Development projects involving women in the fisheries sector in Asia: are we empowering them or creating beasts of burdenh?

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Development projects involving women in the fisheries sector in Asia: are we empowering them or creating beasts of burdenh? Powered By Docstoc
					Development projects involving women in the fisheries sector in Asia: are we
empowering them or creating beasts of burden?

Poh Sze Choo
Asian Fisheries Society
c/o Marine Science and Aquaculture Laboratory
Institute of Bioscience
University Putra Malaysia
43400 UPM, Serdang
Selangor, Malaysia


Women in coastal communities in developing countries in Asia put in many hours of hard work
performing domestic chores associated with food security, nurturing, cooking, cleaning,
gathering fuel, fetching water, as well as supplementing the family income by assisting family
members in fishing, mending nets, tending to livestock, aquatic animals and vegetable plots. It
is generally well documented that women put in more hours at work than men. Despite all the
efforts put in, their work is generally less recognized or goes unrecognized in official statistics.
Poverty often has a feminine face. To correct this inequity, development agencies have begun
to empower women by involving them in development projects which help to enhance their
social and economic position. However, without first understanding the needs and expectations
of women and plunging them into development projects may do them more harm than good and
increase their work burden. This paper presents some case studies which showed the
increased work burden of women in development projects. This paper also suggests strategies
for empowering women without compromising on their quality of life. It also seeks out some
indicators so that development agencies are able to determine whether their projects have
indeed truly empowered women.


Early initiatives in development after World War II were directed at addressing development
inequities between developed and developing nations. These projects had focused entirely on
men and met with failures as a consequence. The landmark study by Boserup (1970) traced the
failures to women’s exclusion in these projects although they played critical roles in sustaining
local and national economies, especially in agricultural production. Following this report, women
professionals all over the world started to pressure their governments for change- government
and non-governmental agencies subsequently made visible efforts to integrate women into
development projects. However, many of these projects involving women did not take into
consideration women’s needs and aspirations. They were plunged into development and
economic projects and many women found their work burden increased and their wellbeing

Women’s workload and time constraints have come under greater scrutiny because many
development projects have involuntarily increased women’s workload without distributing
benefits equally between women and men (Young, 1993). However, the sociological, economic
and nutritional impacts from the extra work burden of women have received little attention from
researchers, planners and managers.

Paper presented in Women’s Worlds Conference 2011: Ottawa, 3-7 July 2011 in session “Why the coast
matters to women: gender, fisheries, globalization and natural resource management”
The increase in work burden is due to a lack of social support systems to help women cope with
both their productive and reproductive roles. In general, it is well documented that women put in
more hours at work than men even before development planners loaded them with more work.
In a study conducted in three rural areas of the Ivory Coast in agricultural communities, the work
burden of women was found to exceed that of men by 2.9 (Levine et al. 2001). In
Mongolia even when women (and boys) took on men’s work, traditional work divisions still
remained women’s work, thus intensifying their workload (UNIFEM, 2001). Desai (2001) noted
that Vietnamese men and women spent nearly the same amount of time on income-generating
activities, but women spent almost twice as much time as men on household work, thus
resulting in women putting in more work hours in total than men at each point in the life cycle.
Women’s work burden has also been highlighted in several development projects described in
the series of symposiums on women/gender and fisheries organized by the Asian Fisheries
Society (Kibria and Mowla, 2006; Mowla and Kibria, 2006; Halim and Ahmed, 2006)..

This paper describes some case studies in the fisheries sector which demonstrated how women
involved in development projects designed to empower them, have their work burden increased.
It also suggests on development strategies which take into consideration women’s well being
and at the same time enhance their economic and social status. Tools which can measure
women’s empowerment are also singled out.

