Saturday, May 6, 2017

A fragile sex in fisheries?

In coastal settlements in Brazil, we often see women at the edge of the mangrove swamp, harvesting clams and seaweed, or back in their villages weaving nets and benefiting fish, with children in tow. The activities performed by these women are unstable and discontinuous, which depend unconditionally on environmental conditions, and also on social factors, such as being pregnant or with very young children at home.
Women’s work is socially, economically, and ecologically relevant, but still invisible. We don´t know exactly what, how much, when and why they harvest. We don´t know how much of their product ends up in the market and if their market poses the same limitations faced by fishermen. We don´t know if their work is even more important to food security than male’s work and if it also contributes to the household economy when other activities fail. We, as a country, fail to recognize the overall role of artisanal fisheries in Brazil, but we manage to do a much poorer job when it comes to recognizing the role played by fisherwomen.
Apart from the characteristic informality of the sector, one of the difficulties in making these women visible is the fact that we don’t have a general definition of the meaning of "fishing". Common sense and also current legislation define fishing as the harvest of fish from the sea or freshwater using some sort of fishing gear (net, line and hook, trap, harpoon, etc.). Under such definition, women participation in fisheries is basically irrelevant.
Clam and crab harvesting, locally known as mariscagem, is one of the most emblematic example of invisibility in fisheries in Brazil. This activity is performed in mangroves and tidal flats and is particularly dominated by women, especially clam harvesting. There is no database that accounts for how many shellfish women collectors are scattered along the Brazilian coast, but there are certainly over tens of thousands. In most instances they are not even locally and socially recognized as fishers, which contribute to the lack of statistics on their total number.

Dona Vera fishing in Bahia. Photo by Laura Honda

However, according to the World Bank, women play an extremely important role within the fishing industry; their data suggest that 47% of the people engaged in fishing are actually women. Recently, a study published in the journal Coastal Management sought to quantify and characterize the contribution of women in fishing, based on five countries: Mexico, Peru, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam. The authors had to dig into whatever source they could find, but their findings did corroborate the utmost importance of women for the fishing industry. In these five countries, 1% to 13% of the people directly engaged in the fishing activity are female. While on the one hand these figures seem to indicate a modest contribution of women to the sector, their representativeness in activities indirectly related to the fishing sector such as processing and commercialization can reach up to 90%, as observed in Senegal. In Peru, for example, women represent 77% of the total number of people engaged in activities indirectly associated with fishing. If expanded for the other countries, we would very likely find the same exact picture. For instance, in the Brazilian northeast, women are estimated to represent about 35% of the workforce in activities related to the fish and seafood trade.
Another problem that women face to be recognized is the fact that their work often ends up being confused with domestic work. In the case of small-scale fisheries, women's work usually involves processing and marketing the catches, whose production chain is almost 100% informal. Most of the work is done from home, while women perform regular house chores.
For being invisible, these women do not enter fishing records and statistics, do not participate in decision-making processes and many fail to receive social benefits associated to fishing and social recognition. Bringing fisherwomen to the forefront necessarily involves a more precise quantification and characterization of their role in the fishing value chain and the strengthening of their organizational mechanisms. Women, especially in the northeast of Brazil, have been trying to improve their participation, not only by claiming rights for themselves but also for their communities. These women have been fighting to achieve representation for all fishers, regardless of their gender, and also for their communities in political instances where decisions are made; they have been trying to promote the insertion of the fishing economy in new socio-environmental contexts; and to unveil themes related to democracy, rights and environmental dynamics. The future belongs to them, but it is our role as scientists and organized civil society to make their path more amenable. 

By Ana Helena Bevilacqua


[1] Bevilacqua, A.H.V. et al. 2017. Following the fish: the income distribution in a Small-Scale fishery. In press.

[2] Guy, A. 2016. Vital but invisible: how subsistence fisherwomen around the world feed their families. Topic: Save the Oceans Feed the World. Oceana International Blog,, April 7.

[3] Harper, S.; Grubb, C.; Stiles, M.; Sumaila, U.R. 2017. Contributions by women to fisheries economies: Insights from five maritime countries. Coastal Management, 45(2): 1-16.

[4] Maneschy, M.C.; Siqueira, D.; Álvares, M.L.M. 2012. Pescadoras: subordinação de gênero e empoderamento. Rev. Estud. Fem. vol.20 no.3 Florianópolis Sept./Dec. 2012.

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