By Hillary Smith, PhD candidate in the Marine Science and Conservation program

Title: Gendered Struggles and Strategies to Remain in Place in Small-Scale Fisheries

Did you know that fish can have an ethnicity, social class and gender? Fishing is an inherently social activity, where different fishing practices and their division of labor are embedded within wider social relations, that in turn shape opportunities and access to work in the small-scale fishing sector. Through this social segmentation of fisheries, certain fish species and types of work are relegated to certain social groups. At the People and the Sea conference I attended this summer in Amsterdam, a room full of scholars shared stories about the socially embedded division of labor in fisheries across different geographies. In Sri Lanka, certain fish species are coded “Tamil fish” while other are Sinhalese, and for both, women can process fish but fishing is “men’s work”—women are not even permitted to touch fishing gear for fear of bad luck [1]. In Tanzania—where I conducted field work this summer—small pelagic fish (known locally as dagaa), are both classed and gendered; they are coded as poor people’s food and women’s work.

During my summer research, I learned more about the political-economic and ecological forces shaping social relations in the small-scale fishing sector in Tanzania. In my last post, I discussed the historical dimensions of colonization, globalization and ecological change that contributed to the dire social and ecological status of Lake Victoria’s fisheries. While the marketing and processing of the lucrative but invasive Nile perch is largely controlled be men (and ultimately foreign corporations), dagaa is considered a lower value product and less desirable work. Dagaa processing has long taken place with minimal resources and infrastructure; after fish are landed, women dried dagaa either directly on sandy beaches or on rocks (Mama Beatrice, personal comment). Additionally, the fish were often not washed before drying. These procedures led to a lower quality final product with lots of sand mixed in with fish. Both the material practices of dagaa processing and the structural inequalities that prevented most women from accessing other fish species and work in the small-scale fishing sector contributed to the social coding of dagaa as low status food and women’s work.









Informal fish processors facilities are low-tech, processing fish outside of their homes and drying fish on the ground.

Yet, these identities and hierarchies (of both fish and fish worker) are not fixed, but malleable, contested and negotiated. In the last decade, women have drastically improved their processing techniques, elevating the status of dagaa. One means by which women have improved their marginal position in the fishing sector is through organizing their labor. While women face many hardships in dagaa processing—including gender based violence and precarity that comes with the lack of formal recognition and protections in the sector—how women are organized seems to matter. By forming collectives women are increasingly able to innovate their businesses through joint ownership of improved technologies and facilities for fish processing. This summer I spent time with one collective of 20 women, called Mshikamano (Solidarity), that operate from their own two-room processing building. Their wall-to-wall tiled facility is immaculately clean and comes equipped with three sinks for washing fish, raised metal racks for drying fish, a large wood burning stove for frying, equipment for proper packaging and labelling final products, and a storage room. For comparison, most independent informal processors are still drying fish on the ground or on make shift racks and work in their own homes or directly on the beach. As the taste, quality and storage life of dagaa products have improved—through improved access to capital and technology—markets have expanded, reaching new consumers in different geographies and, increasingly, social classes too. Around Lake Victoria, women’s groups (with support from NGO’s and the government) have launched marketing campaigns encouraging households from different social classes to eat the “new and improved dagaa”—promoting its nutritional value, role in food sovereignty, and affordability next to rising prices of imported foods and alternate proteins.









Members of the Mshikamano processing collective wash their fish before drying on raised racks in the facilities they own.

However, as the quality and reach of dagaa products and markets are shifting the classed perceptions of these fish, they are also bringing unexpected changes in gender relations. As dagaa processing and trading is becoming more lucrative and perceived as higher status work, men are entering the business. Based on my initial interviews with both independent processors and collectives, individual, informal processors tend to be most vulnerable to these shifting gender relations and the increased competition from men. Men in Tanzania often have access to greater capital than women and can therefore afford to buy and process a greater volume of fish. Mama Vais, an independent dagaa processor in Mwanza, told me if she has less money than male competitors she waits longer to purchase fish and is forced to buy lower quality dagaa (i.e. smaller fish mixed in with more species). Some days, there are no fish for her to buy and she returns home empty handed. As an informal, independent processor she is not licensed, has minimal legal recognition and protections, and cannot apply for bank loans. In contrast, members of the Mshikamano collective don’t regard the recent influx of male competitors as a major threat; their business is well established, they already own their facility, they have the capacity to purchase and process larger volumes of fish through their collective resources, and are licensed and approved by the Tanzania FDA and their local government. While members of the Mshikamano collective have their sights set on expanding their operations in the coming years, the independent processors I met foresaw a more precarious future and were concerned with their day-to-day ability to remain in the sector amidst growing competition.

Additionally, forming cooperatives offers women some protection from gender based violence. In my last post, I discussed the rise of the exploitative labor practice known as trading-fish-for-sex—where women are required to have sex with fishermen in order to buy fish for their processing businesses. Collectives offer some direct protections; as a group, women can afford to buy more fish and deal with more credible fishermen, can purchase fish together and resist these exploitative terms, or can employ men (often their relatives) to purchase the fish and deliver it to their processing facilities. This summer I also had the opportunity to meet with a women’s cooperative taking a different approach to combat gender based violence; by leaving the fishing sector altogether. The women’s collective Green Voices advocates for the solidarity and protection of women and children’s livelihoods and the environment. This group was formed by women in dagaa processing on Ukerewe island who wanted to leave the sector to escape gender based violence and find an alternative livelihood. On the relatively isolated island of Ukerewe, gender based violence is extremely common in small-scale fisheries. Members of Green Voices described being attacked just trying to walk to the beaches early in the morning to buy fish. The women formed Green Voices to find a way out of the sector and to support each other and their families through collective farming. Now the group rents land together and farms sweet potatoes, work they regard as safer than fish processing. The group received training on processing and packaging sweet potatoes into value-added products like milled flour, chips and other snacks that they sell. In additional to selling their products, the women also farm for subsistence—sweet potatoes provide vital micronutrients and support their family’s food security. Additionally, Green Voices promotes sustainable farming practices.

Members of the Green Voices alternative livelihood collective standing in their sweet potato field, Ukerewe Island Tanzania.

Whether its small fish or sweet potatoes, women face specific struggles in the informal economies they labor in. However, women are not a homogenous social group nor passive to their marginalization. Women in fisheries are innovating their business, upgrading their technologies, fighting climate change, expanding their market power, and organizing to protect their human rights. In doing so, they are challenging and transforming long standing inequalities in gender and class relations. But, as the lucrative Nile perch industry is waning (likely due to over fishing) alongside the rising status of dagaa processing, the gendered divisions of labor in small-scale fisheries are also changing in unexpected ways. Whereas in many parts of the world women have been making headway into economic spaces traditionally dominated by men, in small-scale fisheries in Tanzania, men are expanding their economic reach into areas once considered women’s work. The increasing masculinization of dagaa processing does not affect all women equally; class, ethnicity and other identities also matter and mediate access to resources and ability to prosper in the sector. However, forming collectives appears as one means women are actively using, not only to stay in place—offering women some economic solidarity and safety in small-scale fisheries—but also to get ahead.

[1] Lokuge, G., & Munas, M. (2018). Risk, Reciprocity and Solidarity: The Moral Economy of Fishing in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. In Social Wellbeing and the Values of Small-scale Fisheries (pp. 243-265). Springer, Cham.