Unveiling the hidden contributors: Towards researching on women within small-scale fisheries to reach greater equity in ocean governance    

By Maude Chuche

My name is Maude Chuche, and this past spring I had the opportunity to undertake a three-month internship at the One Ocean Hub. As a French student in the final year of my degree at Paris Sciences & Lettres, my academic background is interdisciplinary, as my degree in environmental sciences is a combination of both scientific and social sciences. As a result, I completed an internship in fisheries in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieure specialising on examining the definition of small-scale fisheries, which influenced my decision to focus my research on women in fisheries. As I took a deeper dive into my research interest, the words of Peace Gavour Abla, a Ghanaian fishworker, in the short film “Ocean and Women” produced by the One Ocean Hub, resonated with the experiences garnered during my internship:

“The government has to listen to the voice of women. Because without the women, the work of fishermen would be in vain.”

In this blog post I shed light on the often overlooked and undervalued contributions of women in fisheries and ocean governance based on my Internship with the One Ocean Hub. By exploring the research conducted by One Ocean Hub in Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa, the objective is to raise awareness about gender disparities, advocate for gender equality, and emphasise the need for inclusive and equitable practices in ocean governance.

Throughout the years, the roles of women in fisheries have been overlooked, underestimated and/or undervalued in data collection, management and policy (Bennett, 2005, Harper, 2013 & 2017). Yet, research has shown that women contribute in many and varied ways, socially, historically, economically and culturally in this sector (Gissi, 2018). Failure in the recognition of women contributions in fisheries management can lead to missteps in policy interventions (Bennett, 2005, Kleiber, 2015). Nowadays, the importance of issues of inclusion in ocean governance has been highlighted by international institutions (FAO, 2015, Bennett 2018). Gender equity is an international concern, as evidenced by the principles put by the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication, in short the SSF Guidelines (FAO, 2015) (Kleiber, 2017).

In many countries, due to patriarchal practices, women and girls are often marginalised. The issue of gender inequality in fisheries is deeply rooted in the wider marginalisation experienced by fisher communities globally (Harper, 2017). Indeed, small-scale fishers frequently find themselves marginalised and left out of important policy and decision-making processes (Allison and Horemans, 2005; Weeratunge et al., 2014).

This blogpost focuses on One Ocean Hub’s research on women’s contribution towards ocean-based economies. The Hub’s research is committed to the empowerment of marginalised communities, especially women, youth, children and Indigenous Peoples, who are usually excluded from ocean governance. In preparation for the July 2023 Ocean & Women workshop organised by the Hub, this blogpost aims to explore gender and ocean governance issues in three Hub countries: Ghana, Namibia and South Africa.

Women activities

The very definition of fishing can in itself obscure the contributions of women, since for some, fishing is reduced to catching fish at sea using boats. In some fisheries research, management and policy, the focus was on the direct, formal, paid fishing that is done mainly by men, obscuring the indirect, informal, part-time and often unpaid part done by women (Harper, 2017). This spotlight was mainly due to the control of the catching sector for economic objectives (Bennett, 2005). Women’s activities are much more different and diverse than one might think. Extending the definition allows us to include women and recognise their fishing-related activities (Harper, 2017), but, and most importantly, avoid underestimating the diversity and totality of human fishing catches and their impact on ecosystems (Kleiber, 2014).

According to Hub researchers interviewed, small-scale fisher women that they study and engage with do not fish directly. They do not board boats or hold fishing lines. However, the activities of women in small-scale fisheries outside household responsibilities vary across Namibia, South Africa and Ghana.

The principal activities carried out by women in South Africa and Ghana are processing and distributing fish. The processing activities include various methods such as processing fresh fish for sale, salting and drying fish, and smoking fish. After processing, the women sell the fish through various distribution channels, selling it in markets or supplying it to restaurants. In Ghana, for example, women can have an economic advantage, as they can sometimes control the price at which they buy and sell it. In Namibia, women’s activities include shell collecting. The shells they collect are used to make necklaces called onyoka. These necklaces are unique to Namibia and are usually worn during celebratory events (e.g. births, weddings).

Overall the work is polarised, with men doing the harvest and women doing the pre- and post-harvest work. All the researchers stressed that this is culturally and historically the way society structured women’s roles “it’s just society that worked out that way” said Philile Mbatha (University of Cape Town, South Africa). This view was echoed by Buhle Francis, (Rhodes University, South Africa) as she noted that “when you are born and grow up in an African setup, your role is already defined.”

