The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2022


Advancing towards gender equality in fisheries and aquaculture

The full and equal participation, engagement and benefit of women and men – in other words, gender equality – in the fisheries and aquaculture sector is fundamental for the achievement of sustainability and inclusiveness (FAO, 2020m).

Although women make up half of the overall workforce throughout the fisheries and aquaculture value chains, occupying critical roles, they constitute a disproportionately large percentage of the people engaged in the informal, lowest paid, least stable and least skilled segments of the workforce. In aquaculture, they account for 28 percent of the workforce in the primary sector; in fisheries 18 percent; and across the pre- and post-harvest components of the value chain an estimated 50 percent. In addition to being the backbone of rural economies (FAO, 2020m), women make significant contributions to household food security and nutrition while being responsible for household and care duties. The roles women engage in are most often strongly influenced by the social, cultural and economic contexts in which they live and they often face gender-based constraints that hinder their agency (i.e. their ability to make choices and act on them) and prevent them from fully benefiting from their roles in the sector.

Gender refers not to male and female (which is sex, or the biological characteristics that distinguish male/female/intersex), but to a social construction that is context- and time-specific. It refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female. Thus, gender refers to the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society at a given time considers appropriate for men and women. In addition, it refers to the relationship between and among men and women and determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context.

These gendered expectations largely drive the ways women and men engage and the degree to which they benefit from their engagement across the value chain of fisheries and aquaculture. A critical nuance to this understanding of role and benefit is informed by the concept of intersectionality. It must be considered that the intersections between different social dimensions (not only gender, but also class, age, ethnicity, race, caste, religion and sexual orientation), which represent the multiple components comprising identity, can result in intersecting and compounding inequalities not only between women and men but also among women and among men.

Intersectionality must be included in analysis, to inform the individuals’ social location and their relative access to power or degree of oppression and vulnerabilities, which then help define the role they have in the fisheries and aquaculture sector (Williams et al., eds, 2012). Failing to account for these intersections can lead to the unintended exclusion of the most vulnerable groups and risks entrenching and worsening inequities in fishing and aquaculture communities (Ferguson, 2021).

Just as women are not a homogenous group, the different roles of women throughout the fisheries and aquaculture sector vary widely, from harvesting shellfish and seaweed, small-scale fishing and net-mending, to processing and marketing of fisheries and aquaculture products10 (Box 32). However, there is consistency in the gender dynamics that privilege men over women and the control exercised through gender-based roles (FAO, 2017d). While being encumbered with a triple work burden and frequently facing gender-based violence (Siles et al., 2019), women in the fisheries and aquaculture sector often:

  • have limited access to information, extension and financial services, infrastructure, social protection and decent employment;
  • have limited access to physical and capital resources;
  • are excluded from decision-making and leadership positions;
  • receive fewer benefits from their activities and have fewer rights and privileges; and
  • have limited control over markets, how prices are set and interactions within value chains.


In the Philippines, the Binmaley Rural Improvement Club (BRIC) – a small women’s association specialized in milkfish farming and processing – became a key actor in the related value chain and the local economy. The association created the opportunity for women to organize themselves and is an effective example of female-led entrepreneurship in the aquaculture sector. FAO promoted this case study to support a training workshop on aquaculture value chain development and participation: by showcasing BRIC’s activities and organization, it underlined how similar associations can empower women in economic terms, leading to community development and outstanding entrepreneurial results. Women’s knowledge and skills were fundamental – both to develop a solid base for performing multiple tasks effectively and to produce excellent processed products from high-quality raw materials. On the entrepreneurial side, they strived for efficiency and profitability, using their cooking skills to produce value-added products from farmed fish and to diversify their offer, while also reducing food waste. In this way, women were empowered: they enhanced their leadership, providing additional income at the family level; at the same time, they contributed to the development of an aquaculture-based enterprise in the local sector and to gender equality in the longer term.

In 2015, the call from the Government of Kenya for FAO technical assistance resulted in a project aimed at empowering small-scale farmers and training them to produce seaweed, mussels, oysters, crabs and milkfish. Kibuyuni Seaweed Women is one of five groups that benefited from the FAO project, which facilitated the construction of drying sheds with raised racks where the harvested crop could be spread to dry safely. The objective was to promote reduction in post-harvest losses and enhance crop quality with the aim of fetching higher market prices. The project also linked an international company that purchased the dried seaweed with the Kibuyuni Seaweed Women, which, at the end of the project cycle, counted 52 members and was registered with the Government of Kenya as a self-help group.

The story of Tima Mwalimu Jasho, a seaweed farmer who used part of her savings to build a one-bedroom house that she leases out, resonates strongly as the sale of 41 tonnes of seaweed brought in over USD 13 000 following an FAO training activity on seaweed culturing in Kenya. She stated: “We have been living in poverty unaware that we’re sitting on something that could help our future.”

The group’s members have increased their benefits from seaweed farming thanks to the project training on seaweed best business management practices and on value addition. The group supplies seaweed to buyers in its raw form and earns additional income from a wide range of value-added products including juices, biscuits, cakes, vegetable salads, soap bars, liquid soaps and other cosmetic items. The income generated from the sale of raw seaweed and value-added products has gradually improved the standard of living of the communities, with most beneficiaries being women: they have put food on the table, built new houses, educated their children and purchased better building materials for their homes.

