Women make smoked fishes - locally called Okporoko - at Egede informal settlement in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
Both men and women work in the sector, though the labour – throughout 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 selling and marketing. Women thus play a crucial role in artisanal fishing.
We have conducted research on marine resource governance across West Africa over the last six years. This has included field research in Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Our research has found that weak fisheries governance undermines the livelihoods of fisherfolk.
Research elsewhere shows that women in particular get a raw deal. Their contributions to the sector are widely un(der)paid, undervalued and largely invisible. This affects them in many ways – for instance, they have less access to capital and other resources.
Because women don’t earn enough money and are restricted in their roles within fisheries, they don’t have the buying power to purchase enough fish to earn a living for long periods of time. They also don’t have access to the required processing and storage facilities to avoid fish loss through spoilage.
At times of economic or social upheaval such as an epidemic (Ebola) or pandemic (Covid-19) their position is even more vulnerable.
We are now carrying out research that explores these vulnerabilities. The countries we’re examining include Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and São Tomé & Principe. In this ongoing research, we are looking at the extent to which Covid-19 has compounded the particular challenges that women face.
Depleting fish stocks pose another challenge to women. Half of the fish species in waters off West Africa are over-exploited. This reduces fish caught and limits the access that women have to fish for processing and sale. The competition for access to fish is growing and, as a result, there are reports of women exchanging sexual favours to guarantee steady fish supplies.
Implications and next steps
The challenges that women in West African fisheries face have dire implications.
Institutional invisibility means they are marginalised. They’re often excluded from receiving policy or financial support.
Post-harvest fish losses through spoilage and depleting fish stocks threaten the economic and food security of women in fisheries and their families.
Reduced access to fish increases competition for this valuable 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 in the fisheries sector contributing to this high prevalence.
Through our work, we’ve seen that women in fisheries do 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 fisheries, through financial support, advocacy and fundraising. In Côte d’Ivoire, women’s cooperatives, like L’Union des Sociétés Coopératives des Femmes de la Pêche et Assimilées de Côte d’Ivoire, offer support by regulating informal lending relationships on behalf of women who are otherwise exploited by loan sharks.
But more needs to be done, particularly as Covid-19 restrictions are making it harder for women to access, store and sell fish stocks – something we are seeing through our ongoing research.
Measures that policymakers should take include improved cold storage for fish preservation, and processing infrastructures – such as ovens and chamber freezers – to extend the shelf life of landed fish.
Furthermore, West African governments must consider establishing and supporting financial organisations – such as credit unions and cooperatives to provide credit at affordable rates – to lessen the burden of the financial risks that women encounter along the fisheries value chain.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood is Lecturer, University of St Andrews.
Sayra van den Berg Bhagwandas is Postdoctoral researcher, University of St Andrews.
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