Pacific women have a crucial role in regional fisheries, but their contributions are often overlooked, Anouk Ride, Margaret Batalofo, Chelcia Gomese and Hampus Eriksson write.
‘In the Pacific, men hunt, women gather.’ ‘Men fish in the open seas, women are on the shore not engaged in fishing.’ ‘Men control fish trade, women are the ‘hands’ that prepare fish for trade.’ Our thinking about fish and gender is moored in persistent biases about how people live their lives the Pacific, which shape research and development interventions.
In October, representatives from rural women’s markets, local fisheries, government, and civil society came together in Gizo, Solomon Islands, to discuss challenges and changes for women in fisheries on the International Day of Rural Women. They found that one of the key impediments to realising the potential of fisheries for rural communities continues to be the lack of recognition and support for women.
Despite the trope of the man at sea and the women on the shore, women catch 50 per cent of all fish consumed in Solomon Islands households and are the majority of fish sellers in rural areas. Their participation in fisheries has far outweighed their influence for some time. As Jill Houma, Assistant Fisheries Officer in Malaita Province explained: “Women do fishing for family dinners, primary consumption and gardening too. Often they do fishing and marketing, some husbands do the fishing and women do the processing of fish, gutting, motu cooking and selling too.”
As well as fishing in canoes around reefs and coastal areas, women collect shellfish, crabs and other species from the shore, which many researchers have been arguing is also ‘fishing’, although it often goes undercounted and undocumented in research. This is despite these activities contributing significantly to household food security.
On the other hand, cultural norms of men being mobile and able to go far from the household for hunting and labour have influenced their higher participation in the fishing of higher value species. Men have dominated sales of higher value fish like tuna and billfish, as they are the majority of the fishers in the open sea. One WorldFish study found on average men earn 60 per cent more per fish than women do in Auki, a provincial town in Solomon Islands.
Meanwhile in Gizo, the challenges discussed by rural women mostly revolved around external factors, outside their realm of control. Some of these were created by biases that led to the exclusion of women in fisheries and related sectors. A main topic of discussion by the local women, remains the lack of cold storage facilities for fish. A new market house, paid for by the Australian Government and run through the UN Women Markets for Change, did not include chilled display cabinets for fish.
As a result, sellers continue to sell fish on the floor of the market, which can quickly spoil in the heat. While this is to be addressed with tarpaulin tents and stalls in the next stage of the project, it illustrates how the needs of women in fisheries can be an afterthought in project design and implementation.
The exclusion of women in fisheries from infrastructure planning and implementation is not uncommon. As pointed out by Margaret Batalofo, around the Pacific a key government strategy is to invest in the construction of ‘Fisheries Centres’, which tend to be the domain of men and which women struggle to draw value from. Additionally, the location of these centres are often chosen without research into local fishing activities and therefore become underutilised by rural communities.
Gender norms in other related sectors also serve to leave unseen women’s struggles to make money from fish. In the Pacific transport sector, boats and vehicles being run by men form a kink in incomes for women, as they are rarely in a position to negotiate fees.
Moreover, in a country of many islands, marketing women often have to travel distances to sell their products. Local women told stories of paddling canoes long distances to take goods to local markets, high cost of hiring space in outboard motor boats, and being worried about coming into contact with others from Papua New Guinea – where COVID-19 is in communities – while travelling to market. There is yet to be any comprehensive research or intervention to address the exclusion of women from the transport sector, despite it being raised in several reports as a barrier to women’s livelihoods by international agencies and government.
This exclusion from key decisions affecting food security and livelihoods must be proactively addressed. In Solomon Islands’ Western Province, some positive developments include Temporary Special Measures to have quotas for women in the Assembly, a proposal for gender representation in provincial government, the inclusion of women in community-based resource management, and formalising women’s input into Gizo market management. However, beyond local efforts, researchers, donors, and fisheries practitioners can do much more to recognise and respond to the needs of rural women in fisheries.
There is a lack of research documenting women’s level of fishing and its contribution to household health. These issues are critical in locations like Solomon Islands where fish are a major source of protein and around one-third of all children suffer from malnutrition.
Fisheries infrastructure needs to incorporate gender and social inclusion to make it as effective as possible for those it seeks to service. Additionally, how women with fish-based livelihoods can be supported in rural areas, away from market facilities and trade hubs, is an understudied area. Studies on women’s role in fisheries value chains have so far focused on markets and export species, such as tuna, with few practical schemes to elevate women in local fish value chains.
Women are the majority of market sellers, but are commonly far away from the facilities that are most visible in international development programs. There needs to be more recognition of the value of women in fisheries in research, policy, and planning and innovations, providing them with options to be more than just underappreciated fishmongers, but active managers, traders, asset-owners, and entrepreneurs. Then women’s unseen roles and experiences can be used to harvest the health, wealth, and power of fish.