Although the project ended in 2017, the gains are still evident. The pilot initiative was successful for Kibuyuni Seaweed Women, which has since graduated from a self-help group to a cooperative society, the Kibuyuni Seaweed Farmers Association, registered as a savings and credit cooperative.

Gender-based discriminations not only impact women directly, but they also impose a significant penalty on the fisheries and aquaculture sector through productivity losses, inefficiencies and lost opportunities for innovation and women entrepreneurship.

Achieving gender equality is even more urgent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proven to be a vector and revealer of inequalities, exacerbating the discrimination already existing in the sector. As schools have closed and health systems have been overburdened to contain the pandemic, the gendered division of unpaid care and domestic work binding women and girls as caregivers has intensified. In a further complication, women and girls have been facing constraints in accessing healthcare and sexual and reproductive health services. Moreover, an increase in domestic and gender-based violence, sexual abuse and exploitation has been observed around the world. Women are a vulnerable and at-risk population because they are traditionally and predominantly involved in post-harvest activities, including downstream activities such as processing of aquatic products,11 fresh fish mongering, storage, packaging and marketing. Their vulnerability is reinforced by the need to continue their activities in order to maintain their income and feed their families (Misk and Gee, 2020).

Gender mainstreaming in fisheries and aquaculture

The FAO Policy on Gender Equality sets a clear goal for “achieving equality between women and men in sustainable agriculture and rural development for the elimination of hunger and poverty” (FAO, 2015b). Simply defined, gender equality is a state in which women and men enjoy equal rights, opportunities and entitlements in civil and political life and its achievement can be supported using the FAO gender mainstreaming tool. This requires assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It enables making women’s, as well as men’s, concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality. This is embodied by SDG 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – which is an explicit stand-alone goal and a cross-cutting issue, as well as a driver of gender-sensitive sustainable development in all its dimensions. It is the reason why it is repeatedly stated that without a systematic incorporation of the gender lens in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs, progress will inevitably falter and the 2030 Agenda will not be realized (UN Women, 2021).

The Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty (SSF Guidelines) outline a clear commitment to gender equity and equality and set a precedent as the first fisheries instrument to directly address gender (GAF, 2018). In 2018, the Santiago de Compostela Declaration for Equal Opportunities in the Fishing Sector and Aquaculture made a clear call for the improvement of the situation of women working in fisheries and aquaculture by ensuring equal opportunities for women (Venugopalan, 2018). The following year, FAO hosted the International Symposium on Fisheries Sustainability (FAO, 2019f), which highlighted the role of women throughout the sector and underlined the need to improve and fully recognize this role and prioritize the achievement of gender equality. The year 2021 saw the release of a fundamental declaration: the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) Declaration for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture (see the section Science opportunities for fisheries and aquaculture management; FAO, 2021b).

The COFI Declaration recognizes the critical role of women as key agents in the fisheries and aquaculture sector for achieving the SDGs. It includes a strong commitment from FAO Members to “ensure women’s empowerment by enhancing women’s full access to and equal opportunities in the fisheries and aquaculture sector through gender-based policies.” The Shanghai Declaration, adopted by the participants of the Global Conference on Aquaculture Millenium+20, promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment in aquaculture development. The Guidelines for Sustainable Aquaculture are currently being developed to guide FAO Members and all stakeholders in dialogue, policy processes and action for achieving sustainable and equitable aquaculture development. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are included both as a thematic module and as a cross-cutting issue, reflecting the need to address these fundamental issues specifically and to mainstream them into all dimensions of aquaculture (FAO, 2022).

Gender-transformative approaches

Gender-transformative approaches (GTAs) have been designed as a tool that allows for the exposure of the underlying causes and extent of gender inequality and discrimination and then for these underlying causes to be addressed by redressing power imbalances at individual and societal levels. GTAs are a powerful tool to empower women and girls and to realize profound changes in fisheries and aquaculture communities. However, it must be underlined that these changes take place slowly and only with the engagement and contribution also of men and the entire family and community. This approach represents a way forward that can be and has been adapted to fisheries and aquaculture contexts to allow the sector to reach its full potential by way of the achievement of gender equality.

Women as agents of change

FAO’s work on gender mainstreaming in fisheries and aquaculture follows the methods of the GTAs and is set in line with the four objectives set out by the FAO gender strategy (FAO, 2020):

  • Women and men have equal voice and decision-making power in rural institutions and organizations to shape relevant legal frameworks, policies and programmes.
  • Women and men have equal rights and access to and control over natural and productive resources, to contribute to and benefit from sustainable agriculture and rural development.
  • Women and men have equal rights and access to services, markets and decent work and equal control over the resulting income and benefits.
  • Women’s work burden is reduced by enhancing their access to technologies, practices and infrastructure and by promoting an equitable distribution of responsibilities, including at the household level.

This work aims to foster the potential and capacity that exist in women in fisheries and aquaculture communities around the world while recognizing their role as key agents of change to achieve Blue Transformation.12 As stated by the FAO Director-General:

Women and girls can play a crucial role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular in transforming our agri-food systems. We all need to work together to spark the necessary changes to empower women and girls, particularly those in rural areas (FAO, 2021u).

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