Gender and social justice

More than survival strategies: Realizing women's contribution in small-scale fisheries

Written By Jennifer Rey-Goyeneche, TBTI Research Assistant

Madame Kokoly is a Vezo fisherwoman recognized in her community for being the best at catching octopus [1], an activity carried out traditionally by women on the southwest coast of Madagascar [2, 3]. As household head, she has developed outstanding, yet rare, fishing, boat building, and diving skills to overcome rapid resource depletion after the commercialization of local fisheries in the early 2000s [2]. Unfortunately, things do not go according to plan. First, a growing tourism development and global seafood demand have attracted men into catching seashore species, but the establishment of hotels near the shoreline has obstructed the overall access to octopus gardens [3]. Unlike men, women are not allowed to own fishing boats, and thus cannot look for octopus in farther areas. Their domestic chores also require that they stay near their homes [3]. What options do Madame Kokoly and fellow fisherwomen have when access to space and resources is restricted? Further, cultural norms impede them from finding jobs in tourism and in directly selling fish to tourist establishments [3]. These marginalization, inequality and injustices are common for women in fisheries worldwide.

Photo credit:  "African women fishing in the shallow water" by mattk1979 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Women play a vital role in the small-scale fisheries sector, yet fishing is usually considered a male-dominated activity. This perception is influenced by a traditional view of gender roles, with women framed in a domestic setting and unpaid caretaker vocation, and men placed in a public context and wage-earner position [4]. Thus, women are associated with pre- and post-harvest tasks and with small-scale extractions like shore gleaning, which are often not considered “proper” fishing but rather supportive domestic chores [4, 5, 6, 7]. The contribution of women to fisheries economies and food security has been historically disregarded and not included in labour and fisheries’ statistics [4, 5, 6]. Moreover, women’s responses to crises are perceived as survival strategies, not a matter of “equity or self-actualization” [7], which reinforces further discrimination. But recently, many women are organizing themselves to raise awareness on the issues and to build supportive networks.

In small-scale fishing communities, gender inequality is often sustained through various structures and institutional practices at various levels, ranging from community customs that reinforce restrictive gender norms to national policies that marginalize women in the sector. [3]

FAO, 2017


Gender equality and the empowerment of women have gained attention as they are critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [8]. Indeed, gender equality is both a goal (SDG 5) and a crosscutting theme of sustainability. Accordingly, the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries acknowledges gender equality and women’s rights as priority and calls for the strengthening of women’s participation throughout the value chain, their autonomous organization, and the integration of gender-sensitive approaches into policies [9].

Among these recommendations, fostering the organization of women has proved effective in enhancing capacity and resilience [7]. For instance, in the Pacific coast of Colombia, the women-led organization "Asociación de Mujeres Construyendo Sueños" (Association of Women Building Dreams) has positively confronted the social and environmental injustices fuelled by mining activities, illegal logging, and the country’s armed conflict [10]. As a group, they noticed that their role as traditional gatherers of piangua (a mollusc that inhabits mangrove swamps) extends far beyond obtaining food for families, as their sustainable resource extraction method helps tackling the environmental degradation. Their efforts have been fruitful, resulting in economic independence and more participation in fisheries decision-making [10]. They have also contributed to the development of a forest monitoring model and the restoration of 18 mangrove hectares that have brought benefits to the community (e.g., coastal protection, provision of construction material) [10].

Women are both victims of the environmental crisis in gender-specific ways as well as important actors in resolving it. [7]

Bina Agarwal (ICSF, 2017)


There are numerous context-based barriers that limit women's effective participation in the fisheries value chain and their coping capacity. Therefore, addressing the injustices and achieving the sustainability of fisheries systems requires a careful and respectful examination of the underlying causes of gender inequality. For a start, it is essential to generate gender-specific data on the socioeconomic contribution of the pre- and post-harvest subsectors, and to document the impacts of development projects on women’s socio-economic wellbeing [7, 8, 9]. Closing this gender knowledge gap will demonstrate that women’s work and resilient strategies contribute significantly to local and global food security, environmental sustainability, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Check out these publications for more stories on gender and women in small-scale fisheries.

And for those residing in Asia-Pacific, join the discussion about ‘Adjusting GENDER Lens’ at the 4th World Small-Scale Fisheries for Asia-Pacific region, to be held in Shizuoka, Japan in May 2022. Abstract submission will remain opened until the space in the program is filled.


[1] Blue Ventures. (2019, June 27). Kokoly [Video]. Vimeo.

[2] Westerman, K., & Benbow, S. (2013). The role of women in community-based small-scale fisheries management: the case of the southern Madagascar octopus fishery. Western Indian Ocean Journal of Marine Science, 12(2), 119-132.

[3] O'Neill, ED. (2017, June 29). ‘Women hunters in the octopuses’ gardens’. Rethink.

[4] FAO. (2017). Towards gender-equitable small-scale fisheries governance and development – A handbook: In support of the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the context of food security and poverty eradication. Rome, Italy.

[5] FAO. (2015). A review of women’s access to fish in small-scale fisheries. Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular, 1098. Rome, Italy.

[6] Harper, S., Adshade, M., Lam, V. W., Pauly, D., & Sumaila, U. R. (2020). Valuing invisible catches: Estimating the global contribution by women to small-scale marine capture fisheries production. PloS one, 15(3), e0228912.

[7] ICSF. (2017). Women for sustainable fisheries: Report of the first phase of women in fisheries programme of ICSF. Women in fisheries, 3.

[8] UN. (2018). The 17 Goals. Retrieved from

[9] FAO. (2015). Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. Retrieved from

[10] Valero, L. (2021, September 13). ‘Women building dreams: Sustainable livelihoods on Colombia's Pacific coast’. Deutsche Welle.