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In Indonesia, women may contribute up to 42% or more of the people engaged in the fisheries sector. However, their substantial role is often overlooked in management and policies. The absence of recognition for women in the fisheries sector can be detrimental to the sector and the economy. It is important to recognize women's economic contribution and knowledge, since they play a big role in alleviating poverty and in fisheries policy to recover from COVID-19.

Studies have found that the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits women hard. Women dominate low-paying, informal, and even unpaid work roles, including in the fisheries sector. As a result women face insecurity in conducting their roles and are disproportionately affected by job losses and loss of livelihoods; a situation that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

Globally, women represent almost half of the labor force in fisheries, aquaculture, seafood processing, and related services. However, even prior to COVID-19, the critical participation of women in fisheries has been overlooked.  

In Indonesia, UU No. 7/2016 (Law) protect fishers regardless of gender (defined as “nelayan”). However, in practice, “nelayan” is considered to apply only to male fishers.  Due to social and cultural norms which view women as homemakers and men as wage earners, women are seen predominantly as the wives of fishermen, or engage in fishing activities as part of their domestic duties, unpaid. In consequence, men tend to engage in high-end value chain activities such as fish harvesting, transportation, distribution and middle trade, while, women occupy low-end value chain roles, including grading, sorting, and market sales. Without being recognized as nelayan, women lack the associated legal rights and can struggle to access support from the government. For example, it took two years for 31 fisherwomen in Tambakpolo, Jawa Tengah to receive their fishers insurance card (kartu nelayan).  This includes a nine-month process of changing occupation status from housewife to nelayan on their official identity documents, and consultation with both local and provincial government to allow changes due to long held perceptions that women are not fishers.

The absence of recognition for women as key players in the fisheries sector has created a gap for women to further participate and access economic opportunities.  During the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, the failure to recognize women’s role in fisheries sector, not only prevents women from accessing or being eligible for social protection benefits offered by some governments (e.g., access to insurance, access to financing), but undermines the important contributions by women to food and livelihood security and global recovery from the crisis, as well as women’s participation in safeguarding ocean ecosystem.

Three Reasons Why Women are Important for The Fisheries Sector

Although women’s work remains invisible in fisheries, here are 3 reasons why women play an important role in fisheries.

1.  Women are key actors in fisheries sector

In Indonesia, 42 percent of the labor force in fisheries are women. Women dominate the role of fish sellers, including in ports (72 percent compared to male). Four percent of fishers are women, and many work with non-motorized boats, and more are not legally identified as fishers.

Women in small scale fisheries in Indonesia contribute 169,000 metric tons of fish catch annually, valued at $253 million. This includes often overlooked catches taken along the shoreline, on foot, or from small, non-motorized vessels using low-technology, low-emission gears in coastal waters.

There is even more of the work that women do in pre-harvest and post-harvesting, with working hours exceeding 17 hours a day that are largely unacknowledged. Pre-harvest work varies from repairing nets, preparing food and logistics before a trip. Meanwhile, post-harvesting include handling the fish, processing the catch, and ultimately selling fish. Women also play essential roles in the economic chain of fisheries through financing the fleet, recording catches and bookkeeping, and marketing the fisheries products.

2.  Women’s contribution to fisheries help alleviate poverty

Women are usually the main caregivers of the household. Women are usually responsible for the family’s food and nutrition, and in many cases, for family finances too. Based on a research by KIARA, women contributed 48 percent of household incomes through production activities (catching and gathering fish/other marine organism) and post-harvest (preparation and selling fish products). For example, women in Barrang Caddi Island, South Sulawesi, organize themselves in business groups and sell a variety of seafood-based products. The existence of this group has greatly helped create livelihood for families and contributes to the local economy.

3.  Including women in fisheries management leads to a better fisheries management

Acknowledging and including women in the fisheries management is essential for a sustainable and equitable fishing industry. Foremost, as key actor in fisheries, women’s insights are relevant in fisheries management. Furthermore, studies have found that women are more inclined to cooperate in implementing sustainable fisheries management, and they are more ethical in stewarding marine ecosystem. For example, in Kaur Regency, Bengkulu, octopus fisherwomen record catch and monitor extraction to reduce exploitation for octopus. Meanwhile, in Tanakeke, South Sulawesi, women seaweed growers voluntarily work of rehabilitate their village’s mangrove ecosystem.

The Way Forward

To improve women’s participation in the fisheries sector, better documentation on the different engagement of men and women may be a starting point to reduce further marginalization of women. Recently, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries updated the gender disaggregated data on fisheries actor and the socioeconomic characteristics. This information can be used to better facilitate women’s participation, by better access to ownership of business and/or boats, access to manage resources, and participate in decision-making processes for fisheries management.  Indeed, recognizing the role of women in fisheries would impact poverty alleviation and fisheries policy needed to recover from COVID-19.