Fishing for Equity and Inclusion: Women’s Socioeconomic Factors in Kenyan Fisheries

By Margaret Gatonye




Seeing Loreta sort and dry her Omena sardines at the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, one may dismiss this small, middle-aged woman as an ordinary fishmonger struggling to earn a living.


Yet Loreta does more than sell raw fish. Every morning, she walks seven miles to Sori, the nearest fish landing site to her village, to buy fresh fish and then carry it to sell in the nearby market. She also works with other women in her village, empowering them to start small businesses of their own by training and mentoring them.


For decades, women in Kenya have made important contributions to the governance of the fisheries sector which often go unrecognized. These unacknowledged contributions of women such as Loreta, particularly in policy, have directly affected marginalized communities whose livelihoods depend on fisheries resources.


In addition to production, processing, and trading roles within fisheries, women’s labor also supports the sector through the roles women play as mothers, housewives, caregivers, cooks, and cleaners. This support has generally been ignored or considered to be an everyday occurrence that does not register formally as “labor,” and thus goes unquantified.

Look deeper, however, and one can readily see how women do count in Kenya’s fisheries and communities.


Access to Fish, Land, and Money

Loreta is one of many women who promote gender equity and social inclusion within the fisheries sector, especially in gaining access to resources such as fish, land, and money. But they face numerous barriers in pursuing these aims.


Exclusion from key economic sectors is a broader structural issue that affects women throughout Kenya. It is no different in that country’s fisheries. Traditionally, men control much of the fishery’s resources and women are responsible for the upkeep of families, resulting in little income making it into the region’s households.


The gendered structure of the lake’s fisheries has led to numerous problems. First, women’s inability to access these resources has been linked to malnutrition, including among children. That malnutrition is a problem around Lake Victoria—which is a rich source of Nile perch and other fish—is particularly troubling.


Gender barriers in Kenyan fisheries also prevent women from taking practical steps to better their own lives and the lives of their families. Women are unable to save money to obtain the collateral to change their position, or even become fishers themselves to acquire more income. This means that women do not play a specific governance role but rather support the structures of the sector through their labor in fisheries and in their own households.

And even within the formal sector of the fisheries around Lake Victoria, women receive an unequal distribution of benefits through gender-related activities. Although women take part in decision-making roles, this does not often translate to increased benefits from, access to, and control of, assets and resources. This can be seen in the case of mama karanga: the women on the Kenyan coast who buy and process fish from small-scale fishermen for local markets.


In my research on Kenyan fisheries, I have found that socio-cultural issues regarding land ownership lead to women being marginalized in the sector. Women lack access to land rights due to cultural inheritance traditions in the region. Yet land ownership is essential to participate in aquaculture. (Women, however, can gain access to fishery resources through marriage to a land-owning man or through the general promotion of economic equality in the sector.)


In the Kenyan lakeside, gender plays a defining role in the fisheries on Lake Victoria. It cuts across resource management activities. Gender issues, therefore, must be addressed sustainably.


Community organizing has provided one way to promote new values and behaviors, such as self-reliance and climate resilience, and improve the lot of women on the lake. The 2014 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report observed that certain attempts to fix the broader lack of women’s representation, such as Kenya’s law stipulating that women must occupy one-third of positions in politics, has increased the number of women and youths in decision-making positions in fisheries management.


Equity and Inclusion for the Excluded

Women in Kenya must be brought into an even more equitable arrangement of rights and governance. When women’s positions are examined, it is clear their inclusion in the sector is important in promoting gender mainstreaming and reducing the segregation of women to specific roles. Improving women’s status in the sector will give them an equal opportunity to access fish, land, and money.


Given that women are an integral part of the fisheries and aquaculture sector, particularly in the areas of value-chain addition, marketing fish, and selling them, they must gain greater acknowledgement for their roles.


So how can the sector improve in providing equity and inclusion for women in governance—as well as fixing other issues that continue to hamper women in fisheries and aquaculture?

Gender biases and disparities in the sector are one key area that must be improved. In a recent study, I called for increased dialogue between key stakeholders (producers, input suppliers, traders, government, non-profit, and private sector organizations) to influence policy reforms on gender bias and disparities against women in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. Through dialogue comes awareness, and maintaining an ongoing discussion between stakeholders—through meetings, trainings, workshops, and field visits—can alleviate the impact of these issues in the sector.


It is essential that women’s voices be centered within this dialogue. Their marginalization in the sector has done little to aid its growth; only through their inclusion in the dialogue and in decision-making processes can they improve their knowledge and practice. Centering women will increase their economic independence, and empower them to make decisions for themselves. And if this financial empowerment occurs, women can reinvest in their businesses inside and outside the sector. This will increase their contributions not only in the fisheries sector, but in the Kenyan economy overall.


For Kenya to achieve sustainable development, however, women need more than dialogue. They need actions. Available resources and policy decision-making within the country must be equitably accessible.


Increased access to resources will lead to more opportunities for women in the sector to participate fully, including in essential roles as landowners or possessors of a means of production. A review of the current national policies to ease land acquisition for women would be a start. Capital grants for women to start social enterprises within fisheries and aquaculture is another way to do so. Hiring women into key decision-making roles, such as women’s county representative for fisheries, would also help spur access.


Women such as Loreta are working and waiting for dialogue and actions in the fisheries sector that can benefit both women as a group and the national economy as a whole.


Margaret Gatonye is a Ph.D. Candidate in Global Governance and Human Security at University of Massachusetts, Boston, John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Her current research examines the intersection of fisheries, women, and socio-economic marginalization in Kenyan fishing communities.

Sources: The Fish Site; Signs; Appropriate Technology Development Centre; Ohio University; The New Humanitarian; Oxford Human Rights Hub; Case Studies in the Environment; United Nations

Photo Credit: Margaret Gatonye


This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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