. Promoting gender inclusivity in Africa’s fishing industry has the potential to increase food and nutritional security as well as drive social and economic development through trade.

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