Women's roles in local fisheries in South Asia's transboundary rivers often go unacknowledged. Photo: Jahangir Alam/ CNRS/Oxfam in Bangladesh.

Carving a Path for Women in Fisheries

As a natural resource management professional, I often find people questioning the role of women in fisheries. I won’t blame them entirely for asking that question if I haven’t observed their contribution closely. If it’s not for my close interaction with them, it would have been difficult for me too to realize the role of women in fisheries. In our socio-economic context, the society created a fixated role for women to perform certain gender roles, and fisheries are not perceived as the ideal role for women. Even the women in fisheries, I have interacted with are unaware of their contribution to fisheries. And if I talk about women fisherfolks rights human rights, we still need a long way to go. So, on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, I would highlight the role of women in fisheries and their human rights issues through my write up and would like to seek greater attention for the concerned duty bearers to focus on women in fisheries.

Women’s Role in Fisheries 

Women in our country play a significant role in the value chain of fisheries. If I talk about a common fisherfolk family, we can clearly understand the role of women in fisheries. For instance, when their husbands or family are away for fishing, it is they who have to maintain the family. By saying that, I can clarify that, in this kind of family, women are not generally involved in livelihood earning opportunities. But at the same time, in absence of their male counterparts, without any earning source, these women have to manage money to sustain their family. This is where their struggle escalates; managing money without having any earning source. Nevertheless, these group of women don’t sit idle. Either they engage in any labour work or take loans from any nearby NGOs. So, in addition to unpaid care work like taking care of their families, the women in fisheries are often overburdened with earning livelihoods for their family.

There is already a segment of women from the southern part of Bangladesh that is involved in shrimp culture and fish processing. In result, it directly contributes to the economy. Apart from that, I also observed some skilful women who can weave fishing nets beautifully. Also, their craftmanship has tremendous prospects to the economic growth in the fisheries sector. 

The stance of Women in Fisheries Policy

There is another set of role women in fisheries are playing without any acknowledgement. We all might be aware of the fishing ban in our country, which has been very successful in the conservation of our national delicacy, Hilsa and managed to revive the Hilsa production of our country. For that, period of time, when fisherfolks can’t go to catch fishing, they are entitled to receive compensation packages of 30-40 kgs of rice per month per family, which is a minimal amount to sustain their livelihood. 

There is also a high impact on women from the fishing ban restriction. Fisherfolks generally hold a fisheries card that allows them to hold certain benefits as mentioned above. But, unfortunately, women don’t have a fisheries card. Although women in the fisheries community put in a lot of effort to run the sector, however, their needs and opinion are rarely considered. 

In spite of the fishing ban, some fisher folks are illegally involved in fishing. As a result, women have to bear the high cost of the violation caused by their male counterparts. For instance, they usually are sent to jail. During that time, the mothers, wives or daughters of those fisherfolks consequences has to somehow manage money to get them out of jail. During that time, the mothers bear the burden of managing family and keeping their families together. I have also witnessed women negotiating with local law enforcers to not punish their husbands for simply exercising their rights on the river. These women stand out to be a symbol of a great warrior who can go to any length to fight for their families. 

However, on the contrary, young children or daughters of fisherfolks become the victim of child marriage due to limited income opportunities during the fishing ban. Instead of receiving an education, the female in a fisherfolk's family is commonly denied of their basic rights. Eventually, they become a victim of social abuse and child harassment. 

And this is not the only case of burden women faces in the fisheries community. Due to these legal issues, the males in their home remain annoyed and women gradually become the victim of domestic violence. Unfortunately, women remain trapped in this perpetual cycle of injustice.

Pandemic and Beyond

Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have connected with some grassroots fisherwomen who has been facing the hardest hit from this crisis. According to them, the emergence of this pandemic has created an extremely difficult situation for fisherfolk family who couldn’t go fishing due to movement restrictions. Some of them are starving, while some of them faced legal consequence for catching fishes illegally. The problem is acute for those fisherfolk families who are prone to severe erosion. Besides, the emergence of cyclone Amphan and flood has worsened their situation. People in the area is now facing severe erosion and planning to move to other areas for rehabilitation. This might lead to a health risk for among the community in the middle of the COVID- 19 crisis. All these factors are affecting women badly as they have to take major responsibility for rebuilding their lives in new areas. 

Another group of women in fisheries, I also observed as being the most marginalized are the boat resident community, who are mostly fishers by profession. 

“We are ridiculed every day due to our profession. Since we don’t have any permanent address, we cannot get our children admitted to schools as well. What we lack are basic human rights, access to shelter, medical, education, even toilets. If we use toilets in the land, people misbehave with us. All we want is the legal recognition of our rights as fisherwomen also being a boat resident woman.” Shared by Zobeda Begum, who is a fisherwoman living by the waters of Meghna, having no land and rights of her own. 

Like Zobeda Begum, most of them only have a boat as an asset and they share the same toilet. In this context, it is extremely difficult for those women to maintain hygiene and ensure social distancing living in a compact situation. All the factors affecting women badly living in those areas. Few women reported the increasing domestic conflict, mental stress of managing livelihood and family and the pressure to bring money from their maternal homes. 

In all cases, social protection for those women is rarely there from the duty bearers. While overburdened with unpaid care work, these women are also having limited intake due to limited fishing created by this pandemic. 

Way Forward

Women in Decision Making: Since women in fisheries are the marginalized among the marginalized, including them in the decision-making process will be taking a big step. This is necessary for ensuring inclusive fisheries governance. And, to make a bigger change, we need to start advocating from now. 

More linkage with the private sector: As mentioned, women in fisheries are playing a huge part in the value chain of fisheries whether directly or indirectly. These women can be linked to a market system so that they can get the benefits from an income from fishing. 

Last but not the least, grassroots fisherwomen must be consulted for any fisheries-related decision and most importantly, compensation packages during the fishing ban must be catered to the needs of women. For a starter, women fisher should be given the fishers card like their male counterparts. As a result, the process would slowly but surely carve a path for them to be fully acknowledged in the fisheries policy.