Around the world, there are millions of women challenging the status quo and taking on roles traditionally reserved for men. Creating a more inclusive and equal society where there is space for women is vital for empowering communities and building resilience to global challenges, such as climate breakdown and social injustice. Women are disproportionately affected by these issues, yet their contributions to tackling them are underrepresented. Here in Kenya, the small-scale fisheries sector is one such area where women are perpetually underestimated.
Typically, men fish, whilst women process and sell catches to different marketsLast month, I visited Kenya’s southern coastal region to learn more about women’s roles in fisheries. Typically, men fish, whilst women process and sell catches to different markets, forging a critical connection between the markets and fishers. Women determine what gets fished based on the market’s demand, all the while caring for their families.
During my visit, I met Mama Hamisi, a fisherwoman, seaweed farmer and community steward who is breaking out of traditional gender roles and driving change in her community.
Once a pastry seller, Mama Hamisi’s calling to the ocean was influenced by the need to find an alternative livelihood that would support her and her family. As a resident of the Kibuyuni coastal community in Kwale County, the livelihoods of her community depend on the sea’s natural resources, from seaweed to octopus and fish. Mama Hamisi and her fellow women have been instrumental in contributing to the socioeconomic growth of her community through seaweed farming – an activity that has mainly been managed by women as an alternative to fishing.
Whilst many other women in her community rely on seaweed farming, fish processing and selling, and selling pastries, Mama Hamisi isn’t confined by gender stereotypesUnlike other areas in coastal Kenya where tourism sustains an alternative income to fishing, Kibuyuni is not a popular tourist spot, so fishing remains the primary livelihood. Whilst many other women in her community rely on seaweed farming, fish processing and selling, and selling pastries, Mama Hamisi isn’t confined by gender stereotypes; she also gleans for octopus and fishes using basket traps. Basket traps or ‘malema’ are fishing traps made by weaving split bamboo reeds onto a hexagonal bamboo frame with a single opening where bait is placed, capturing fish that swim through. Mama Hamisi catches a variety of fish, selling smaller fish at the market and keeping larger ones for her family.
During my time in Kibuyuni, I joined Mama Hamisi on an octopus gleaning trip. What looked to me like empty crevices in the reef were actually octopus burrows which Mama Hamisi skilfully searched using her bare hands and two wooden gleaning sticks. She told me that on a good day, she catches over 20 octopus of varying sizes. But it was the southeast monsoon season, which is famously unforgiving to fishers. It was low tide, so whilst she was able to get out to the reef, she counted herself lucky to catch just two small octopus.
Other fishers glean for octopus day and night… and I have realised that they do not come to this side of the reef – so today I have been lucky” she chuckles.
As she gleans for octopus, she also collects sea snails, sets up basket traps and tends to her seaweed patch. The catch of the day from her basket trap is a single small rabbit fish, which is barely enough for one person. I wondered how much more she catches during this unforgiving season.
Along the Kenyan coast, fishing and octopus gleaning have been and still are typically male livelihoods, with Kibuyuni not exempt from this. Culturally, it has been frowned upon for women to head out to sea, and this has been a barrier for many women to fish. As Mama Hamisi told me, “The men say that it would be disrespectful to let me accompany them on their boat, so they opt to go alone.”
Mama Hamisi’s involvement in Kibuyuni’s fisheries goes far beyond her daily catch; she is also an active member of the local Beach Management Unit (BMU), a community-led fisheries management group. For women like Mama Hamisi, the tide is turning, as more and more of them are starting to engage in fisheries at the management level. As a member of the patrol team, she warns other fishers about respecting the community-managed closure areas – locally known as ‘tengefu’.
The aim of setting up the fishery closure is for us to provide a breeding ground for fish here, allowing them to breed and spill over everywhere”
Despite the resistance Mama Hamisi encounters during her patrols, she continues to raise awareness of sustainable fishing practices amongst her fellow fishersAs Mama Hamisi and I talked, she was quick to express that she does not support destructive fishing practices like the use of beach seines (large fishing nets), which drag along the reef and damage corals. She tells me that some fishers still use seines, as well as other destructive gears including bunduki, illegal fishing guns. Despite the resistance Mama Hamisi encounters during her patrols, she continues to raise awareness of sustainable fishing practices amongst her fellow fishers.
As my time with Mama Hamisi came to an end, she told me how sees the future of sustainable and locally led fisheries management in Kibuyuni. Aside from growing the understanding and awareness of communities on non-destructive practices, she reiterates that financial assistance – in the form of loans – would allow her to form village savings and loans groups with her fellow women. She would use the loans to set up a credit scheme so the women in her community could purchase non-destructive gears and, crucially, a boat.
At the moment, women like Mama Hamisi can only earn an income from fishing for around half of each month; they traditionally fish on foot which can only be done during the low tide. With a boat, Mama Hamisi could fish during high tides and neap tides (when the difference between high and low tide is the least) too. She wants to encourage women in her community to fish with her, so that they can save the proceeds from the sale of catches to maintain their boats and gears, building resilience for the future.
If I get a loan, then I can assist myself well… if I can get a boat and take my fellow women, I can challenge them to start fishing. Then we can catch a lot of fish.”