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Fisheries need to make gender inclusion a norm, not just ‘reach’ women, says Pacific study

Man and Woman fishing. Image by Shiri Ram courtesy WCS.

  • A study into gender-inclusion approaches on Fiji, Vanatu and Solomon Islands finds most focus on women while overlooking the role of men and gender relations.
  • Respondents report confusion over what gender means, lack of capacity, and cultural and traditional barriers.
  • Researchers call on fishing practitioners and managers to partner with gender and development organizations, and see gender as “cross-cutting” — interwoven, like climate change, “into every single thing that we do.”

As a marine ecologist who has long worked at the intersection of gender equality, conservation and fisheries, Sangeeta Mangubhai knows the importance of getting the language right. She asks to see a draft of this article, anxious that words like “gender,” “empowering” and “fishers” are often used incorrectly.

“Gender means both men and women, and the relationships and power dynamics etc. between them,” Mangubhai told Mongabay in a recent video interview from Fiji, where she is director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Fiji country program. “It’s quite problematic when people think it’s just about women.”

This is a misunderstanding she frequently came across while carrying out research for her new study.

Co-authored by Sarah Lawless from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia, the report is based on interviews with fisheries managers and practitioners working in the Pacific countries of Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

One government respondent from the Solomon Islands, quoted in the report, spoke for many when he said, “We don’t really understand what gender is. Particularly the technical side of this so that we can apply to our work with communities and [have it] guide us.”

Of the approaches to gender inclusion that were identified, 76.2% were assessed as designed to “reach” women, with very few that “benefited,” “empowered” or “transformed” — for example, by fostering working partnerships between men and women, or changing the attitudes and behaviors of men.

Instead, most involved “community consultation practice” — usually attempts to increase the number of women at community meetings and workshops, get their viewpoints or perspectives, or hold separate focus group discussions where they could speak more freely.

Such efforts were viewed positively by responders. “What was really shocking to us is that, despite to us all the approaches being at the very ‘reach’ end of the spectrum, they were still ranking themselves very highly,” Mangubhai said.

Lawless has critiqued gender equality commitments and investments as “narrow and outdated” in her work.

Narrowness refers to a typical “gender = women” sentiment. While by “outdated,” Lawless said in an email interview with Mongabay, “I refer to the ‘add-women-and-stir’ approaches which were popularized in the 70s and 80s. They have now been proven ineffective as they tend to place more burdens upon women, and only reinforce structural inequalities.”

To learn tools and strategies, both studies urge fisheries managers and practitioners to build strategic partnerships with gender and development organizations in the region, which have decades of experience in gender inclusion and can help fisheries raise their gender equality benchmark.

There are a number of organizations that fisheries managers and practitioners could call on. The study names regional bodies such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Pacific Islands Development Forum, and the University of the South Pacific; as well as U.N. agencies; international organizations such as Conservation International, Live and Learn, Wildlife Conservation Society, WorldFish and WWF; and local NGOs in Melanesia.

The support they provide could include sharing practical steps or best practices to promote gender inclusion, such as having a male and a female facilitator when going into the field; or breaking into groups so women can talk more freely but then creating a space to bring women and men together and where they can share each other’s ideas.

Another tool used by gender organizations is a time diary, where the goal is, according to Mangubhai, is “getting them [men] to understand there’s a huge amount of work women do around looking after the household, children, care of the elderly, their social commitments to the community, to the church …”

A fisherman on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat, in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

Beyond the fisherman stereotype

When people think of fishing, Mangubhai said, “no one’s visualizing fisher women.”

Yet a study published in early 2020 found that, around the world, women bring in about 2.9 million metric tons of fish, worth nearly $5.6 billion, each year.

In Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanatu alone, women reportedly provide around 80% of the seafood catch for their communities’ annual subsistence needs, according to data cited in the study led by Mangubhai.

So why are women so invisible in the small-scale fisheries sector?

It’s often to do with what work is valued. As in many other employment fields, work usually carried out by women tends to be seen as less important, unskilled or an extension of housework and caring responsibilities. One example is gleaning, a type of fishing where you collect from the seashore. “Women dominate in this space,” Mangubhai told Mongabay, “they’re collecting invertebrates and algae. But again, people don’t count that as fishing.”

Changing mindsets isn’t easy, as the report illustrates. One female respondent from an NGO in Fiji said, “Traditional barriers meant we can’t push it [gender] too much. We need to weave it in slowly. You need support from men and chiefs, so we need to do it subtly. A careful approach [is needed], otherwise, it could cause men to beat their wives.”

Another woman, from a global agency, warned that despite having gender polices in place, “until they [high-level male managers] leave [the organization] nothing will change. Women are there [within the organization] in principle to meet numbers [gender quotas]. It’s hard to institute any changes. Women at the senior level are left out of decision-making.”

“It’s a hard one to navigate,” Mangubhai told Mongabay, “because you’re trying to do right in terms of respect of culture, but also at the same time recognize that gender equity is really important.” It’s a fine balance, but one that can be negotiated — as seen elsewhere, such as a fishing project for Indigenous women in the Philippines highlighted by Mongabay last October.

