Gender Mainstreaming in Fisheries and Aquaculture Sectors: The Fish Innovation Lab’s Framework


Kathleen Ragsdale, Mary Read-Wahidi, and Elin Torell
Submitted by Andrew Wamukota/Pwani University

by Kathleen Ragsdale, Mary Read-Wahidi, and Elin Torell

In much of the developing world, including the countries in which the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish (Fish Innovation Lab) operates, women’s involvement in and contributions to the aquaculture and fisheries sectors does not automatically mirror that of men’s. This can help explain why, historically and until very recently, women’s roles have been largely invisible or marginalized and “[d]ocumentation of their contributions remains isolated as case studies, rarely appearing in the official statistics, due to most countries not collecting sex-disaggregated data on fisheries related matters” (Lentisco & Alonso, 2012, p. 106; Weeratunge & Snyder, 2009).

The lack of gender disaggregated data and data on fish caught by women, which is critical to understanding household food security, results in an underestimation of the total fish production and of the contribution of aquaculture and fisheries to household income and food security. And even as collecting gender-disaggregated data has become increasingly mainstream among development actors, experts have advocated that we “move beyond the perception of women as fish processors and caregivers, by better understanding their access to fisheries resources, identifying their roles and relationships with others, and by acknowledging the benefits of directly involving them in decision-making” (Lentisco & Lee, 2014, p. 33) within fisheries and aquaculture value chains.

As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations argues – and other leading development agencies and organizations, including CGIAR (formerly called Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), (particularly WorldFish; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) advocate – gender equality “is not simply a matter of human rights, but is key to eliminating poverty and hunger” (FAO, 2018, p. 2). In fact, over the last few decades, USAID’s advocacy for ensuring that the involvement and contributions of women are considered and accounted for throughout USAID-supported development efforts has been codified and mandated through approaching gender equality, empowerment, and mainstreaming as a cross-cutting theme in the Feed the Future Innovation Labs (USAID, 2012; see also Avakyan et al., 2017). And as gender mainstreaming has begun to be more fully implemented across aquaculture and fisheries development projects and programs, how to set goals for gender mainstreaming across lab- and field-based projects, how to document findings, and how to share knowledge across disciplines has become increasingly important.

Drawing on Past Experiences 

Through our prior experiences serving as Gender Impacts leads with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi, Mississippi State University) and as the gender advisor for multiple African and Philippine fisheries programs, implemented by the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) in collaboration with local partners (Torell, University of Rhode Island), we understand the importance of and goal-setting processes for gender mainstreaming in agricultural development. Translating this understanding to fisheries and aquaculture management and research-for-development projects at the Fish Innovation Lab was a no-brainer.

For example, collecting large-scale survey data from both a man and woman within the same household who identify as key household decision-makers – and using a previously validated instrument, such as the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (Alkire, Meinzen-Dick et al., 2013; Alkire, Malapit et al., 2013; Feed the Future, 2014) to accomplish this – produces gender-disaggregated data that can be used to directly compare a smallholder female farmer’s agricultural decision-making autonomy vis-à-vis that of her husband’s decision-making autonomy (Ragsdale, et al., 2018). Likewise, conducting focus group discussions that are purposefully gender disaggregated helps ensure that women’s opinions are heard in rural villages where women may not typically be granted permission to speak openly in community meetings in the presence of men (Ragsdale & Read-Wahidi, 2018). Conducting field days and other extension or technical trainings that consider women participants’ unique needs and responsibilities (e.g., childcare) helps ensure that women have access to expert knowledge and training (Ragsdale & Read-Wahidi, 2020). Results from a gender needs assessment in Ghana indicated that providing women fish processors and traders with access to credit and business skills can enable them to expand their business and secure greater control in fisheries that improves resilience to economic shocks (Torell, Owusu et al., 2015).  

Fish Innovation Lab Approach

The Fish Innovation Lab supports applied fisheries and aquaculture research in five Feed the Future countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. A common thread in all projects is to promote technology adoption and positive behavior change that improve nutrition of vulnerable groups and sustain fish stocks for future generations. To successfully achieve technology adoption and behavior change, we need to know how men and women engage in fisheries and aquaculture value chains and understand what motivates their behavior. This means learning about the lived  experiences of women and other marginalized groups and using an intersectional lens in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of research-for-development projects and programs.

