Reflections on Gender and Fisheries: Through the lens of presentations @ 13AFAF

By Meryl J Williams

The 13th Asian Fisheries and Aquaculture Forum (13AFAF) was a watershed for how gender was included in Asian Fisheries Society’s triennial Forums. 13AFAF was hosted by National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan, and conducted virtually from 31 May to 2 June 2022.

The first AFS Forum was held in 1986. Women in fisheries (later gender in fisheries and aquaculture) did not enter the AFS forums until the 4th Asian Fisheries Forum in Beijing in 1995, when a women in fisheries photographic competition was held (https://www.genderaquafish.org/gaf-section/milestones/). Prior to this, AFS had been associated with two other gender events, both initiated by Dr M.C. Nandeesha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._C._Nandeesha): the 1990 Women in Fisheries India (AFS Indian Branch) and the 1994 Women in Cambodian Fisheries Workshop. In 1998, at the 5th Asian Fisheries Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a second photo competition was held, and so too was the Symposium on Women in Asian Fisheries (see links in GAFS Milestones). Thus began the series of women/gender symposia (later conferences), that continues until today and are complemented by networking and gender sessions at related AFS events in addition to the triennial forums, such as the Indian Fisheries and Aquaculture Forums.

In 2016 AFS accepted the creation of a formal section on women/gender in fisheries and aquaculture – the Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries Section (GAFS). This was the first (and still only) formal gender section of a mainstream fisheries society. GAFS began enrolling members in 2017.

13AFAF Mainstreamed Gender

What distinguished the recently completed 13AFAF was that gender was mainstreamed in the program. It was a topic on the main Forum agenda and one of 8 specialised session themes (see box below for list of presentations). In the graphic designs used for the Forum, women were given equal billing with men (some examples of images). Kudos to the Chair of the Local Organising Committee, Prof. Han-Ching Wang, National Cheng Kung University, for the team’s work!

A selection of graphics used for 13AFAF

Prof Kyoko Kusakabe gave a plenary address on gender (LINK). One of the 13AFAF session topics was Topic 6 – Gender Equality in Fisheries and Aquaculture. Topic 6 presentations comprised an Invited Speaker, Dr Holly Hapke (LINK), plus 5 oral and 1 poster presentation and a session overview (LINK) in Reports of the Scientific Sessions. In total, therefore, we were treated to 8 high quality presentations and lively question and answer session.

Such broad events as the AFS Forums are vital professional events. They give participants a chance to hear the latest in many fields of research and development, to network with colleagues (yes, even at virtual conferences!). For newcomers such as students, wanting to present their work for the first time, the Forums offer good opportunities. Later, when they are more established in their careers, researchers become better known and are more likely to be invited to present at conferences. Most of us get our “first break” at the general conferences such as 13AFAF.

GENDER AND FISHERIES/AQUACULTURE STUDIES PROVIDING GREATER DEPTH

The gender studies presented at 13AFAF were a good balance of those based on substantial collective knowledge and insightful, locally diverse case studies. The geographic focus of presentations was mainly Southeast and South Asia and the Pacific, plus one from Africa and one global study.

The five presentations based on collective knowledge highlighted both general lessons that had emerged and the importance of context. Two studies were major literature reviews: a review for FAO of literature from the past decade in South and Southeast Asia on gender and fisheries management (Kyoko Kusakabe – PPT LINK and FAO study), and a review of 8 cases across the globe on gender and community-based small-scale fisheries management (Jenny House – LINK).

Two presentations resulted from large collaborations bringing extensive gender and fisheries knowledge into practical applications. One was by Kate Barclay (LINK) concerned the project for the Pacific Community and the Forum Fisheries Agency to produce a handbook to guide the Pacific region’s tuna industries on gender equity, social inclusion and human rights. The other was by Arlene Nietes Satapornvanit (LINK) on developing the capacity for including gender equality and social inclusion in fisheries projects.

Shining through from presentations such as the Plenary by Kyoko Kusakabe and the Invited Presentation by Holly Hapke (LINK) was the wisdom of decades of research knowledge on gender and fisheries.

We also heard from three insightful, locally diverse case studies, 2 oral and 1 poster presentation. Courtney Anderson (LINK) presented on seaweed farming and harvesting potential in Samoa; Ma. Arve Banez (LINK) on the fascinating capiz shell (Placuna placenta) artisanal dive fishery of Oton, Philippines; and Siyanbola Omitoyin’s (LINK) poster addressed women’s roles and prospects in fish seed production in Ibadan.

Women sharing images in the photo elicitation and focus group discussion sessions in the villages, Samoa. Source: Courtney Anderson.

THREE TAKE HOME MESSAGES

From this rich material, including the lively Q&A sessions after each one, come three messages.

The first is that why and how research and management are practiced are critical to gender studies.

On the why gender should be included, Jenny House distinguished two common reasons given in published works: the most common current focus is on instrumental reasons – doing so is better for fisheries; and the less common reason, of which many are wary, the intrinsic benefit – doing so is better for women and households. In addition, and pragmatically, gender (and sex) research makes fisheries research more robust (Holly Hapke)

Whatever the reason for doing gender research in fisheries, researchers were urged to move beyond descriptive studies on gender roles to theorised research that needs to consider gender relations in a manner that pays detailed attention to their context. Holly Hapke suggested approaches such as the materialist feminist framework that takes into account economics, the resource, its environment, social, cultural, political and legal institutions of governance.

All presentations based on knowledge from many studies (Kusakabe, Hapke, House, Barclay, Nietes Satapornvanit) lamented the major barriers caused by the lack of data. Jenny House proposed that participatory data collection, e.g., in monitoring of fisheries management, can be an entry point. Participation requires that women are well represented, research engagement is transparent and that reflexive approaches are needed, rather than handy narratives. Reflexive approaches mean that the researchers and the research subjects learn from the research and are changed by it.

The issues fisheries management agencies consider relevant have a bearing on whether and how gender is included. Which fisheries are to be managed? What parts of the fish value chains? Which management unit (the household production unit, the village community, the firm, etc) (Anderson, Banez, Barclay)?

The second message was that women’s agency needs more focus than their victimhood and marginalisation.

Kyoko Kusakabe stressed the need to foster women’s sense of entitlement and help change their self-perceptions about their value to the sector, such as by raising their ability to speak and organise. Men need to be part of this action too. As Ma. Arve Banez and Holly Hapke said, women’s agency takes many forms and has several dimensions depending on the material context within which they operate. Above all, women are not a homogeneous group, and the presentations by Holly Hapke, Arlene Nietes Satapornvanit and Kate Barclay all stressed that intersectional approaches are critical.

The third message was that gender relations are dynamic, particularly under ruptures and adaptations. Gender relations can be altered not just by climate, declining resources, natural disasters but also by new technologies and markets, as explained by many of the presenters (Kuskabe, Hapke, Anderson, Banez, Nietes Satapornvanit, Omitoyim).

We’ve come a long way but still have so far to go

This rich session of presentations and ensuing discussion showed how far we have all come on research to generate usable knowledge and actions on gender in fisheries and aquaculture. When our professional journeys began in the Asian Fisheries Society nearly 3 decades ago, we did not have the platform of past studies to draw on for reviews and action plans. Women/gender in fisheries and aquaculture was not a topic mainstreamed into the agenda of our Forums. But despite this progress over many years, the insights gained also tell us that we still have a long way to go.