                  Enhanced workload of women in development projects

Aquaculture Development in Northern Uplands, Vietnam (VIE/98/009/01/NEX)

This is a UNDP project implemented in 1999 to 2002.The objective is to alleviate poverty and
malnutrition in three provinces by diversifying rural development to include aquaculture.
Although this project succeeded in creating suitable opportunities for ethnic women and
enhanced their status, it has also increased their work burden (Kibria and Mowla, 2006). Apart
from household work, women spent as much time as men in the various aquaculture and on-
farm activities. The total work hours of women were greater than men’s but women have less
decision-making roles than men. Kibria and Mowla (2006) also noted that although women were
usually responsible for managing money in the family, this did not mean that they had the right
to spend the money freely on whatever they liked. Women were allowed to make individual
decisions on expenses for daily meals, clothes and part of the children’s education; other family
expenses were decided by the husband or by both husband and wife.

Patuakhali Barguna Aquaculture Extension Project, Bangladesh

The Patuakhali Barguna Aquaculture Extension Project in Bangladesh, aimed to involve women
in fish farming projects and was implemented in 1997 to 2004 with funding from the Danish
International Development Agency (DANIDA). This project placed additional work burden on
women who were already stretched to the limits (Mowla and Kibria, 2006). Women had to work
longer hours and had little time to attend training and were confused on how to organize their
time between domestic chores and work in the aquaculture projects (Mowla and Kibria, 2006).

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Women interviewed revealed that they usually had to do everything related to fish farming within
their households; they were also likely to be responsible for maintaining their vegetable plots
and raising poultry along with fishing and fish farming.

Women’s involvement in Support of the University Fisheries Education and Research
Project (SUFER) Bangladesh

A project entitled “women in fisheries in Bangladesh- level of involvement and scope of
enhancement” funded under SUFER and sponsored by the Department for International
Development (DFID) found that involving women in fisheries project has led to a net increase in
the work burden of women (Halim and Ahmed, 2006). About 10% of women reported spending
more than 7 in project activities; the increasing shortage of drinking water and fuel
wood had also added to their workload (Halim and Ahmed, 2006).

Backyard fish processing: Ciganitri, Cipagalo, Bojonsoang, Bandung Province, West

Many women were involved in a fish processing project established with the aim of augmenting
their husband’s income which has become insufficient to support the family. This project
resulted in a growing number of women managing their own income but this success came at
the expense of further increasing their work burden for the economic wellbeing of their family
(APEC, 2001).

Inland freshwater small-scale pond and cage culture projects, Thailand

Women play a major role in raising fish in ponds and cages in the vicinity of their house,
especially in northern Thailand, where men migrate to cities to work and women are left with the
sole responsibility of looking after the cage and pond culture (APEC, 2001). Women are
burdened with domestic chores as well as feeding fishes and livestock. Such duties which
require constant attention make it difficult for women to participate in occasional off-farm
activities. Women mentioned that they have less time than men to read newspapers or watch

           Reasons why some development projects failed to empower women

Wieringa (1994) noted that despite the attention paid to issues of women and development in
the last decades, actual progress has been uneven and piecemeal, both under conditions of
economic decline and of economic growth. Heyzer (1992) demonstrated that high rates of
economic growth do not necessarily benefit women and are not pre-conditions for gender equity
while the World Development Report noted that gender equity may actually worsen under
certain growth patterns (World Bank, 1990). There has been a growing recognition that
development projects which are solely driven by economic reasons may not benefit women and
empower them. Providing services to women and increasing their income do not necessarily
improve their situation and wellbeing but instead may bring the already heavily occupied women
greater work burden which may adversely impact their physical and mental health.

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The failure to empower women may be due partly to a communication gap which exists
between gender advocates and policy makers: the former sees the issues as part of the social
equality agenda whereas the latter views development as chiefly concerning economic
productivity (Balakrishnan, 2005). Wieringa (1994) noted that gender planners have preferences
for simplified tools and quantifiable targets. She argued that planners working from an
empowerment perspective should demonstrate flexibility and theoretical grounding, and be
aware of the political dimensions of their work.

Gender Planning

Below are some suggestions on what to incorporate in gender planning and how to go about
conducting it:

What should be incorporated in gender planning and who should be involved?

