From principles to practice: Addressing gender inequality in coastal fisheries

in Gender Gap , Tagged Fisheries, Natural resources, Research.
  • Sarah Lawless

    Sarah Lawless is a PhD Candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University and WorldFish. Sarah’s research examines the translation of policy commitments to address gender inequality through small-scale fisheries in the Pacific Islands Region.

  • Andrew Song

    Dr Andrew Song is an adjunct Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University.

  • Philippa Cohen

    Dr Philippa Cohen leads the Small-Scale Fisheries Research Program at WorldFish and is a Partner Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University.

  • Tiffany Morrison

    Tiffany Morrison is a Professorial Research Fellow and Social Science Research Leader at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University.


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Gender Gap:

When it comes to governance principles, how do we determine what gets valued - and subsequently implemented? While gender equality is often universally seen as the right thing to do, why do so many individual actors still fail to incorporate it in practice? 

Despite significant commitment to addressing gender inequality in coastal fisheries, the concept continues to be poorly incorporated in the national policies. Today on BroadAgenda, a research team from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University takes a deep dive into the Pacific Islands fisheries as they investigate the underlying reasons for the slow progress.

Regardless of the natural resource sector in which we work (i.e., agriculture, forestry or fisheries), we are all guided by a common set of governance principles. These principles may include commitments to sustainable modes of resource management, protection of biodiversity, or participation of stakeholders.

But are these principles recognized and valued equally? Are some principles preferred and reinforced, while others are left to languish? A recent analysis conducted by Song and colleagues illustrated that social principles, specifically gender and human rights, are rarely included and ill-defined compared to others.

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In the case of coastal fisheries, for the most part, there is strong international consensus around the governance principles that guide best practice. Arguably, the most common governance principle is the participation of fishers in management decisions. This is well aligned to co-management, specifically community based resource management (CBRM), which has gained significant traction in national fisheries policies and implementation over the last decade.

In contrast to fisher participation, gender equality as a principle has been poorly incorporated in coastal fisheries governance in the Pacific Islands

Another salient principle is gender equality. Globally, we are witnessing unprecedented commitment to and investment directed towards addressing gender inequality in coastal fisheries. This is illustrated by the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries, which acknowledge gender equality as a fundamental and integrated governance principle. Yet, despite these high-level commitments, a recent Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research funded study showed that in contrast to fisher participation (achieved through CBRM), gender equality as a principle has been poorly incorporated in coastal fisheries governance in the Pacific Islands.

If we universally agree fisher participation in management and gender equality are fundamentally important principles that should guide national approaches to coastal fisheries governance, why is one widely adopted, and the other not?

In this study, Song and colleagues offer a rare comparative insight into the adoption of different coastal fisheries principles. Specifically the study examined how two supra-national coastal fisheries instruments (one global and one regional) aligned with national policies in Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu as a means to assess the respective fisheries ministry’s predisposition towards adoption of governance principles.

The authors contend the degree, or the speed at which, different principles are adopted can be attributed to how these commitments are received and internalized by national actors. In other words, despite their appearance, policies are not always an objective, rational medium. The biases and histories of national-scale actors influence the design, and application of policies, favouring certain principles but not others.

National policies poorly represent gender equality, despite being a key principle in the supra-national policy instruments

This study found that national policies poorly represent gender equality, despite being a key principle in the supra-national policy instruments. Gender was only referenced in three of the fifteen national-scale policy instruments, and was absent in all policies from Solomon Islands.

The interviews with fisheries managers of the three countries illuminated relative ambivalence to the idea of gender equality. As a comparison, the authors found understandings of CBRM to be more established and concrete than gender equality. They attributed this prominence to these countries having dedicated CBRM units, and access to financial and technical support.

However, perhaps the most revealing reason for CBRM being institutionalized in all countries was that national-scale actors had been involved in the formulation of regional fisheries policies that articulated CBRM, and interacted closely with regional bodies in developing policy and then translating it into community fisheries practice. Consequently, CBRM was a product of contextualized policy instruments, and had brought a strong sense of national ownership, and perceived in-country relevance.

This raises several important questions. Is it possible the integration of gender equality in fisheries policies has seen little progress because, to date, this has been a top-down endeavor, not embedded in local circumstances, or a reflection of the voices of national-scale actors? Or, perhaps gender equality commitments are intangible and non-context specific? Or to put it simply, is gender equality just not valued as a governance principle by national-scale fisheries actors?

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In understanding why some principles spread more than others, this research suggests an attention shift from the promoters of policies (i.e., international organizations, NGOs and donors), to the users of policies (i.e., national-scale actors, local implementers/champions).

We need to be more aware of the individual ideals of national-scale managers and practitioners and the role they play in shaping the extent of gender integration in fisheries policy and practice. This could involve increasing fisheries actors’ patchy exposure to gender equality, but also working toward more inclusive processes of policy formulation where national-scale actors feel ownership and relevance of policies to their work. Such a process may also lead to more tangible understandings of what gender in policy and practice actually means.

Of course, it would be naïve to assume maximum or unanimous agreement around the meaning of gender equality in fisheries. However, rather than gender being pursued as a donor requirement or a quest for organizational legitimacy, we should take the time to reflect on the deeper (or idiosyncratic) understanding of gender equality, by paying closer attention to our own and others judgements, aspirations and convictions. As this study illustrates, individuals may not always elicit similar meaning. However, by being sensitive to differences in exposure and understanding of policy principles we may open up space for context specific translation of key principles into practice.



This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agrifood Systems (FISH). This work was supported by the Australian Government and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research through project FIS/2016/300, and the Australian Research Council through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.


This article was originally published on Gender Aqua Fish and has been reproduced here with permission. Read the original here


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  • Philippa Cohen 29/10/2019 11:59am (7 months ago)

    A few new pieces out from this group as part of efforts to address this challenge...

    Lawless et al. 2019 Gender norms and relations: implications for agency in coastal livelihoods

    Kleiber et al. 2019 Gender-inclusive facilitation for community-based marine resource management

    Kleiber et al. 2019 Gender integrated research for development in Pacific coastal fisheries

    Harper & Kleiber, 2019. Illuminating gender dimensions of hidden harvests

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