Women in Conservation
Take a Page from Fiji’s Fisherwomen
By Sangeeta Mangubhai
March 23, 2019
[Note: this is the third in a series of blogs by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) staff celebrating “Women in Conservation” in recognition of Women’s History Month.]
Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of my aunt taking me to her village in Fiji. There, I would spend my time following the older women around, watching as they went out onto the reef flats to glean for sea urchins and sea cucumbers. I would follow them into the mangroves and watch in absolute awe as these women wrestled mud crabs with their bare hands.
This was a time when marine biology of any sort was not taught at school. So everything we learned about our oceans came from our elders around us.
As an adult, I started working on coastal fisheries and I realized early in my career that a lot of the decisions around natural resource management have been made historically and culturally by men. If we held workshops, the women were too busy cooking to participate. Rural women in Fiji are some of the busiest people that I know. If they aren’t cooking, they’re looking after their children or their homes, or tending to their gardens, or out fishing for food for their families.
Two years ago, we started looking at seafood supply chains in Fiji, and in particular, the sea cucumber and the mud crab fisheries. And we quantified the role that men and women were playing in these fisheries. For example, with the sea cucumber fishery, we found that 35 percent of the fishers we interviewed were women. When we stared looking at the mud crab fishery, the figure was even higher. In Fiji, at least 80 percent of mud crab fishers are women.
“If you look at the fisheries sector, almost 50 percent is made up of women. However, when you look at projects on the ground, you see a disturbing pattern: a consistent failure to engage fisherwomen in fisheries management.”
Given the role that women are playing, why are they so poorly recognized nationally? Why are they not afforded the same opportunities for training and capacity as fishermen? Why are they so poorly represented where there are decisions that need to be made around fisheries planning and fisheries management?
Globally, if you look at the fisheries sector, almost 50 percent of that sector is actually made up of women. However, when you actually look at projects on the ground, you see a really common and disturbing pattern: a consistent failure to engage fisherwomen in fisheries management. If they are involved, it’s often some token small amount. When there are projects being developed, they are largely targeted at fishermen rather than fisherwomen.
This makes the women particularly vulnerable to displacement. Displacement occurs when a successful fishery operated largely by women attracts commercial attention and the participation of men. Not only do men often crowd out the fisherwomen, but too often, they also adopt an unsustainable approach to harvesting that reduces fish stocks and profits.
Why is this important? Globally we are losing our fisheries at an alarming rate. In developing countries, a stunning 60 percent of stocks are depleted and in need of urgent rebuilding. Paradoxically, some of the areas that are the most productive in terms of fisheries have the highest rates of malnutrition and poverty. What this means is that we really need a drastic rethinking globally of how we do fisheries management.
There is a growing interest in ensuring approaches we are using in fisheries, or conservation more broadly incorporates gender equality and social inclusion. It is important to understand gender equality is not about promoting women over men, or promoting practices that are disrespectful to men or to our culture.
“When I speak about gender, I mean recognizing the very different and complimentary roles that men and women play in fisheries, and how these roles define who has the power.”
When I speak about gender, I mean recognizing the very different and complimentary roles that men and women play in fisheries, and how these roles define who has the power, who has the influence, and who ultimately is making decisions about how we use and allocate natural resources.
It is about recognizing that sustainable development will be hard to achieve, if you only engage or support the aspirations of half the population. Gender equality, if done correctly, should mean everyone wins!
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, my hope is that that more people engaged in fisheries work develop a greater sense of how much women are this amazing untapped resource, a knowledge base for us to draw on. Any time you have the opportunity to engage with fisherwomen, spend time with them in the habitats where they work, listen, and learn.
If you do, I guarantee it is going to be the best marine biology lesson that you could ever have.
Sangeeta Mangubhai is Fiji Country Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).