Very often gender planning does not involve the women to whom the initiative is targeted.
Without hearing out the women to understand their concerns and needs, a top down approach
may result in project failure. Wieringa (1994) stressed that gender planning should take into
account the critical, contextualized analysis of women’s gender oppression and the design of
policies to diminish that oppression and should involve not only the planners or their consultants
but also the women targeted. Fundamental questions relating to women’s gender interest must
be asked when planning development related to women (Wieringa, 1994).

Balakrishnan (2005) noted that the adverse outcome of development projects which have
disadvantaged women further can be attributed to a situation where planners are not effectively
linking gender analysis outcomes to gender planning processes. She further noted that gender
mainstreaming has come to represent a narrow set of analytical tools and training in applying
these tools for gender analysis rather than the process of designing strategies to improve the
opportunities for rural women.

Development activities that increased women’s workload

Østergaard (1992) emphasized that development activities which increase women’s workload
without any proportionate improvement in their situations should be avoided, and any activity
that relies heavily on women’s labor should include women in planning and managing
capacities. She suggested that development activities that alleviate women’s work burden and
technology that saves labor in domestic chores should be given high priority. Addressing issues
such as inadequate access to water, fuel supply, sanitation and health resources should be
accorded priority in the gender equality manifesto (Balakrishnan, 2005).

Most development interventions to empower women have tended to focus either on women’s
productive work or their reproductive functions, and one of the consequences of this dichotomy
is a lower level of productivity in both the household subsistence economy and their productive
economy (World Food Programme, 1985). To empower women to enhance their productive
capacity, it is imperative that their time-consuming domestic work burden has to be reduced,
and concurrently they must be concrete opportunities for improving women’s productive work
and increasing employment and income (World Food Programme, 1985).

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Aspects of empowerment and gender equity

Elson (1990) suggested that strategies for the empowerment of women must focus beyond
economic restructuring of women to a restructuring of the social relations which constrain
women. Heyzer (1992) also said that empowerment calls for emphasis on the following aspects:
labor markets (equal wages with men, access to all sectors), social development (provision of
basic needs, health, education) and relation within the household (time-use, work distribution).

Moser (1993) stressed the importance of empowering women by enhancing their self-reliance
and internal strength thus enabling them to determine their choices in life and to influence the
direction of change, through their ability to gain control over crucial material and non-material

Elson (1995) suggested that for gender equity to happen we need to rethink the strategies for
development: from male-biased to human-centered development. Elson (1995) stressed that
this requires not just a transformation of the reproductive economy to facilitate women’s
participation in the productive economy but also a transformation of the productive economy to
recognize the community and family responsibilities of both men and women.

                         Tools for assessing women empowerment

Malhotra et al. (2002) stated that so far, no development agency has developed a rigorous
method for measuring and tracking changes in levels of women empowerment, and usually one
single indicator is usually insufficient to measure even a specific dimension of empowerment
(Kishoor, 2000b; Estudillo et al. 2001). One of the major difficulties in measuring empowerment
is that the behaviors and attributes that signify empowerment in one context often have different
meanings elsewhere, and this contextual nature of empowerment suggests that “universal”
measures may be impossible (Malhotra et al. 2002). Malhotra et al. (2002) further stated that
many writers described empowerment as a “process” and as a moving target it is difficult to
measure, especially with the standard empirical tools that are available to social scientists.

Malhotra et al. (2002) demonstrated that empowerment is frequently measured at one of three
levels: household level, aggregate level and intermediate level. The summary below is extracted
from Malhotra et al. (2002).

Household level

This is the most commonly measured level. Major efforts have been made at measuring
household decision-making processes, financial control and social or familial constraints. Most
studies have focused on married women or women with spouses where empowerment is
operational largely in terms of relations between spouses. Most frequently used indicators at the
household level include:
     Domestic decision making;
     Access to or control over resources;
     Mobility or freedom of movement.

Less frequently used indicators are:

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      Economic contribution to household;
      Freedom from violence;
      Management/knowledge;
      Public space;
      Marriage/kin/social support;
      Couple interaction;
      Appreciation in household.

