Reflecting on Women’s Rights to a Healthy Ocean, based on the 2023 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

By Elisa Morgera, Senia Febrica et al.

“Urgent, gender-transformative, rights-based climate and environmental action” is required to achieve gender equality and ecological sustainability– recently said the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment in his thematic report on women’s and girls’ human right to a healthy environment (A/HRC/52/33). 

Although the report does not refer often to women’s and girls’ human right to a healthy environment in the marine context, there are a few references to fisheries as a context in which particular human rights issues arise for women and girls. In addition, the vast majority of the points and recommendations formulated in the report are relevant for women’s and girls’ human rights and a healthy ocean, in particular women and girls in small-scale fishing communities. Following on the Hub’s submission made in preparation for this report, this blog post relates the UN Special Rapporteur’s findings on State obligations and business responsibility to respect women’s and girls’ human rights to the marine context. 


As the UN Special Rapporteur recalled, the General Assembly has recently recognised the importance of gender equality, gender-responsive action to address climate change and environmental degradation, the empowerment, leadership, decision-making and full, equal and meaningful participation of women and girls, and the role that women play as managers, leaders and defenders of natural resources and agents of change in safeguarding the environment (​​​​Resolution 76/300). 

In his report, David Boyd highlighted key facts that show the perseverance of gender discrimination in environmental governance: 

  • women comprise 70% of the world’s poor;  
  • rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women and men on every development indicator; 
  • women do three times more unpaid household and care work than men in both high- and low-income countries, resulting in time poverty, lower employment and lower earnings;  
  • women are overrepresented in informal economies (and thus lack social and legal protections); receive 20% lower wages than men for the same work and frequently experience worse working conditions; 
  • women are underrepresented in leadership, management and decision-making roles across all levels and all sectors; 
  • women account for only 27 per cent of judges worldwide; 
  • women environmental human rights defenders are disproportionately affected by environment-related human rights violations; 
  • gender discrimination and stereotypes affect girls from a young age, as they are treated as inferior in many States and cultures, undermining their self-esteem and leading to lifelong inequality, deprivation and exclusion and interfering with girls’ education, play and development that are rooted in cultural norms and traditions that give men and boys preferential treatment. 

Against this background, the Rapporteur also underscored the UN Environment Programme’s finding that “almost no countries have policy frameworks or mechanisms in place that would enable a synergistic view (let alone implementation) of gender and environmental goals” (para 10). To compound this issue, “the lack of gender- and sex-disaggregated data regarding many environmental issues renders women, girls and their needs invisible to policymakers” para 14).  

The report then illustrates disproportionate impacts of the environmental degradation on women and girls, covering: clean air, water and sanitation, food (with a focus on agriculture), biodiversity (with a reference to fisheries), non-toxic environments, and safe climate. While focusing on land for the most part, the Rapporteur noted at several points the negative impacts of women’s insecure natural resource tenure, which is also relevant for women’s tenure of coastal and marine areas and resources, including in recognition of marine dispossession. The report also recognised that women and girls steward their territories and use them for food, water, medicinal plants, cultural and spiritual purposes and small-scale livelihoods (including fisheries and aquaculture). The Rapporteur thus underscored that insecure tenure coupled with limited information and financial resources, makes it difficult for women to influence resource-management decisions, restricting their livelihood opportunities and perpetuating gender-based cycles of poverty and environmental injustice (para 21).  

With specific regard to the ocean, the report also indicated that: 

Women comprise almost half of the global fishing workforce. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification and loss of coral reefs are contributing to declines in fisheries, compromising valuable livelihood activities for women involved in fish catching, processing and trading (para 27). 

David Boyd also offered an example of impactful women’s leadership in the fisheries sector:

fisherwomen on the border between Guinea and Liberia creatively resolved a decades-long conflict about a shared fishery (para 58).  

On the whole, the Rapporteur indicated that: 

For women and girls, adapting to climate change impacts is often harder due to rigid gender roles and their reduced access to and control over natural resources, information, technologies and finance. Indigenous and rural women are consistently excluded from business and government decisions related to land acquisition, land use, resource rights and processes in which their community’s free, prior and informed consent is required. This exclusion harms women’s ability to feed their families, earn livelihoods, participate in development, maintain their nature-dependent cultural or spiritual practices and receive compensation, leading to environmental conflicts and heightened risks of violence. The systematic underrepresentation of women and girls worsens environmental outcomes (para 34).  

These are all relevant considerations for fisheries governance and the governance of other ocean conservation and sustainable uses.  

