Marine science meets social science – a gender and human rights focus in the Pacific

By Natalie Makhoul, PEUMP*

In the Pacific, the ocean is home. It connects social and cultural life, while providing key resources such as food and economic benefits, as well as connecting infrastructure and leisure opportunities.

The Pacific’s richness in culturally enshrined lifestyles, its vast diversity of Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian traditions and its co-existence with the marine environment and its natural resources make this region particularly fascinating when working on gender, social inclusion (GSI) and human rights in the fisheries sector.

My name is Natalie Makhoul and I am the Gender and Human Rights Specialist with the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme, based at the Pacific Community (SPC) in Suva, Fiji. I have been living and working in the Pacific as a gender expert for seven years with my current home base in Fiji. I am a lawyer by profession with an early interest in human rights, gender equality and the linkages to emerging environmental topics such as climate change, biodiversity, food security, access to and use of natural resources. My work with the PEUMP programme has opened up the opportunity for me to shape the integration of GSI and human rights-based approaches (HRBA) in the fisheries sector across 15 countries in the Pacific. I would like to share with you the activities and approaches taken under PEUMP in integrating gender perspectives in coastal fisheries. I will also highlight key findings and recommendations from recent research on gender and fisheries.

The Pacific region has a significant history of investigating gender issues in the fisheries sector, albeit interrupted by periods of silence due to the lack of prioritization, a lack of funding or limited policy guidance and political will.

A gender and fisheries desktop review was conducted in August 2019 to provide an outlook of the information on gender and fisheries already available in each of PEUMP’s focus countries (Solomon Islands, Papua New-Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, Fiji, Vanuatu, Niue, Cook Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshal Islands, Tonga, Samoa and East Timor).

The review focused on identifying information gaps, common themes and opportunities to further investigate fisheries areas more likely to improve women’s and men’s engagement and their access to and use of marine resources in a more equitable manner. It was found that most countries had very outdated, little or no information on gender and fisheries within the last five years, while a few countries did have very recent and comprehensive studies that were either gender-focused or specific to a certain fishery with integrated gender analysis. From a social science perspective, research was found to focus on gender roles in fisheries, cultural norms as barriers which are often associated with weak entry points for women into decision-making structures and institutional analysis of stakeholders’ capacities to apply GSI lenses in their work. Whilst this information is key to understanding who is doing what (type of fishing and species targeted), where (marine spaces used) and how (equipment and technique), it is also important to analyse gender from a more practical angle such as part of livelihoods interventions or gendered impacts of coastal fisheries management, taking into account women’s strong engagement along value-adding processes or gender-specific analysis of a fishery that is women dominated but that has received little attention (e.g. mud crabs, shellfish, sea grapes).

Merging a broader understanding of gender dynamics in the fisheries sector with a more practical understanding of what fisheries agencies can do to concretely support women-dominated fisheries activities was highlighted as an important approach. The review provides a set of recommendations which emphasise the need for country-specific gender and fisheries assessments in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

To overcome the lack of gender data in the fisheries sector, the study urges that further research must collect sex-disaggregated data, use evidence-based analysis methods and an improved evaluation of existing non-gender specific literature that provides some valuable information to inform gender perspectives such as poverty surveys, nutrition surveys and specific fisheries sector socio-economic surveys. Further, development partners should ensure that gender and fisheries research in-country involves national fisheries agencies more actively (e.g. include them in the field work), as well as foster collaboration between national fisheries agencies and gender affairs agencies.

A key recommendation is to invest in Value Chain Analysis (VCA) of identified marine resources, in particular, in fisheries where women dominate post-harvest activities, including marketing aspects. Here, investment along value-chain nodes for small-scale tuna and other pelagic species catches (also looking into by-catch, low grade/small tuna), have been marked as promising potential opportunities across countries with very little investment made to date. A stronger focus in this area would not only provide an entry door for women’s economic empowerment but would also combine broader skills development opportunities (e.g. financial literacy) which are more likely to translate into substantial change to progress gender equality. Other areas covered in the recommendations are on empowerment and agency through strengthening women’s administrative structures e.g. to ease access to associations, cooperatives, fishing clubs or similar institutions that still lack female participation in formalised structures as opposed to women’s informal group set-ups.

In 2019, a country-specific gender and fisheries assessment was undertaken in the Federated States of Micronesia. A SPC baseline study from 1999-2000 was used to compare findings and identify areas of change. Whilst some changes have been observed such as an increased acceptance of women’s participation in the male dominated area of deep-sea fishing and stronger female representation in advocacy roles in promoting sustainable fishing practices, key issues and challenges remained (more or less) the same 20 years later. Occurring themes were:

  • the vital roles women play in collecting seafood from near-shore reefs and mangroves;
  • their underestimated contributions towards livelihoods, family well-being or food security, and;
  • a strongly gendered division of labour where task allocations still follow very rigid gender norms that hinder women from venturing into new roles and exploring new avenues.

