Improved Cross-Sector Collaboration Can Advance Gender Equality in Fisheries

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Improved Cross-Sector Collaboration Can Advance Gender Equality in Fisheries

At least a quarter of fishers in the Pacific region are women, yet women are underrepresented in institutions that manage fisheries and set their policies. The corresponding lack of policies that consider women’s needs can be harmful socially and ecologically—and may lead to less secure livelihoods for communities and less sustainable catches.

Q&A piece on Pew site that is interviewing Sangeeta Mangubhai about her research on gender equality in fisheries
Photo courtesy of Emily Darling

Researchers—including Sangeeta Mangubhai, who was named a Pew marine fellow in 2018—have found that fisheries institutions and their staff members often lack the resources and expertise to address gender inequality. However, by collaborating with gender development organizations, the Pacific fisheries sector can incorporate best practices to advance gender equality and improve social inclusion.

To highlight opportunities to improve gender equality in the fishing sector, Mangubhai and four co-authors recently published peer-reviewed research in World Development. The authors spoke to people working in fisheries institutions and at gender development organizations in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, with the goal of identifying how fisheries institutions can better invest in gender equality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you tell us why gender equality should matter to fisheries?

A: Gender equality is important in fisheries to make sure that policies are mindful of everyone’s needs and challenges. It also ensures that we’re benefiting from knowledge from both women and men. Women have expertise to lend to better fisheries management and practices, and women also impact their local environments. So not involving them in the fisheries sector has ecological and social repercussions.

For example, many women in Fiji, where I’m from, fish for food in coastal mangrove and seagrass areas. That can give women knowledge that men may not have about these types of areas, because men tend to fish farther from shore. At the same time, if coastal waters too close to a village are closed to fishing, women who live and fish there may find it harder to feed their families.

Leaving women out of these types of fisheries management decisions limits innovation and the ability to sustain local fisheries. And if women aren’t engaged in fisheries planning or management, they may overfish certain areas. Many women fish in fish nursery areas to sell their catches and bring in income for their families. We see this a lot in Fiji with women catching groupers. So it’s crucial that we include their insights and perspectives.

Q: Where is the fisheries sector right now in terms of gender equality? And why do you think gender development organizations are positioned to help?

A: Fisheries managers and practitioners in the Pacific Islands in this study have set a low bar for gender equality, and we need to figure out how to build their capacity in this regard and ensure that they move in the right direction. This is critical, because fisheries organizations design and fund fishing projects, so the approaches these organizations take have a large influence on local and regional fisheries and people in the sector.

Gender development organizations can help because they’ve amassed decades of experience and lessons learned in improving gender equality. Organizations such as the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women as well as many other institutions that specialize in advocating for and advancing gender equality can advise on successful approaches and share toolkits that they have developed.

Q: You mentioned that fisheries in the Pacific have set a low bar. What are some factors that might be contributing to this?

A: Our research showed that fisheries institutions in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu haven’t fully seen or understood why gender equality matters within their sector and why it should be valued. They’re very focused on fishing and productivity.

The other thing we found is that most fisheries organizations lack the capacity to integrate gender equality initiatives into their day-to-day work. They don’t have people with gender equality expertise to guide their work or provide internal training, and they don’t have the right tools and approaches to improve outcomes in a meaningful way. And many nongovernmental organizations involved in sustainable fishing rely on funding from donors, who themselves often don’t get the importance of gender equality and hesitate to provide funding for such efforts.

There can be political barriers too. If you look at who’s in charge in fisheries institutions, men are more likely to hold senior positions, so it can be difficult to persuade them to make the institutional commitment and changes necessary to integrate gender equality into their daily work.

Q: What are fisheries organizations doing right now to advance gender equality?

A: The fisheries institutions we evaluated focus more on involving people who work in the industry in projects such as making sure they’re attending fisheries training workshops. But, ultimately, this is not effective, because these small-scale interventions don’t change the lives of women or the power dynamics they have to navigate within their communities.

For example, if you involve a woman in a new project to grow seaweed in her local environment but she’s working a 12-to-14-hour day taking care of her family as well, giving her another project to handle won’t improve gender equality long term because it doesn’t address underlying inequities, like the disproportionate burden of care she has. All you will do is make her even more overworked than she already is.

Q: OK. So what do gender development organizations do to tackle gender equality more successfully?

A: Our research found that gender development organizations contribute more to long-term success in improving gender equality because they look at influencing changes at a larger societal level. For example, advocating for gender equality at the government level, monitoring and evaluating gender impact on a regular basis, and introducing systems of accountability if equality isn’t being upheld are approaches that contribute to more enduring change.

Q: How, then, can fisheries institutions and gender development organizations better collaborate?

A: Fisheries institutions and development organizations are in silos, and there isn’t a lot of space for them to collaborate. I’d like to break down the silos.

That could mean fisheries asking development organizations how to implement and maintain a long-term training program or how to better incorporate gender equality best practices into their organizational DNA. At the same time, gender development organizations can learn how to better apply their knowledge and expertise in other economic sectors.

Q: What do you hope the impact of your research will be?

A: I’m hoping to present this to many of the Pacific-area gender development organizations I’ve gotten to know through my Pew fellowship. I want to say to them, “You’ve been doing this great work advancing gender equality for decades. What would it take for you to engage more directly with the fisheries sector?” At the same time, I want to say to those in fisheries institutions, “Why don’t you start to partner more with colleagues who work on gender equality so that it can be more effectively integrated into fisheries work?”

I want gender development organizations to understand how much room there is for fisheries organizations to improve gender equality. And most fisheries organizations just don’t have the expertise and resources to tackle this problem on their own.

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