State obligations 

Against this background, the Rapporteur clarified the obligations that States have to protect women’s and girl’s human rights (paras 61-64), which are also relevant for ocean governance: 

  • eliminating discriminatory laws, regulations and policies, and not exempting customary laws and practices from guaranteeing gender equality (para 84), which relates to ​​​​our work with FAO on assessing national laws and policies related to small-scale fishers; 
  • eliminating all forms of discrimination related to natural resource ownership, tenure and property rights, and natural resource governance, including those related to marital status, legal capacity and lack of access to economic resources – these obligations have been underscored in the Hub-led UNEP course on gender the environment; 
  • ensuring equal rights for women and men to hold ​​​​tenure and licences, conclude contracts independent of their husband or any male guardian, including in the context of the collective ownership and tenure rights held by Indigenous and other nature-dependent communities (para 85). This are crucial issues that are arising in our research in South Africa on women’s ocean-related livelihoods
  • promoting equal rights and opportunities for women in relation to access to finance, technology, education, training and extension services – this has been recently explored in Hub research in South Africa;  
  • integrating informal workers, who are predominantly women, into formal economies and provide them with social protection;  
  • improving social protection programmes, prioritising women and girls living in poverty; 
  • increasing funding for grass-roots women’s organisations working on climate and environmental issues;  
  • redirecting funds from environmentally harmful subsidies to sustainable and regenerative actions led by women and girls, which aligns with the Hub recommendations on human rights and the WTO Fisheries Subsidies Agreement
  • mandating environmental impact assessment processes that incorporate gender- responsive human rights impact assessments to examine the potential gender impacts of proposed plans, policies and projects. This relates to the Hub research on the international obligation to carry out strategic environmental assessments and environmental impact assessments for large-scale fisheries; and 
  • specific, heightened protections for woman and girl environmental human rights defenders, which speaks to Hub’s research on ocean defenders (see ​​​​here, ​​​​here, and here), 

These obligations of non-discrimination are of immediate effect, so the Rapporteur clarified that failing to prevent foreseeable human rights harm caused by climate change or other environmental harm which disproportionately affects women and girls, or to regulate harmful activities contributing to such harm, could constitute a violation of States’ obligations (para 78). The principle of non-discrimination also requires States to apply an intersectional lens, recognising the heterogeneity of women, girls and LGBT+ persons (para 11).  

The Rapporteur also called for more gender-transformative measures, meaning steps capable of changing systems that perpetuate gender inequality, and address the root causes of gender-based discrimination, so that the voices of women and girls are heard, their ideas implemented and their environmental stewardship rewarded. Such gender-transformative measures include (paras 10, 61, 63, 64): 

  • dismantling systemic discrimination,  
  • adopting temporary special measures (including increased allocation of resources, preferential treatment, targets and incentives) to accelerate progress on gender equality; 
  • empowering women and girls as climate and environmental leaders, by eliminating discrimination against women in political and public life, and ensuring equal opportunities to represent their governments internationally, 
  • eliminating gender- and age-based differences in exposure to pollution and toxic substances, in access to safe drinking water and healthy, sustainably produced food, in disaster risk reduction and in access to land, tenure and resources, based on sex- and gender-disaggregated data. This aligns with Hub research on protecting human rights from the negative impacts of ocean plastics

The Rapporteur also called for specific State action in environmental governance (paras 61-86); even if no specific references were made to the ocean, all these obligations are relevant for ocean conservation and sustainable use: 

  • redesign decision-making institutions at all levels to overcome gendered barriers to women’s participation and substantive engagement;  
  • supporting the transition to agroecological food systems in which women and girls have equal opportunities to sustainably produce and consume healthy food;  
  • conserving, protecting and restoring healthy biodiversity and ecosystems, while guaranteeing that women and girls share equally in the benefits of using nature;  
  • taking climate change mitigation, adaptation, disaster risk reduction and climate finance actions that address the specific needs of women and girls, particularly in climate-vulnerable nations (which will be taken into account in the Hub-led ​​​​special issue on ocean-climate nexus and human rights); 
  • recognising and prioritising the collective and individual needs and rights of women and girls in these communities in all climate actions and efforts to conserve, protect, restore, sustainably use and equitably share the benefits of nature;  
  • respecting the right of Indigenous women and girls to free, prior informed consent in all decisions that affect their territories, cultural heritage and rights before authorising economic, development, extractive or climate projects or designating their lands as protected areas, which resonates with Hub work on ocean culture and inclusive conservation; and 
  • taking measures to protect Indigenous and other nature- dependent rural women’s traditional knowledge, customary practices and cultural rights, as highlighted in this Hub ​​​​video on Ghanaian women in small-scale fishing communities; and  
  • supporting capacity-building for women and girls who depend directly on nature for their cultural identities and livelihoods to sustainably conserve and use nature based on traditional knowledge, customs and stewardship responsibilities, as currently explored in Ghana through ​​​​workshops on women’s human rights in the context of small-scale fisheries. 

