Queens of the sea: Women in fishing

© Alessandro Vargiu

Fishing is traditionally a male activity—or at least, it is perceived to be—but women also play a crucial role in many fishing cultures. In this Forum, nine women (fishers, fishmongers, processors, chefs, etc.) came together to talk about their skills, knowledge, and experiences in the seemingly male-dominated world of fishing. Claudia Orlandini, of the LIFE (Low Impact Fishers of Europe) platform, facilitated the Forum.

Ernestina António Chipita, from Angola, started fishing at the age of 16. Now she is the executive director of the cooperative Centro de Salga e Seca de Apoio às Mulheres Processadoras. Ernestina says that the greatest challenge in her work is being a woman and that, when her women’s association was founded, most men doubted that she and her colleagues would be able to do the work. The reality in Ernestina’s community is that most women play an important role in supporting men’s work, but men often don’t recognize or value this role. Ernestina fights for women and their rights by bringing them together in community networks.

Akeisha Clarke, from the Caribbean island of Petite Martinique, is a fisher, farmer, and activist, and the president of Petite Martinique Women in Action. In her community, women are often expected to simply play the role of the housewife and mother. But Akeisha says that, “we are more than that.” Women are, in fact, the ones who make important decisions in their families and communities. Among the issues that Akeisha works on are sustainable fishing, deforestation, and the pollution of reefs. Progress is possible but difficult, because the men in the community, who often continue to use inefficient or harmful practices, are the ones making the rules. Akeisha says that, “we as women need to break the barrier; we are strong and we can and will do it!”

Jucilene Viana Jovelino, from Brazil, spoke about her work as an oyster collector, teacher, and coordinator of the local women’s center of the Quilombo Kaonge Oyster Food Community in Bahía. For Jucilene, the sea represents sustainability. In the past, many women oyster collectors died because of poor working and living conditions. Jucilene is trying to improve these conditions: “We are the ones responsible for our communities, not someone from outside that has learned more than we have,” Jucilene says. In her work as a teacher, and through the activities of the women’s center (where women working in fishing, farming, and other areas come together), she can see that the role of women is changing positively. Women now can earn a living from their work, but the struggle to make their voices heard continues.

Aurizania Delgado Monteiro, from Cape Verde, is a fisher and processor, and works in the local fish market. Aurizania is the first member of her family to work in the fish sector. She learned early in her career that women face many difficulties when it comes to working in the market. For example, women often speak local dialects rather than Portuguese, and a lack of literacy puts them at a disadvantage. In addition to working as a fishmonger, Aurizania also works with women in her community, helping them to discover and express their potential. Many men—especially elderly men—do not take her seriously, but she continues her work with great enthusiasm nonetheless. At the moment, Aurizania doesn’t have much support: “I maybe would need another person supporting me, but there would still be such big prejudice.”

© Elena Cerino Abdin

Adelaida Lim Pérez, from the Philippines, is a chef and food activist, and owns her own restaurant. It is far from the sea, but the idea was to create a space where people could gather to nourish their bodies and souls. “Eating is a political choice,” Adelaida says, and so in her restaurant there is only fresh, natural, regional food. She works to protect a traditional Filipino fish sauce and believes that it is important to engage in a craft that can make people happy.

Hasanah Kehmasaw, from the Fisherfolk Social Enterprise in Thailand, is working to build up a trading network of fishers and to protect the rights of the small-scale fishers in her home country. The network helps small-scale producers add value to their products and earn more income.

Jessica de Francesco, the youngest member of the panel, is from Argentina, where she dives for shellfish—she is the only woman in her community who does this (others collect shellfish from the beach). Her whole family was involved in fishing and her brothers taught her how to dive, but they sought other, better-paid work: Men often move into industrial fishing to earn more, but they all want to return to doing what they really love. Jessica also wants to do the work that she loves, so she started a community where people can come together to discuss and organize. To improve the economic situation, more species must be used and a cooperative should be developed. Local people are happy that Jessica is taking responsibility and she receives a lot of support from the community, her family, and friends. She says that, “the future lies in actions, not in talking.”

Alice Miller is a researcher and the director of IPNL (International Pole and Line Foundation), an NGO based in the UK. Alice works to make sure that women’s perspectives and needs are accounted for in guidelines, policies, etc. Sustainability mostly focuses on the environment, but social issues must also be considered.

This Forum made it clear that gender equality remains a central issue in the fishing sector. Women fight and work not only for themselves, but for their communities. They have always played an important role, and their work must be respected. Hilda Adams, a fisher from South Africa, reiterated that, in order to sustainably manage the seas, all members of the community must be empowered. She expressed the resilient spirit that all of the panelists share when she said, “There is no other place I want to be more, than in the middle of my small-scale fishing community!” Struggles continue, but there are many positive and empowering examples to draw from, including those shared by the inspiring women in this Forum.

© Elena Cerino Abdin
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