Here, again, the importance of language comes up. For example, Mangubhai and Lawless found that the term “gender inclusion” was strategically used instead of “gender equality” in small-scale fisheries commitments on Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanatu. “This masking of gender offers the opportunity to build incremental acceptance of the principle, overcome resistance, and win the support of small-scale fisheries actors,” Lawless said. Though, she warns in the study, such language “depoliticizes gender and gendered power dynamics.”

In the report, household, communal and societal spheres are identified as “untapped opportunities and entry-points” for sensitization around gender equality, with small-scale fisheries in the region called on to fill gaps not covered by gender and development policy, such as gender issues of marine tenure and food and nutrition security.

Keeping gender at the forefront is important, however. The study highlights one organization it encountered with up to 13 different objectives for pursuing gender equality.

What’s needed, the authors conclude, is further questioning of these objectives and motives, and greater focus in the small-scale fisheries sector on the intrinsic value of gender equality — warning that progress can be hindered by “norm bending,” where gender equality is molded to pursue a different end goal.

Fish in a marine protected area near Cabo de Palos in the Mediterranean Sea. Image by Marta Terry L. / Flickr.

The price of change

With gender equality being pushed as a global principle, perhaps such norm bending is not surprising. But even for those in the small-scale fisheries sector who have gender equality as their ultimate goal, accessing financial and institutional support is a challenge.

The first study reports that that largest barrier to gender inclusion, noted by 85.3% of respondents, was capacity — such as the lack of a gender specialist or focal point to inform the work, or difficulties recruiting individuals with experience in both gender and fisheries.

For example, the researchers note, government gender focal points (GFPs) tended to be fairly junior female staff without formal training, with little influence, and whose duties as GFPs were in addition to their normal tasks and responsibilities and “largely tokenistic.” Respondents working in fisheries ministries, meanwhile, reported that “their superiors and colleagues saw gender as the work of the Ministry of Women.”

Confusion over whose “job” gender is can extend to outside funders too. Natalie Makhoul, gender and human rights specialist under the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) Programme at SPC, said in an email to Mongabay that although development cooperation provides key funding, partnerships and strategic relationships are not always explored in the beginning of a project design. “This can be strengthened and here more ownership needs to come from regional agencies to ensure that these relationships are seen as success factors rather than a coordination burden (because silo work is easier),” she said.

There are obstacles to overcome though, she added, notably that this is a vast region with many funding partners, projects and programs. That makes it difficult to keep track and connect over distances. Furthermore, finding the right local partnerships takes time and investment, Makhoul said. “Many smaller grass-root organizations do not have enough staff … some are not legally established, hence they cannot access funding; some are just informal groups without office space and have little access to training opportunities etc.,” she said.

Fences and platforms for Wayamasapi eel fishing on Lake Poso in Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island. Local people fear plans to reshape the flow of the Poso River will bring this fishing tradition to an end. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

The way forward

The growing attention on women’s roles and gender inequality in fisheries is a long time coming. The first issue of the SPC’s Women in Fisheries Information Bulletin, of which Mangubhai is currently the editor, dates back to 1997.

More recently, in 2019, the SPC published its “Pacific handbook for gender equity and social inclusion in coastal fisheries and aquaculture,” a hefty 120-page guide covering everything from how to do a gender and social inclusion (GSI) analysis through to “Mainstreaming gender throughout policy and legally binding documents.” A second edition is due to be launched early this year.

There’s also the 45 million euro ($55 million) PEUMP program, funded by the European Union and Swedish government. With SPC as the lead agency, the program has just over two years left to achieve its goals, which include “mainstreaming of gender and rights-based approach, trainings, and national gender stocktakes” and “socio-economic surveys of coastal communities including gender segregated data.”

Mangubhai noted that she’s also been asked, for the first time, to be on a gender-coordinating group for the Pacific, “which is very unusual, because normally it’s just the people that work very specifically on gender and some of the regional organizations.”

Breaking down the policy jargon and making the gender-equality discussions relevant to fishing practitioners, managers and community members on the ground will be vital if sustainable change is to happen and benefits fairly distributed.

Mangubhai’s report is cognizant of this, noting that instead of a top-down enforcement of a global principle, “spaces need to be created for organizations and individuals to contest and negotiate what gender means in SSF [small-scale fisheries] practice, identify gender advocates and resistors, and redefine organizational motivations, missions and values.”

Recognizing the vital role that women play in the small-scale fisheries sector in the Melanesia region also means giving more attention to areas where women are more active, such as processing, adding value, and sales.

What’s key, Mangubhai told Mongabay, is to see gender as cross-cutting. “To me, gender and climate change need to be interwoven into every single thing that we do,” she said.

Magubhai saw just how much the two intersect in 2016, when Fiji experienced a Category 5 cyclone. Collecting data from men and women working in fisheries, she saw that even in a disaster there are gendered impacts. More recently, she studied the impact of COVID-19 on fishing and fishing communities in Fiji, using a gender lens to see how the pandemic was affecting men and women.

“The idea is,” she noted, “men and women often in these places can play these wonderful, complementary roles. And so if we can understand and strengthen those, and get better recognition of women, we can maybe make more progress towards gender equality.”

Banner image: Photo by Shiri Ram.


Mangubhai, S., & Lawless, S. (2021). Exploring gender inclusion in small-scale fisheries management and development in Melanesia. Marine Policy, 123, 104287. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104287

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