Trade policy through a gender lens: Fish trade and women in The Gambia

9 November 2015

Key lessons can be learned from specific country-level case studies. This article looks at the importance of gender considerations in fisheries trade policy improvements in The Gambia with an eye on more inclusive outcomes.

The relationship between trade and gender is highly contextual and country-specific. It is, however, at times possible to extrapolate some general patterns that are likely to be found across countries. This article examines the gender ramifications of an export-led strategy in fisheries in The Gambia. Commercial expansion of the fisheries sector could help to lift many Gambians from poverty and, in particular, women. Yet, without a built-in gender perspective, the promotion of fish exports in The Gambia could in some cases actually exacerbate inequality between men and women.

A vital economic sector

The fisheries sector is a critical entry point for poverty alleviation in The Gambia. It provides a source of revenue and foreign exchange earnings for the country, while also contributing significantly to food and livelihood security, notably for the poor. The sector is the third largest food provider – after agriculture and livestock – and plays a significant role from a nutritional standpoint as the main supplier of animal protein in the diets of most Gambians. Fish-related activities, including processing and marketing, represent the main source of income for coastal fishing communities. These activities also act as an economic safety net by supporting complementary activities in rural communities inland.

In The Gambia, the artisanal fisheries chain employs between 25,000 and 30,000 people, while about 2000 people work in the industrial subsector. The livelihoods of an estimated 200,000 people are indirectly dependent on fisheries and related activities. For women specifically, fish processing and marketing provide an important source of income and livelihood support; an estimated 80 percent of fish processors and 50 percent of small-scale fish traders are women.

Gender based division of labour

In the fishery sector in The Gambia, men and women tend to produce distinct products, operate on different scales, and serve different markets. This results in specific gender-based trade patterns throughout the value chain. Upstream activities including fish harvesting or the capture of fish are essentially dominated by men, though women are present in some subsectors such as oyster and cockle harvesting. Downstream fish processing activities are quite feminised. Women also play a prominent role in the artisanal sector in the country accounting for an estimated 80 percent of processors and 50 percent of traders of these fresh and cured fish products. They also make up 70 percent of factory workers in the industrial subsector. In the downstream artisanal segment, however, trade patterns are highly gendered. Women mainly operate on small-scale, low-profit margins. Male traders, on the other hand, operate on a larger scale with more capital-intensive techniques and higher profit margins. While women serve domestic and inland urban markets, men mainly control more distant, sub-regional, and export markets.

Likewise, job segregation patterns exist in the industrial segment, where women are crowded in packaging and processing nodes. This division of labour reflects deeply entrenched social roles that restrict women’s mobility in the country. It also reflects gender disparities in access to productive assets in the fish value chain that undermine women’s competitiveness. The overall tendency seems to be that women receive “diminished” assets and segments of the chain that attract investment tend to be “defeminised.”

Mainstreaming gender considerations

The acknowledgement of these gender dimensions is critical to assess the ramifications of an export-led strategy in fisheries in The Gambia. Since men already largely control the export trade, the selective upgrading of this segment risks magnifying the existing split between large-scale male traders and small-scale women traders. This is because the expansion of the export-oriented fish industry may incite some diversion of resources from the domestic female-intensive segment. Thus, the selective upgrading and segregation of the export-oriented segment of the chain could act to the detriment of small-scale women operators, who mainly operate in the domestic segment.  Also, for those fish species that serve both export and domestic markets, there may be some diversion of supplies from the domestic to the export chain, which could have important food security implications. An export-led strategy in fisheries therefore potentially risks accentuating social cleavages between the relatively empowered and the relatively disempowered.

The bottom line is that putting in place coherent trade, infrastructure, and social policies will be instrumental to achieving inclusive development and reducing inequalities, including those based on gender.

This, however, need not necessarily be the case. Export-oriented investment may lead to greater employment opportunities for women downstream, in both artisanal and industrial processing factories, if the appropriate measures are in place. This increase in employment opportunities would have positive effects in terms of poverty alleviation.

Furthermore, investment in export-led facilities could be leveraged to also benefit the domestic-oriented chain, where women are predominant. For this to occur, policies need to be carefully structured to yield socially inclusive and gender-equalising results, particularly on the supply side. There is a need for policy responses that are not only gender-specific – in that they respond to practical gender needs of either sex – but also gender-redistributive – in so far as they create a more balanced relationship between men and women in access to productive resources.

Policy recommendations

A critical issue is the integration of gender considerations into the design and implementation of fisheries infrastructure projects. The objective is to ensure that facilities used by women are upgraded or that upgraded facilities, including those that serve the export-oriented segment of the chain, can be effectively accessed by women as well as men. Concrete measures may include quotas, informal complaints procedures, among others.

Access to resources, including credit and support services such as training in marketing and financial literacy, would greatly enhance women's ability to benefit from new export opportunities. Affirmative actions taken to redress power imbalances may include a target percentage of credit to be disbursed to women and dedicated lines of credit for women operators. Training is essentially needed in three concurrent areas: technical training in the handling and processing of fish and fish products; marketing; and financial literacy. It is also important to explore niche markets for high-value products that can generate income for women, for example, around sustainable aquaculture and the Diaspora trade.

The bottom line is that putting in place coherent trade, infrastructure, and social policies will be instrumental to achieving inclusive development and reducing inequalities, including those based on gender. A gender perspective is key to bringing issues of sustainability and inclusion to the forefront of development, environment, and trade policy efforts.

Irene Musselli, Associate Legal Affairs Officer, Trade, Gender and Development Section, UNCTAD

Simonetta Zarrilli, Chief, Trade, Gender and Development Section, UNCTAD

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