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Obstacles limiting women's involvement in fishing sector

 A woman ferries omena offloaded from a fishing boat along the shores of Lake Victoria. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

The African fishing sector is a vital component of the blue economy, providing substantive livelihoods for millions of people across the continent.

Despite its importance, women in this sector often face significant challenges and barriers that hinder their full participation and empowerment. Empowering women in fishing, both traditional and commercial, is not just a matter of gender equality, it is key to unlocking the sector’s full potential and ensuring sustainable development. To do this, a number of challenges need to be surmounted.

First, the use of the term “fishermen” in articles and policy documents by definition excludes fisherwomen. It denies women recognition of the important work in which they are engaged within the sector in terms of processing, packaging, distribution and marketing. In addition, women across Africa are engaged in fishing, such as the oyster farmers in West Africa and the octopus fisherwomen off Pate Island in Lamu.

Unfortunately, the majority of women in the fishing sector are informal workers who often are unpaid and have to contend with discrimination, limited access to resources, and lack of representation in decision-making processes. As a first step in righting these inequities, there is need for official policies and regulations, both nationally and regionally, to reflect the term “fishers” or “fisherfolk”, as opposed to “fishermen”.

A second step is the lack of political commitment to implement major recommendations made over the past two decades regarding women’s empowerment within fisheries. According to a 2016 article by the South African researcher Jackie Sunde titled, ‘Women in fisheries in Africa, 1999–2015’, the recommendations made in Addis Ababa in 2012, during the First Conference of Ministers of Fisheries and Aquaculture on the role of women in small-scale fisheries in Africa, have, by and large, not been implemented.

Similarly, the African Union, which at its summit in 2014 endorsed the report on reform strategies by the above ministers, has made no further progress on this issue. It is clear that what is needed is strong political will at the national and regional level to “walk the talk,” so to speak. Without such strong political will, and a commitment to empower women to participate fully and fairly in the fishing sector of the blue economy, intra-Africa trade will continue to suffer from the lack of women’s full participation.

The third significant challenge faced by women in the African fishing sector is the lack of funds to support their fishing activities. Currently, the women who are engaged in fishing, both along the coastal areas and on the continent's inland waterways, are not organised as associations or groups. As a result, they are easily manipulated or exploited. If they were members of fishing organisations, they would have easier access to funds, in particular grants and low-interest loans. These funds could be used to buy boats and to create processing and marketing infrastructure.

For example, in 2019, women in Homa Bay and Migori counties on the southern shores of the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria were assisted by funds raised by the former US Peace Corps members which enabled them to buy boats.

Consequently, women from those communities were able to stand their ground, at least for some time, in the fishing profession, without falling victim to such exploitative practices as the so-called “sex for fish” trade. Unfortunately, the women lacked funds to repair their boats and were constrained to resume their former practices.

The “sex for fish” phenomenon in this area was the subject of a documentary film: “Darwin’s Nightmare”. Although based in Mwanza on the Tanzanian side of the lake, this degrading practice also affects women on the Kenya sideThe appalling situation in which these women find themselves needs to be urgently addressed.

Besides funds, there is need for aggressive and practical public awareness to educate women, including school girls, on the side effects of the “sex for fish” practice in an area where the prevalence of HIV/Aids currently stands at 15.2 per cent – more than three times higher than the national average of 4.6 per cent. Fisherwomen, not only in Kenya but across Africa, need the sustainable assistance of African governments, donors, partners and NGOs.

The fourth obstacle encountered by women is the discrimination that they suffer on cultural, religious and other grounds related to stereotypical perceptions. Culturally, most African societies are patriarchal, hence fishing has been seen as men’s work. Virtually no effort has been made anywhere on the continent to extend fishing opportunities to women, even to those who have a passion for it. In many cases, the few women who are engaged in fishing are either divorced or single.

Furthermore, there are gender stereotypes that perpetuate the notion that fishing equipment is too heavy for women, that fishing is a dangerous activity and that women should remain at home and look after their families, all which have contributed to women being denied the opportunity to fish. Furthermore, some cultural taboos have exacerbated the problem. For example, there is a belief in Busia and in many coastal communities that the involvement of women in fishing will bring bad luck and reduce the catch.

In short, while discussions around empowering women in the fishing sector of the blue economy have been ongoing for several decades, nothing meaningful has been achieved. Women continue to be excluded from all but the most menial aspects of the fishing industry. Although there are a few successful examples of women’s involvement in fisheries, such as in Southeast Asian countries, to break the vicious circle in Africa, governments need to honour the commitments that they made in Addis Ababa in 2012.

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