​​​Special Consideration of Girls​​ 

he Rapporteur provides an insight into the special considerations for girls, outlining the lifelong effects of gender discrimination which permeate from an early age – inequality, deprivation and exclusion. Special considerations for girls include domestic obligations like water collection, which impacts girls’ right to education, play and development (para 9), as extreme water scarcity has impacted the supply of safe water supplies, increased journeys and further violence (para.17). Ocean health degradation and its negative impacts on small-scale fisheries, Indigenous and coastal communities threatens further economic decline, which leads to violence against girls and child marriage (para.49). ​​ 

​​​Outlining States’ obligations, the Rapporteur affirms the immediate nature of the principle of non-discrimination, which requires States to apply an intersectional lens, recognising the heterogeneity of women, girls and LGBT+ persons (para. 11). Ensuring non-discrimination requires consideration of all discrimination, including age, essential to recognise the unique and special considerations required to protect and fulfil the environmental rights of girls and LGBT+ children.​​ 

​​​As such, the gender-transformative measures (paras 10, 61, 63,64) and States obligations (61-86) should consider:​​ 

  • ​​​Temporary special measures to consider the unique and additional resources required to accelerate the rights of girls and LGBT+ children;​​ 
  • ​​​The equal representation of girls as children’s environmental and ocean rights defenders, which requires the equal protection and fulfilment of their rights, including the right to information, education about the ocean – including best available science and recognition of Indigenous and local knowledge – and realisation of children’s right to be heard;​​ 
  • ​​​Age-disaggregation in data and impact assessments, that should be equally and clearly integrated into gender-disaggregation, to support better evidence on the specific impact of environmental and marine degradation on girls (paras.73 and 67).​​ 

​​​To empower ‘the most directly affected, vulnerable and marginalised women and girls’ (para. 69) – children are those most vulnerable to the loss of a healthy environment and ocean, and for the greatest length of time, whilst contributing the least to its harm. Intersectional layers of inequality and vulnerability require special consideration of girls, LGBT+ children, girls with disabilities, and Indigenous girls.​​ 

Business responsibility towards girls and women in fisheries 

The Special Rapporteur also focused on the responsibilities of private companies to respect the human rights of girls and women, which have relevance also for ocean-related industries. These responsibilities include: 

  • implementing human rights and environmental due diligence to identify, assess, prevent, cease, mitigate and effectively remedy all actual or potential adverse human rights and environmental impacts that their activities may cause or contribute to, and prevent or mitigate adverse impacts linked to their operations, goods or services through their supply chains and business relationships;  
  • publicly disclosing their adverse impacts on the health, rights and well-being of women, girls and nature;  
  • publicly committing to achieve substantive gender equality;  
  • supporting laws and policies intended to close gender gaps and employ rights-based approaches to climate and environmental problems;  
  • implementing zero-tolerance policies concerning intimidation of, threats against or reprisals against women and girls; and 
  • providing, or cooperate in providing, effective remedies for women and girls affected by environmental harm that a business causes or contributes to (para 88).  

Ongoing research for gender-transformative ocean action 

On the whole the Special Rapporteur calls not only for “gender-sensitive or responsive” approaches, but for “gender-transformative’ action to effectively protect the human rights of women and girls, including their right to a healthy environment and their land, water and other resource rights. This requires better understanding and tackling the nexus between gender inequality and environmental injustice, including the causes, consequences and gender-differentiated impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss (para 66). As we have addressed in our publications, understanding of environmental justice in the ocean context requires more work generally. 

Under the One Ocean Hub, ongoing work that can contribute to this vision includes human rights workshops and pop-up legal clinics in Ghana that bring together women from coastal communities in different regions to share their experiences and challenges in small-scale fisheries with various national stakeholders such as the Fisheries Commission of Ghana and the Ghana Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. Ongoing research is also contributing to better understanding women’s ocean culture, ocean livelihoods and their role as ocean defenders. Art-based approaches have also been used to understand fishermen’s views of gender dynamics in their communities, as captured in their songs.  

In Namibia, Hub researchers are exploring the importance of the multiple marine resources women and girls from coastal communities benefit from and are co-developing a bespoke capacity building training on seaweed farming and processing with coastal communities. Ongoing research is also looking into the connections between women’s ocean culture, livelihoods and voice in decision-making. 

In South Africa, Hub researchers are undertaking pioneering collaborative action-research with women from fishing communities in two pilot projects on supplementary livelihoods in Gqeberha (“Women in the Sewing Project”) and Hamburg (Sophakama – “Let’s raise”) involving 48 women. ​In addition, ​ongoing work with women small-scale fishers on the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, who are mostly involved in harvesting intertidal resources, as well as forest products, on the coast. However, the role of these women in the sector has been compromised by the implementation of the Small-Scale Fisheries Policy of South Africa promulgated in 2012, which has changed the institutional fabric of the sector at community level in the province. This has resulted in women being left behind in the sector, with some no longer involved in fisheries activities for the past 5 years. Ongoing research thus seeks to unveil the factors that have led to the exclusion of women from small-scale fisheries activities and the kind of support that is needed at local level to enable women to share fairly and equitably in the benefits arising from sustainable fisheries and sustainable use of other marine resources.  

Photo: Nessim Stevenson