Hearing, counting and empowering women: GAF7 conference showcases gender equality progress and challenges

Emerging research methods and technologies that empower and benefit women are helping to close the gender gap in fisheries and aquaculture. But more needs to be done to ensure women are heard, counted and empowered in policy and decision-making arenas. 

These were the key themes that emerged from ‘Expanding the Horizons’the FISH-sponsored 7th Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries conference (GAF7) in Bangkok on 18-21 October 2018. The conference brought together around 150 experts, researchers and practitioners to discuss strategies to enhance gender inclusiveness and equality.

“The seafood industry doesn’t work if there are no women, just like it doesn’t work if there’s no fish. The world needs seafood to feed, and the industry needs women to make it happen,” said Dr. Darian McBain, Global Director for Sustainable Development, Thai Union, in her keynote address. This set a vibrant yet serious mood for the conference organized by the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Section of the Asian Fisheries Society, the Asian Institute of Technology and the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific.

Over the four days, delegates heard 95 presentations and participated in nine special workshops. The conference was organized around the themes of gender assessments, gender-disaggregated statistics, the seafood industry, governance, climate change, the sustainable development goals, research methods and learning exchanges.

The broad range of topics reflects progress among the delegates says Dr. Holly Hapke, a member of the organizing committee who has been involved with the GAF network and conference since 2008. “There’s been a movement toward more advanced gender analysis, evidenced by research into diverse areas such as the struggles of migrant women and women’s position in value chains,” said Dr. Hapke, who is the Research Development Director at the University of California, Irvine.

Aerators next to semi-intensive shrimp pond - Lhokseumawe, Indonesia. Photo by Cecily Layzell, WorldFish

Emerging research methods to empower women

New research methods are emerging that empower women in the process, not just the outcome, and give them greater voice. One such method is the gender-transformative approach (GTA), on which Cynthia McDougall, Afrina Choudhury and Steven Cole from WorldFish ran a special workshop.

“GTA aims to spark women and men to critically self-reflect, leading to shifts in structures such as social norms and dynamics that perpetuate and reproduce inequalities. This is about households themselves deciding what works for them together to drive this change process and create enduring positive outcomes,” Dr. McDougall said.

Another novel research approach that is increasingly being used in fisheries is photovoice, which was the focus of a special workshop by Janine Pierce, an adjunct research fellow at the University of South Australia and a board member of Aquaculture without Frontiers (Australia).

The method involves giving participants cameras to take photos on loosely worded themes and to write or describe accompanying comments in a diary. To provide some hands-on experience, a handful of delegates, including Chelcia Gomese, Senior Research Analyst from WorldFish Solomon Islands, participated in a photovoice project at the conference.

“I really enjoyed doing it, and I’m now planning to use photovoice in some upcoming research in the Solomon Islands to understand what matters to women around fisheries,” Gomese said. “I hope that this will raise the voice of women and communities at the government level and influence policy.”

Gender research approaches provide new insights

A number of gender research approaches are being applied to fisheries and aquaculture, providing new insights into gender inequality. 

One example is intersectionality, which was the focus of a workshop by Marilyn Porter, Professor Emerita, Memorial University, Canada, and Dr. Hapke.“Women are not all the same,” said Dr. Porter in the workshop. “For example, a woman fisher in India will have a different experience from a male fisher or a Canadian woman fisher even though they are all fishers. Intersectionality allows us to unpick the differences in experiences and identities as well as, more importantly, see how these differences interact to affect the overall experience of both individuals and groups. In turn, this leads to a more sophisticated analysis and better targeted policy interventions.”

Another research approach that holds value—and needs deepening—is the feminist perspective, which was the focus of a workshop by Nalini Nayak and Cornelie Quist, founding members of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

“Feminist researchers and activists in alliance with fishworker movements need to develop a cohesive conceptual framework that includes development approaches and policy measures,” said Nayak. “This should be focused on achieving socially and environmentally just fisheries that sustain life and livelihoods. Such a framework will be critical to understanding the diverse and changing lives of women in fisheries in relation to the impacts of unsustainable global fisheries.”

Innovative technologies

Many presentations highlighted how the introduction of new gender-sensitive technologies are enabling women to participate more fully in and receive benefit from fisheries and aquaculture.

One example, presented by Cecile Brugere, Director of Soulfish Research and Consultancy, was on tubular nets for seaweed production in Zanzibar, which are showing promise for women’s empowerment, livelihoods and the environment.

“From two years of testing, we found that the tubular nets enhanced the growth and productivity of higher value seaweed strains, generated income and strengthened the links between women producers.”

But innovations are never gender neutral, she reminded delegates. “If an innovation is to change gender relations in a positive way, for example by empowering women, it needs to be introduced very sensitively and its uptake monitored over time alongside continuous capacity building.”

Beach market in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo by Samuel Stacey, 2013.

Collective action by women

A key theme of the conference was the importance of collective action by women, which was underscored by comments by Belinda Richardson, Fellow, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Collective action is critical to driving policy that works for women. This is a herculean effort because it’s often very difficult to bring those voices to the tables,” she said.

But some examples presented at GAF7 offer hope. One, on the successes of the African Women Fish Processors and Traders Network (AWFishNet), presented by Editrudith Lukanga, the Secretary General as well as a member of the FISH Independent Steering Committee, consists of women from 28 African Union countries.

“Since forming in Tanzania in April 2017, we’ve been able to attract funding, which is a huge success for us because resources are normally scarce and it enables us to come together. Through the network we’re raising our voices, in a unified way, for the inclusion of women in all decision-making and policy processes, from planning to implementation to monitoring,” Lukanga said.

On this topic, delegates benefited from the insights of Margaret Harding, a fish processor and vendor, and one of the 25 members of the Central Fish Processors Association in Barbados—the only postharvest fisherfolk organization in the country. “Having the organization enables us to work freely. It enables us to do the things that we want like the upkeep of the market, abiding with regulations and complying with governance,” she said of the organization that was formed in 2005.

Her advice to other fisher women is to be vocal. “Get together. Make sure your voices are heard. It can happen. Let all of the women fisherfolk come together to work as one,” she said.

Mapping exercise in Jhalokhati, Bangladesh. Photo by Sarah Castine, 2013.

More work to be done

At the conference, Dr. Meryl Williams, Chair of the GAFS and former WorldFish Director General, launched the new From catch to consumer: Why gender matters in aquaculture in fisheries article.

The article highlights the key actions that are needed to make real progress toward gender equality—all of which were raised and discussed at the conference.

To count women, key stakeholders such as fisheries agencies need to collect regular and accurate gender-specific employment data on the catch-to-consumer pathway to track trends and progress.

By supporting women’s empowerment, women can collaborate, assert their rights and upgrade their capacity, which requires funding and support for education, advocacy and legal resources.

To make women more visible, gender equality must be a stated priority in policy, research and development programs.

Investment into targeted gender projects, research and educational outreach needs to increase significantly, even a hundredfold, to achieve impact.

Gender equality cannot be achieved by gender researchers and practitioners alone—a critical message summed up by co-organizer Kyoko Kusakabe, Professor, Asian Institute of Technology.

“It is only by working in a collaborative way—through transdisciplinary approaches and integrative policies with grassroots organizations and policy makers—that we can make real progress toward sustainable and socially just small-scale fisheries and aquaculture,” Dr. Kusakabe said.