The Fish Innovation Lab uses a framework adapted from Kleiber and colleagues (2017) to identify gender barriers specific to fisheries and aquaculture sectors, and we support Fish Innovation Lab researcher teams to address these barriers through their projects and programs. Below we include an outline of this framework with real-world examples to illustrate how gender barriers can occur and how they can be addressed:  

  • Access to and control over assets and resources: Women and men may have different access and control over aquaculture and fisheries resources and habitats, as well as gear used during aquaculture, fishing, and postharvest activities. For example, a recent gender-access and -control profile conducted in the Philippines found that men control most high-value fish species, whereas women have at least partial control over mangroves and seagrass beds where they glean bivalves (Torell et al., in review).
  • Co-management and tenure rights: Lack of land tenure rights may prevent women from developing inland aquaculture ponds. It is also critical to consider the fisheries livelihoods and interests of women and men when developing tenure, access rights, and co-management arrangements within small-scale fisheries and aquaculture. For example, as part of work in the Gambia, the Government of the Gambia granted exclusive use rights to the cockle and oyster fishery in the Tanbi Wetlands National Park to the TRY Oyster Women’s Association – the first case for a women’s group in West Africa (CRC, 2020b).
  • Access to markets and marketing resources: Women often have less market access, especially to fresh and higher-end fish species. Women’s access to markets and marketing resources may be dependent on cultural restrictions that prevent women from traveling to markets located away from their home village. Women may also have more difficulty accessing credit and financial resources or less control over how savings and credit are used.  
  • Access to diverse livelihoods and income: Cultural bias may direct what livelihoods are appropriate for women and men. Unequal gender roles may give women fewer opportunities than men. Women are more often engaged in subsistence livelihoods, including gleaning and fishing with nets from the shore – work that is often unpaid or paid less than other work in the fish value chain. However, through capacity development, organization, and confidence building, women’s livelihoods can be strengthened while also giving them a voice in fisheries management. For example, while working with women in Senegal, researchers saw how women processors were able to get a price premium on their smoked fish, and at the same time they followed a code of conduct where they refused to buy under-sized fish, which put pressure on fishermen to follow fisheries-management rules (CRC, 2020a).
  • Education and capacity development: Differences in access to education can impact women’s and men’s opportunities to engage in the fish value chain. For example, in the Fish Innovation Lab’s Fish4Zambia project conducted at Lake Bangweulu, we found that women (23%) were significantly more likely than men (9%) to have not completed any years of school (Ragsdale et al., 2019). Gender-based differences in education are of concern as low-literate women may be less likely to benefit from extension and other technical training and programs.
  • Food and nutritional security: In developing countries, women’s fishing is often focused on small but nutritionally important subsistence catches. However, women in food-insecure households may have less access to food within their own families, especially during times of food insecurity, such as is likely to occur due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. We also must consider what fish-based foods are most appropriate, desirable, and nutritious among food-insecure households in developing countries. For example, when aquaculturists ensure that traits fit the needs and desires of end consumers, including women (particularly in food-insecure households), who are most often responsible for sourcing and preparing family meals – they can maximize the long-term benefits of their projects and programs.
  • Occupational safety and gender-based violence: Men and women often are exposed to different risks due to their roles in the fish value chain. Shifting gender roles in fisheries related to changes in resource availability can lead to increased gender-based domestic violence (e.g., dwindling catches lead to more men at home). Other gender-based violence, such as sexual harassment or sexual coercion (e.g., sex for fish (Silver, 2019)), may hinder women’s participation in male-dominated parts of the fish value chain. For example, researchers worked in Tanzania to establish an open fish market where women fish buyers could purchase fish in a safer environment without the pressure to provide sex for fish, which was common when they bought fish straight from the boats (Torell et al., 2012).
  • Governance and policy coherence: Gender-equity principles are often missing in fisheries and aquaculture policy, as governmental agencies and other policy makers often fail to recognize the invisible but essential roles that women play in these sectors (Kleiber et al., 2017; see also Lentisco & Alonso, 2012; Lentisco & Lee, 2014).
  • Monitoring, evaluation, and learning: Lack of gender-disaggregated data and data capturing women’s essential involvement in fisheries and aquaculture contributes to making women’s crucial engagement invisible and/or marginalized. Lack of prioritization, funding, and training for gender research and learning also hold us back from advancing gender equity in fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

Clearly, purposive and informed gender mainstreaming in fisheries and aquaculture sectors, such as that promoted and supported by the Fish Innovation Lab, “provides women a chance to take up their position in society and to recognize and avail opportunities to generate wealth: thus it is also a crucial component in alleviating poverty, achieving greater food and nutrition security, and enabling good governance and sustainable development of fisheries resources” (Okyere et al., 2015, p. 1).

For more information about the Fish Innovation Lab’s work related to gender equity, please visit

Kathleen Ragsdale is the Fish Innovation Lab’s gender and youth equity specialist and a research professor at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center. Ragsdale and Mary Read-Wahidi, an assistant research professor at the Social Science Research Center, are researchers on two Fish Innovation Lab projects in Zambia and have developed the GRADA-FIL, an internal survey tool to measure gender inclusion in the Fish Innovation Lab research portfolio. Elin Torell is the Fish Innovation Lab’s deputy director and director of international coastal programs, evaluation, livelihoods and gender at the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center.


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Published on July 29, 2020