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Women-managed areas: Recognizing women’s vital role in the fishery sector

I have spent more than 30 years of my professional life in development work, but it was only last year that I came across the term “women-managed areas” or WMA. It was identified as one of the possible topics for research during a consultation held with our partner nongovernment organizations (NGOs) from the fisheries sector. Owing to the WMA’s relevance to our network’s advocacies for the fisherfolk as well as its novelty as a concept, we decided to pursue this study about women fishers.

Titled “Kayang-Kaya, Kababaihan sa Pangisdaan: A Documentation of Select Women-Managed Areas in the Philippines,” the study took off from the lack of recognition of the role of women in the fisheries sector notwithstanding the clear mandate in national laws, local ordinances, and international commitments to incorporate the gender component in plans and programs for fisherfolk. The common misconception is that fishers pertain only to men, without giving due regard and recognition to the contributions of women in fishing communities.

While fishing is usually understood as catching fish, which is performed by men, with fisheries management and policy focused mainly on men’s direct, formal, and paid work at sea, women’s work in fisheries remains informal and is often unpaid. Women in this sector are recognized more as wives who take care of the household. Truth is, women are engaged in many necessary fishing activities such as shell and fry gathering or gleaning, reef fishing using nets, traps and fish baskets, vending or marketing of the catch, patrolling of fishing activities, and coastal clean-up.

The WMA study conducted in 2022 aimed to shed light on and reassert the roles and contributions of women in the fisheries sector through documentation of three cases of women-managed areas in Siruma, Camarines Sur; Salcedo, Eastern Samar, and Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur. It also sought to draw learnings from WMA experiences and recommend measures that would enhance and give value to women’s participation in the fisheries sector.

Among its major findings are that areas that can be considered “women-managed” include mangrove areas, fish sanctuaries, coral reefs, and seagrass for the fisheries sector, and that WMA is a holistic concept that performs various interrelated functions. First and foremost is environmental: It is a resource management tool used by women to protect and manage the resources in a coastal zone. Second is economic: The women earn from shell gathering, seagrass and crab culture in the areas they manage, and contribute additional income to the household. Third, the WMA is social in nature: It strengthens the bonds of women in the community, builds relationships and solidarity among them, and allows them to enjoy their time together. Finally, the establishment of a WMA is political as it involves decision-making with regard to the planning, implementation, and monitoring of a project.

The ability to mobilize support from government agencies as far as financial resources, accreditation, and issuance of ordinances are concerned, as well as from NGOs in terms of training and lobbying for advocacies, is also crucial and instrumental to the WMA’s effectiveness. These various competencies that the women fishers continue to develop will be useful in their representation in governing bodies. It may still be a long way before women get recognized equally with the men in local and international arenas, but the WMA approach is proof of what women, including those in rural areas, are capable of. Kayang-kaya, mga kababaihan!

First published as a Letter to the Editor in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Photo from The University Of Rhode Island – Coastal Resources Center.

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