Across West Africa, the artisanal fishing sector is a crucial source of livelihoods and food security. For example, in Nigeria, artisanal fishing accounts for 80% of the fish consumed and supports the livelihoods of around 24 million people.
Both men and women work in the sector, although the workforce – across the region – is divided by gender. Men dominate fishing and production while women dominate post-harvest processing, such as dressing, sorting, salting and smoking the fish. Women also do most of the sales and marketing. Women thus play a crucial role in artisanal fishing.
We have conducted research on the governance of marine resources in West Africa for the past six years. This includes field research in Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Our research has shown that poor governance of fisheries compromises the livelihoods of fishermen.
Research elsewhere shows that women in particular get a raw deal. Their contributions to the sector are vastly underpaid, undervalued and largely invisible. This affects them in many ways – for example, they have less access to capital and other resources.
Because women do not earn enough money and are limited in their roles in the fishery, they do not have the purchasing power to purchase enough fish to earn a living for long periods of time. They also do not have access to the processing and storage facilities necessary to prevent the loss of fish through spoilage.
In times of economic or social upheaval such as an epidemic (Ebola) or a pandemic (COVID-19), their position is even more vulnerable.
We are currently conducting research that explores these vulnerabilities. The countries we are examining are Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and São Tomé & Principe. In this ongoing research, we examine to what extent COVID-19 has exacerbated the particular challenges women face.
Gender bias at institutional levels – such as fisheries ministries, management agencies and financial institutions – is a major challenge for women in the fisheries sector. The development and management of fisheries policies neglects the (often informal) contributions of women. Their contributions to fishing are treated as an extension of their daily lives and responsibilities, making them invisible in the blue economy.
This institutional invisibility reduces women’s access to capital, thus limiting their ability to develop or diversify their livelihoods. The expansion of fishing livelihoods and women’s diversification are further complicated by the fact that they must balance productive and reproductive roles, and many use the majority of their income to cover household expenses.
Another ongoing challenge for women processors is the loss of fish after harvest due to spoilage. They typically do not have access to adequate cold storage and preservation equipment, such as firewood and ice to store, both of which have to be purchased and are subject to limited supply.
Another challenge for women is the depletion of fish stocks. Half of the fish species in the waters off West Africa are overexploited. This reduces the fish caught and limits women’s access to fishing for processing and sale. Competition for access to fish is increasing and as a result there are reports of women exchanging sexual favors to ensure a steady supply of fish.
Implications and next steps
The challenges facing women in West African fisheries have dire implications.
Institutional invisibility means they are marginalized. They are often excluded from politics or financial support.
Post-harvest losses of fish due to deterioration and depletion of fish stocks threaten the economic and food security of women in the fishing industry and their families.
Reduced access to fish increases competition for this precious resource, with dangerous consequences. Globally, HIV / AIDS infection rates in fishing communities are between 4 and 14 times higher than national averages, with transactional sex the link does not work in the fishing sector contributing to this high prevalence.
Through our work, we have found that women in the fisheries sector have coping mechanisms in the form of women’s cooperatives. Women’s cooperatives at national and regional levels provide important “safety nets” for women in the fisheries sector, through financial support, advocacy and fundraising. In Côte d’Ivoire, women’s cooperatives, such as the Union des Sociétés Coopératives des Femmes de la Pêche et des Assimilées de Côte d’Ivoire, provide support by regulating informal lending relationships on behalf of women who are otherwise exploited. by usurers.
But there is still a long way to go, especially as COVID-19 restrictions make it harder for women to access, store and sell fish stocks – something we are seeing in our research. In progress.
Steps policymakers should take include improved cold storage for preserving fish and processing infrastructure – such as room ovens and freezers – to extend the shelf life of landed fish.
In addition, West African governments should consider establishing and supporting financial organizations – such as credit unions and cooperatives to provide credit at affordable rates – in order to alleviate the burden of financial risks that women face. faced along the fisheries value chain.