Impact Work

Gender Equality is Necessary For a Sustainable Fishing Industry

Just like any other male-dominated industry, women fishers face discrimination, harassment and other gender-based disparities.
July 6, 2017, 9:00pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, the Associated Press published a series of articles that made some cast a long side-eye at our favorite seafood dishes. In one report, the media organization found that unregulated companies in Thailand were enslaving migrant workers in hellish conditions to peel shrimp for 16 hours a day. One couple said their hands throbbed in ice water as they "peeled about 175 pounds of shrimp for just $4 a day, less than half of what they were promised."

While the investigation revealed how some of that food ended up at US-based retailers like Whole Foods, Walmart and Kroger, it also shed an alarming light on how female workers in the seafood industry are treated. According to the AP's reporting, for example, one woman who was eight months into her pregnancy "miscarried on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling for four days while hemorrhaging." Another woman, also pregnant, "escaped only to be tracked down, yanked into a car by her hair and handcuffed to a fellow worker at the factory."

While these are extreme examples, women who work in the fishing industry, which includes fishing and harvesting on boats, processing the catch, tending fish ponds and much more, face harsh conditions. Despite representing half of the total workforce (about 56 million jobs around the world, according to a report from the World Bank), they still face gender-based disparities in work conditions and income.

Danika Kleiber is a social research project manager at the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research. She said women in the fishing industry, as the case is in most male-dominated workplaces, face sexism and sexual harassment; however, they also face issues of safety.

Women are integral to small-scale fisheries, which account for about 70 percent of the total production of fisheries worldwide.

"Sometimes women aren't afforded the same respect as their male peers are so that can be dangerous because working on the water is dangerous," she told VICE Impact. "If you don't have respect for each other and follow each other's instructions, that can be rough."

While a woman working on a vessel off the coast of Oregon will have a different experience from a woman shucking shrimp from her house in rural India, that doesn't change the fact that people generally think of fishing as something men do. Kleiber continued: "When women do participate, it's either thought of as something different than fishing, or it's thought of as an extension of their household tasks, therefore unpaid labor, therefore not worthy of counting. There's this persistent erasure of women from the industry."

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In 2015, Mariette Correa, a gender and development expert and senior program coordinator for the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, testified that women are integral to small-scale fisheries, which account for about 70 percent of the total production of fisheries worldwide. But, she stated, they remain "invisible," "ignored and undervalued."

"They have limited or no access to social security, capital and credit, and face hardships in securing land rights and access to fishery resources," Correa said. "They also face unsafe, unhygienic, and unfair working conditions. In most places, women in post-harvest activities are constantly struggling for even basic facilities at landing centres and markets."

Correa also noted women oftentimes deal with abuse and exploitation. In Kenya, for example, some women have no choice but to sell their bodies to break into the fishing industry. The practice is called jaboya: Women were, and in some cases still are, forced to trade sex to get fish to sell at markets. One woman in her 50s told News Deeply she felt she had no other way to feed her four children after her husband died. Another woman said that while she had managed to avoid being sexually exploited, when she finally was able to break into the fishing industry and acquire her own boats to catch her own fish, local authorities detained them and demanded bribes.

Gender equity is important to ensuring sustainable small-scale fisheries."

In 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations came out with the first internationally agreed upon set of voluntary guidelines for small-scale fisheries. Included among the 13 guidelines is a section on gender equality, and the call for parties "to recognize that achieving gender equality requires concerted efforts by all and that gender mainstreaming should be an integral part of all small-scale fisheries development strategies."

Kleiber says the installation of these guidelines was "mind-blowing because there's never really been an international policy that insists that gender equity is important to ensuring sustainable small-scale fisheries."

To help stakeholders understand how to apply these policies, the FAO released a handbook last month. A writer for called it "a treasure trove of essential background knowledge on women, gender and small-scale fisheries, combined with practical advice and case examples on incorporating gender equality principles in small scale fisheries work."

Within the almost 200-page document is a series of recommendations aimed at policymakers and community service organization, including enacting laws that criminalize violence against women in fisheries, making sure women are at the table when holding discussions on issues impacting the fishing industry, and creating spaces where women can come together to address the issues affecting them the most. In short, the handbook aims to "reduce existing inequalities by balancing the relationship between men and women in small-scale fisheries, and recognizing women as important partners in development."

As Kleiber notes: "The history of men going out to sea and women staying on shore is a story we've been telling ourselves for a really long time. Rewriting that story, because that story is imperfect, is harder to do."