Aggregate level

Empirical measurement of women’s empowerment at the aggregate level has not progressed as
substantially as has household or individual level measurements. These indicators are less well
developed, less sophisticated, and measurements at the aggregate level still rely heavily on
proxy measures. Indicators used at the aggregate level include (Malhotra et al. 2002; Scanian,
2004) :
    Labor market- female labor force participation; occupational sex aggregation, child care
        options, % of wives/women in modern work; gender wage differentials; ratio of
        female/male administrators and managers; ratio of female/male professional and
        technical workers; women’s share of earned income; labor laws;
    Education- female literacy; female enrolment in secondary school; maternal education;
    Marriage/kinship system – mean age at marriage; mean spousal age difference;
        proportion unmarried females aged 15- 19; relative rates of female to male migration;
        geographic region;
    Social norms/practices- wives/women’s physical mobility;
    Health/survival – relative child survival; sex ratios of mortality;
    Political and legal entities- ratio of seats in parliament held by women; women’s legal
        rights; questions, complaints, requests from women at village council;
    Ratio of GDI and HDI. The closer this ratio is to a value of one, the closer a society is to
        gender equality;
    Arithmetic difference score between GDI and HDI. The closer the different score is to
        zero, the closer a society is to gender equality, and a more negative score suggests that
        the society is less favorable to women relative to men.

Intermediate level

The lack of studies intermediate between the individual/household and the district/state/nation is
one of the most significant gaps in efforts at empirically measuring women’s empowerment. For
example, assessment is lacking on how women in specific communities may be empowered
through shifts in norms, marriage systems and political processes. It is precisely at the
community levels that such interventions tend to play out, and if women’s empowerment is to be
a goal of such initiatives, then some potential measurement schemes need to be developed for
capturing the process at this level.

                                 Discussion and Conclusion

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After a decade or more of research on women/gender in fisheries, researchers associated with
the women/gender in fisheries symposiums in the Asian Fisheries and Aquaculture Forum have
not achieved much progress and research is still heavily focused on empowering women at the
household level. Generally, researchers had tended to simplify the gender inequity problem and
focused only on a narrow scope of an enormously complex issue. Very often their solution to
empower women is to involve women (often married women who have hitherto been missing
from the project) in various development projects to improve the family’s economic position,
thus further increasing women’s work burden without really empowering them. Researchers
tend to be influenced by the demand from donors and plan their research to address complex
problems with simple tools, within a short time frame of 3-5 years and with quantifiable targets.

Other reasons for the failure to empower women despite decades of effort put in by
development planners and researchers include the inadequate representation of women’s
activities in statistics which thus provide an inadequate basis of development planning
(Wieringa, 1994). Another reason is that fundamental questions relating to women’s gender
interests are not being asked while planning development intervention related to women
(Wieringa, 1994). Another drawback to the present strategy to empower women is to view
development as mainly an economic process with minimal attention paid to the social realm.

Women often do not know who they really are and what they want and to what level they want
to attain in the empowerment process. To empower women to critically and creatively reshape
their worlds, women’s own concept of themselves has to be de-coded and re-inscribed
(Wieringa, 1994). There is a tendency for researchers to have little contact with feminist
movements, thinking that feminists represent too extreme a view in their demands and
challenge for change. Researchers are probably more influenced by mainstream development
views where empowerment is seen as an individual rather than collective process; it
emphasizes entrepreneurship and self-reliance rather than co-operation to challenge power
structures (Oxaal and Baden, 1997).

However, Wieringa (1994) noted that feminism is a discursive process- a process of producing
meaning, of subverting representations of gender, of womenhood, of identity and collective self.
She added that feminist activities should be at the core of the empowerment process where the
construction of a collective self of women who see themselves as vocal objects, able to define
and defend their gender interests.

In order to attain women’s empowerment in development projects, there should be more
interaction among the various groups interested in providing solutions to women’s
empowerment- the researchers, gender specialists, feminists, development planners, as well as
the women targeted for empowerment.

Indicators on women empowerment are focused mainly at the household level and on married
women. However, measuring empowerment of women at the intermediate and aggregate level
is scarce and more studies should thus be conducted at these levels.


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