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

8 April 2015

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

Fisheries: 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; but also contributes significantly to food and livelihood security, particularly for the poor. The sector is the third largest food provider - after agriculture and livestock - and plays a significant role from a nutritional standpoint, being the main supplier of animal protein in the diets of most Gambians. Fisheries and related activities (processing and marketing) also provide income to the poor: fish-related activities represent the main source of income for coastal fishing communities, and are an important complement activity (and safety net) for rural communities inland.

In The Gambia, the artisanal subsector employs between 25,000 and 30,000 people, while about 2,000 people work in the industrial sub-sector. The livelihoods of an estimated 200,000 people are indirectly dependent on fisheries and related activities. For women in particular, 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, 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 (oyster and cockle harvesters are mainly women). Downstream (fish-processing) activities are quite feminised. Women play a prominent role in the artisanal sector: an estimated 80 per cent of processors and 50 per cent of traders of fresh and cured fish products. They also make up 70 percent of factory workers in the industrial subsector.

In the downstream artisanal segment, trade patterns are highly gendered. Women mainly operate on a small scale that involves direct marketing of fish and low profit margins, while male traders operate on a larger scale with more capital-intensive techniques and higher profit margins. Women serve domestic and inland urban markets while men mainly control more distant, subregional, and export markets. Likewise, patterns of job segregation 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, among other, women’s mobility. It also reflects gender disparities in access to productive assets in the fish value chain, which undermines women competitiveness. The overall tendency seems to be that women tend to receive “diminished” assets, while segments of the chain that attract investment tend to “defeminise”.

Mainstreaming gender considerations in fisheries trade policy

The acknowledgement of these gender dimensions is critical to assess the gender ramifications of an export-led strategy in fisheries in The Gambia.

Because 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 segment (female-intensive) to the export-oriented segment (more male-oriented). 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 the export and domestic markets, there may be some diversion of supplies from the domestic to the export chain, with important food security implications. Eventually, an export-led strategy in fisheries risks accentuate social cleavages between the relatively empowered and the relatively disempowered.

However, this need not 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. Note in this respect that an expansion of the export-oriented fish-processing industry is likely to generate significant employment opportunities for relatively unskilled women downstream (factory processing), with positive effects in terms of poverty alleviation. Furthermore, investment in export-led facilities may 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 (as they tend to 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 procedure, etc.

Women’s access to resources, including credit, and support services such as training in marketing and financial literacy, would greatly enhance their 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 needed in three concurrent areas: technical training in the handling, processing, and marketing 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, the study recommends. Attention is drawn to sustainable aquaculture and the Diaspora trade.

Also putting in place coherent trade, infrastructure and social policies may be instrumental to achieving inclusive development and to reducing inequalities, including those based on gender. The gender perspective is key to bringing issues of sustainability and inclusion to the forefront of analysis.

Author: Irene Musselli, Associate Legal Affairs Officer, UNCTAD and Simonetta Zarrilli, Chief, Trade, Gender and Development Section, UNCTAD

This articles is based on “The Fisheries Sector in the Gambia: Trade, Value Addition and Social Inclusiveness, with a Focus on Women”, UNCTAD and EIF, 2014

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