There are some exceptions in some communities, where some women own boats and go fishing like in certain parts of South Africa and in Ghana. In Ghana some women small-scale fishers (known as fish mammies) are successful and have leadership roles and manage to make enough money to buy canoes and employ men (see Kenneth Amankwah Boateng’s research on Fish Mammies in Ghana). However, researchers highlighted that it represents a small percentage of women involved in the industry, as it requires significant capital investment, which is not accessible to many women. This small percentage of women is difficult to quantify, given the lack of data on women in fisheries because according to Hub researcher, Bolanle Erinosho (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) nobody has collected data on the womens’ financial gain.

Ocean governance

According to Hub researchers, the implementation of gender policies in Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa faces significant challenges. While governments of Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa are parties to various international treaties and have supported international guidelines, including the FAO SSF Fisheries Guideline that includes a specific chapter on gender equality, there are difficulties in effectively implementing these international provisions.

In Ghana, there are various organisations or groups representing fishers in decision-making processes. For example, a major women’s association in Ghana is called the National Fish Processors Association. It is a whole leadership structure representing women as fish processors and enabling them to advocate for themselves within national meetings. These women’s organisations, however, are not adequately represented in current fisheries governance structures in Ghana.

Philile Mbatha explained that within the government’s agenda for small-scale fisheries in South Africa, gender issues are largely ignored, with a predominant focus on ecological perspectives and maximising catch in small-scale fisheries. When discussions around ocean governance, fisheries are organised by governments and they want to invite small-scale fisheries members, the balance of gender, however,  is not always respected.

Nonetheless, women can play a very important role in ocean governance because, in many small-scale fishing communities, women are a great support.  “Even if the men are involved in the fishing itself, most of the time it is the women who contribute most to the food security of the families in the communities” according to Philile Mbatha.

In Namibia, Martha Jonas (University of Namibia, Namibia) expressed that women in governance can play a role in lobbying for better policy-making. By forming groups, they can have a stronger voice in decisions and enable small-scale fishers to be heard. Similarly, creating or joining a small-scale fishers’ association is an effective way of being recognised and defined.

Overall, women have the potential to make substantial contributions to ocean governance, but systemic challenges and gender disparities need to be addressed to provide them with equal opportunities and recognition.

Researchers’ recommendations

To support greater gender equality in ocean governance, the following recommendations can be implemented based on the insights from the interviews.

  • Strengthen the legal framework and its enforcement :

The interviewees emphasised the importance of improving the legal framework surrounding gender equality and ocean governance. This can be achieved through the development of comprehensive laws and policies that address gender disparities and promote equal opportunities and representation specific to each country’s legal and policy context. Efforts should be made to enforce these laws effectively and ensure compliance at the national level.

  • Enhance education and community engagement:

Awareness raising and education programs should be developed to raise awareness about harmful practices for the environment and promote sustainable alternatives. The focus should be on empowering communities, particularly women, by providing them with knowledge and resources to actively participate in decision-making processes and manage their livelihoods. In Ghana, for example, the coming of a legal assistant to group meetings has enabled communities to have direct legal advice on questions they had.

  • Conduct further (intentional) research:

The interviewees suggested the need for more research to delve deeper into gender-related issues in ocean governance. Furthermore, it is crucial for academics to be intentional, including both men and women in discussions (even in separate ways), in order to avoid gender blindness. This research could serve as a foundation for evidence-based policies and interventions.

By implementing these recommendations, it is possible to make significant strides in promoting greater gender equality, and equitable practices in ocean governance. In the context of challenges posed by climate change to fisheries vulnerability, overlooking women’s voices runs the risk of missing the complete picture of social-economical linkages to marine ecosystems, urgently needed for effective and sustainable ocean governance (Gissi, 2018). The Hub is committed to advance protection of women and girls’ rights to a sustainable environment (SDG 1-5, 8, 10, 13-17). The Hub has co-created a platform in Ghana for women to share their experience and challenges in small-scale fisheries with decision makers and co-developed supplementary livelihoods for women in small-scale fisheries in South Africa and Namibia.

Hub researchers met at the University of Strathclyde (UK) for an “Ocean and Women” workshop in July 2023 to discuss gender and its links to the researchers’ ongoing work. A blog post on the workshop will be published in the next Hub newsletter in September 2023.

Related SDGs:

  • No poverty
  • Zero hunger
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Reduced inequality
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions