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Friday, January 09, 2015


Editorial Comment: We wish all our visitors to this site a very prosperous 2015.  Robert Lindley starts our year with thoughts and lessons learned about the critical role of women in our industry. The Asian Development Bank has mandated a 30% inclusion rate for women in loan projects at every level from project management in government agencies to work in the field.  We find that if women are fully engaged and supported in agriculture and agribusiness the work goes better and the profits are higher. Lindley makes the key point that women are usually already very busy; giving them more work may NOT be the right answer; neither may the answer be directly related to the given sector. We find it a general principle that development projects that make life easier for both sexes have an impact - projects that try to be clever to impress other consultants and the donor agencies seldom do. 

Aweil, South Sudan
The role of many women in fisheries,  is usually that of gatherer of sedentary organisms on the shoreline, or in processing and marketing.  Women very seldom “go fishing” in the generally understood sense of the word, since this activity is seen in almost every society as men’s work, and indeed in many societies there is a taboo against women on fishing boats, particularly those that go out far to sea or onto large lakes.  Simple gears in local shallow water is about as far as “fishing” goes for women.

This is very similar to the traditional role of women in hunter gatherer societies, where the women gather and glean from plants and slow moving animals on land, and process the products of this activity and anything their husbands can hunt.  This enables the women to bring up children at the same time as contributing to the household food inputs, since even very young children can accompany their mother, either carried or by foot, whilst gathering or processing food[1].  This role is ingrained, both in traditional and modern communities, and it is unlikely that there will be much change in the immediate future.

Dried fish market, Panyimur, Uganda
This is not to say that the processing and marketing role is not important nor lucrative.  In some West African fishing communities societies the women process the catch, do the marketing, and control all the income; making them very powerful and the key to successful fishing operations that provide smoke dried fish deep into the West African interior.  The women are rich, influential, money savvy, control household expenditure and are much held in awe by their husbands and male relatives, who have to made do with what beer money is permitted them by the matriarchs between fishing trips.

What is however often misunderstood about the women in fishing communities [Editor: indeed in ALL communities!!] is that their lives are generally already very busy.  They process the catch bought in by their husbands, gather and glean, maintain the household and look after the children, cook the food and undertake all the other domestic duties expected.  Without the benefit of electric gadgets to simplify many of these tasks, such as laundry, water collection, collecting firewood, cleaning and cooking, as well as their fisheries activities such as processing or marketing, there is little time left for additional activities. 

Fish factory, Aden, Yemen. Note the dress code
Liberating women in fishing communities from drudgery or transforming their lives is not going to be achieved by adding activities to the list of things they have to do every day, as is so often proposed. 

Making a few baskets or “fishy” trinkets for sale in the urban centres, so often proposed by well meaning development artists,  is hardly going to have any effect.  What may have a great effect is improving the existing infrastructure so that what they already do will be made easier or more profitable.  

This may be as simple as providing a clean water supply so that women do not have to spend hours fetching water, building a road to improve marketing opportunities or connecting a village to the electrical grid so as to “lengthen the day”.  Not exactly fishy solutions, but solutions that improves the lives of the women in fishing communities.

The so called “liberation” of women in western societies has mostly been effected by
a)      the control of fertility being placed in the hands of women (through the contraceptive pill and other such devices) and
These women run the fish market in Valencia, Spain.
Bright, modern and clean
b)      the use of electrical gadgets and piped water to reduce the workload at home and enable women time to do other things, like get a paid job.  Washing machines wash and dry the clothes removing the need for “wash day”, and indeed disposable nappies reduce the need for much washing if children are in the house; vacuum cleaners reduce the time needed to clean the house, dishwashers wash the dishes, lights make the day 24 hours long, public transport reduces travelling time to the shops.  Electric or gas stoves heat up immediately and are easy to clean, as opposed to charcoal or wood stoves, which are dirty, expensive and slow.  Water comes out of a tap not a pump several hundred metres away.  Convenience foods, for all their nutritional shortcomings, reduce the time needed to prepare the families’ meals.  All this is driven by technology for convenience and time saving, and much is aimed directly at traditionally women’s work.

A rare example of a simple fisheries development introduction that has impacted positively on women in fishing communities is the introduction of improved smoking kilns, which has enabled women in countries such as Malawi, where the women have always smoked fish, to reduce the amount of firewood they use, making fish processing more profitable and less environmentally damaging. 

A good example of the way modern non fisheries technology can benefit women in fishing communities is the introduction of mobile phones in rural areas, usually done by private companies seeking profits.  This has had a significant effect on fish marketing and processing.  Firewood can be ordered from suppliers, ice supplies ordered, transport to take fish to market hired and casual labour obtained, all at the price of phone call, from the fishing village, without the need to spend hours travelling about.  Fish traders also can inform when they will be visiting to purchase fish, and check with retail outlets and customers as to likely demand; this greatly reduces wastage throughout the supply chain.  Improved communications through mobile phones has immensely benefited women in many communities (not only fishing ones) all over the world.  The possibilities of extending the benefits of improved communications on fishing communities have hardly been explored in most regions, though some fish cooperatives have begun to distribute market information.  Development Agencies, as usual, are miles behind the commercial companies and fish traders in exploiting these kinds of hi-tech developments.

Female and child labour in South  Sudan
Social changes may also greatly improve women’s roles or status in fishing communities, though these are more long term orientated and often very difficult to introduce. Land and property rights, equality before the law and rights over inheritance, and rights over children and property in the case of a divorce, may have significant impacts on the status and condition of women in fishing societies.  These are longer term aims, but nonetheless important.

The lesson to take away from this is that traditional roles will persist in most conservative fishing communities, but by building on the strengths that already exist, improving and simplifying tasks already being undertaken, or providing services to make tasks more efficient, it is possible to make a very big difference relatively quickly.  Although the women are in fishing communities the way to transform their lives may not be directly related to the fish from which they rely on for income and food.

[1] Recent research shows that shopping serves much the same function in modern society, in that it also is the obtaining of food, is done at a leisurely pace, and can also be done with the kids in tow !

Robert Lindley is Senior Managing Partner for FoodWorks responsible for Fishery. He is currently leading our team on the Comprehensive Agricultural Management Plan project in South Sudan.


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