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Women and girls: Let’s transform the ocean by including everyone (commentary)

Chinese and Guinean crewmembers sort fish on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat operating in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

  • On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, co-founders of the international, Brazil-born Women’s League for the Ocean (Liga) say the healthy future of our planet’s oceans requires the indispensable presence of women in positions of leadership.
  • Liga is an international women’s network co-founded by a journalist, a photographer and a scientist that seeks to be part of a movement that empowers women to engage in actions to protect the ocean – from a feminine perspective.
  • The more than 2,600 global members of Liga includes scientists, activists, sportswomen, photographers, documentary filmmakers, NGO leaders and journalists.
  • Liga’s founders say they want their work to contribute toward healing humanity’s interdependent relationship with the ocean, and promote more sustainable practices from their network outward. This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

If we want to transform the way we care about the ocean, we must radically transform society. We need every solution and every solver, including women. We need to discuss the opportunity for a blue economy and the solutions for an environmental crisis, but not without justice and equity.

Science, gender equality, and the ocean are vital for the achievement of internationally agreed-upon development goals, especially the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The ocean covers more than two-thirds of earth; this alone should be enough evidence of its importance. Humanity relies on the ocean’s ecosystem services. There are women fishing, swimming, sailing, diving, doing conservation and research work, and a host of other science-related activities connected to the world’s oceans. But they are not yet equal partners in the world’s halls of power, where so many decisions about the future of our oceans are made.

How could we govern the ocean without women?

The undervaluing of and discrimination against women in the ocean, particularly in relation to the rights to ecosystem services, makes us highly vulnerable in the context of pressures and threats to the environment. In coastal zones, for instance, women directly suffer from climate change from displacement and lack of water. They are also more vulnerable to polluted seas, either due to lack of sanitation, which leads to various diseases, or to plastics.

What this moment calls for is a mosaic of voices. All ideas, actions and insights for innovative strategies are more than needed. For a long time, many leaders have been focused on the wrong side, and developing ineffective practices. We are facing the consequences right now.

Women are an important part of India’s fishing industry, especially as fish sellers. In Mangalore market they also work as loaders. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.
Women are an important part of India’s fishing industry, especially as fish sellers. In Mangalore market they also work as loaders. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.

Yet, there is a ray of hope. Now we are also learning that attention to women’s participation in crucial decision-making gets results.

Greater political representation for women has already contributed to better environmental regulations, but overall the political arena remains the worst-performing dimension. In Latin America, 28.9% of all congressional seats in the region were occupied by women. In Brazil, in particular, 9% of ministerial positions are occupied by women and approximately 15% in the parliament.

In Brazil, just over half of Ph.D. students are women. However, in Brazil and globally, there is still invisibility surrounding the female protagonist in science, which in turn robs many future scientists and girls from learning in part through inspiring, successful examples.

So, we have to talk about it. And we have to engender efforts to inspire girls to understand the importance of science within society, and how much we rely on ocean resources for our health, welfare, and livelihood.

The few studies available have shown that, in general, women are given the most unstable, underpaid, or unpaid positions, which require lower professional qualifications (secondary sector) and are under-recognized or not recognized as “fishing activity.” Perhaps, partly because of this, and partly due to the almost non-existence of data and studies on gender in fishing, the worldwide information is that the proportion of women in fishing activity is higher in aquaculture (19%) than in fishing (12%). In Brazil, data on gender and fisheries are still incipient, but it is known that women also play an important role, and are still the least recognized professionally.

In an effort to address these inherent connections between women, girls, and the ocean, in March 2019, we created the Women’s League for the Ocean (Liga), which now has more than 2,600 members globally. We called on women we knew were in the frontline of protecting the ocean in their fields to join in this cause.

Trindade and Martin Vaz is an archipelago located in the Southern Atlantic Ocean about 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) east of the coast of Espírito Santo, Brazil. Photo by Flavio Forner.

Women understand what it is like to be excluded and therefore how important it is to be included, which motivates and challenges women leaders to make space for more women. We aim to create space and stimulate girls to look to the world’s oceans when they look to the future. Not just when it comes to use, but also when considering protection and nurturing. We need as many of us as possible if we are to make the changes that are required. Diverse leadership helps us make better decisions and creates greater mutual awareness.

In founding Liga, we understood how important it is to communicate more effectively with society. How could we explain to people the threats the ocean is facing? The most important thing for us is to be able to talk with a variety of people and maintain diversity as a crucial part of our vision, not just in leadership, but in everything we do.

In science, it has been reported that globally, there are more women in ocean science than in science overall. Recently in Brazil, for instance, the government has been organizing regional workshops to discuss the challenges of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Not surprisingly, in all regions, and all workshops, most participants were women.

This level of participation by women is a very important indicator of what’s to come.

With inclusive and diverse views, we are going to start to build the knowledge needed to implement the Agenda 2030, where the SDG 14, to be accomplished, needs to be connected with other SDGs, for example, the SDG 5 on gender equity. If this global agenda comes with the “leave no one behind” slogan… we really have to commit ourselves to that, and include everyone, starting with women and girls.

Banner image:Chinese and Guinean crew members sort fish on the Fu Yuang Yu 380, a Chinese fishing boat operating in Guinean waters in 2017. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace. 

About the authors:
Paulina Chamorro is a journalist , runs the Vozes do Planeta podcast (on air since 2016) and is co-founder of the Women’s League for the Ocean. You can find her on Twitter at @paulinachamorro.

Leandra Gonçalves is a postdoctoral researcher at Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo. She is an interdisciplinary researcher on a mission to conserve the ocean in a changing world.  And she is co-founder of the Women’s League for the Ocean. You can find her on Twitter at @lelegoncalves.

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