The mentioned changes in the greater acceptance of women joining fishing trips have been mainly associated with better boats, safer equipment and improved telecommunication. Another emerging area that needs further investigation is women’s increased venturing into managing the marketing and selling of fish to generate income. This avenue provides a springboard for women to transition from subsistence dominated lifestyles (especially rural women) into income generating activities in order to catch-up on growing cash demands due to changing lifestyles and de-population due to demographic changes mainly caused by migration flows.

More country-specific gender and fisheries assessments are planned under PEUMP as suggested in the desk-top review. Currently a gender and fisheries assessment for the Cook Islands is underway. Based on key findings and common themes from the gender and fisheries desktop review, research focus will also shift towards the investigation of value-adding activities along marine resource value-chains with a strong emphasis on women’s economic empowerment and skills development to support the growing number of Pacific women engaged in the preparation, packaging, marketing and selling of fish and seafood.

However, research is only one component to support the integration of gender in the fisheries sector. GSI training and capacity building of key fisheries development partners in the region as well as national fisheries agencies are also part of my work. GSI ideas and concepts are not always easy to adopt because they can be too abstract for a practical and hands-on fisheries audience. Fixed mind-sets and stubborn attitudes on gender as a misunderstood concept (e.g. ‘only about women’ or ‘disempowering men’) or one that appears to clash with traditional and cultural norms (e.g. cultural beliefs that ‘women do not have the spiritual power or mana for the ocean’ or ‘bring bad luck if they join fishing trips’) are stumbling blocks that need to be overcome through awareness, sensitisation and learning. Designing a GSI training that is tailored to a coastal fisheries practitioner’s needs, developing and presenting tools and instruments to undertake basic gender analysis baselines and highlighting gender issues from various levels and as everybody’s responsibility  (e.g. as a development goal, a human right, an economic benefit, ethical factor etc.) have been key success factors for training. So far, training was conducted for all PEUMP implementing partners taking into account their pre-knowledge, their thematic areas and using existing initiatives, commitments or organizational goals as parameters to identify entry points for mainstreaming gender.

Attendees at the PEUMP Gender and Social Inclusion and Human Rights training with the University of the South Pacific, Marine Institute. Photo source: PEUMP.

For more details on training structure, methodology or content, training reports can be accessed here: (website link ). A key training document that I use is the 2019 launched SPC Pacific Handbook on gender equity and social inclusion in coastal fisheries and aquaculture. Developed by SPC in collaboration with regional partner organizations and independent gender and fisheries researchers, this handbook is the first regional response to providing more practical and sector specific guidance for fisheries practitioners in integrating GSI perspectives into various areas of their work. The first handbook edition is focused on transmitting basic concepts of GSI, creating the GSI linkages to the fisheries sector, presenting tools to undertake GSI analysis and integrated monitoring, evaluation and learning as well as illustrating GSI responsive interventions into fisheries government structures with focus on the policy level. SPC-PEUMP is currently finalising three additional modules for a completion of the handbook. These additional modules will focus on community-centered activities fisheries practitioners typically undertake in the field such as community-based co-management structures, marine-resource dependent livelihoods with focus on women’s economic empowerment and inclusive community engagement processes, including easy applicable tools provided for each area.

A combination of increased emphasis on gender and fisheries research, more training and capacity building initiatives on GSI for regional and national key fisheries actors and further investment in sector relevant tools development and knowledge products are therefore the three main pillars of my work under PEUMP.

* About PEUMP

The Pacific-European Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme brings together key regional fisheries and development agencies – the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Pacific Community (SPC), the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the University of the South Pacific (USP) and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or civil-society organisations (CSOs). Under a ‘one-multi-partner programme approach’ regional solutions through improved coordination is envisaged while working towards a common goal to improve sustainable ocean management and coastal fisheries governance for food security and economic growth, while addressing climate change resilience and conservation of marine biodiversity. 

In doing so, the PEUMP programme uplifts the people component by placing strong emphasis on GSI, poverty reduction, human rights and the application of HRBA. The programme requires a holistic approach to fisheries and related environmental topics such as biodiversity highlighting the interlinkages of people and their environment for the right to food, as a source of livelihood or part of cultural identity. The integration of cross-cutting themes is required across partners, themes and throughout project cycles.