Small-scale fisheries and the importance of women’s voices

But due to lockdowns and quaranties she could not deliver her produce on time…and because she did not have proper cooling technology her produce was going bad and this brought about a collapse in her business – community reporter from the AWFISHNET network

Every country has been shaken by the pandemic, but those working across small-scale fisheries have been particularly hard hit. Whilst researchers have been doing their bit to uncover data and trends to help make sense of this catastrophe, too often the voices of women who are closest to those local and regional crises have been unheard. 

Earlier this year, Radar was invited to speak at the WorldFish #smallscalefisheries webinar, discussing the importance of hearing women’s voices and how those connected to spheres of influence can amplify their stories. 

Libby Drew, our Founder and Director, spoke first on how community reporting can draw out hidden narratives and insight. Eastina Taylor, our Sierra Leone Community Engagement Officer, followed with a review of the challenges that women are facing across our active international reporting network. Here is a snapshot of their conversation.

Why is it vital women speak for themselves?

The right to speak and be heard is a fundamental underpinning of democracy, safeguarding and citizen engagement. But a more exciting call to action is that those living through the most complex social, cultural and economic crises not only have the right to speak but hold insight that is very valuable to society. 

Lived experience is both a necessary and critical companion to the learnt experience held by researchers and academics. Yet we routinely rely on those with professional knowledge, acquired through observation, polls and focus groups, while overlooking the experiential knowledge that is being acquired by affected communities, as a driving force for designing and developing policy and practice. Communities are left to await the arrival of research professionals to spark data-gathering initiatives. When they do come, they are usually being asked to respond to predefined questions, often in a language other than their mother tongue; rather than speaking at their own pace, at their chosen time, in their own chosen language. 

The feedback loop is often poor and, in some cases, non-existent – communities may never see the outcome of their participation, or the impact it may have. Clearly, this power imbalance is detrimental to the communities, but it is also detrimental to our social understanding. To base knowledge and, therefore, our solutions on the basis of professional research and evaluation alone, overlooks a crucial swath of insight and experience available.

Acknowledging that communities have untapped valuable information, and the means to share that, moves the argument from being a moral rights-based approach to a more pragmatic asset-based approach. Where communities are valued because of their experiences, not simply invited in as part of an inclusive mechanism, but needed, wanted and asked because of their value to society.

Still, too often there are significant barriers that people face across the world to being heard, and the more entrenched that cultural, social and economic marginalisation is, the harder those barriers are to navigate and reduce.

At Radar, we have developed the 5 C’s framework which looks at these barriers. Over the last decade, the communities we work with, wherever they are in the world and whatever gender, age, ethnicity, we hear that they face a number of intersecting challenges. They often struggle with a lack of connectivity, which to my mind is social, political, and digital. There is a lack of confidence, a lack of conviction that things can change, a lack of capacity – whether that’s knowledge, time or resources – and critically, a lack of craft, which can mean that their insight is not shared in the format that policymakers, platforms or public audiences require in order to consume and understand their knowledge.

To overcome these barriers, we don’t need people who are going to speak on behalf of communities, represent them, mediate or paraphrase their understanding of their own lives. We need bridge builders, careful listeners, connectors and networks. People who can use the skills and connections they have to amplify the voices of unheard communities and, most importantly, ensure they reach the audiences that they need in order to have an impact. Critically, the same points of connection must take responsibility for feeding that impact back to those communities and ensuring they remain in control of their narratives. 

How are you working with female fish traders?

We were delighted to be invited to work with AWFISHNET and WorldFish – using chat apps, a network of 14 women across 7 African countries have come together to hold their own investigation into the impact of the virus. They are reaching deeper into their communities and asking the women around them how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic, whilst also surfacing any ideas or solutions that they may hold to address these impacts. 

The project was split into four key stages. The first was the onboarding stage – which involved inviting women to come forward for participation, particularly those who may have otherwise been overlooked as communicators in their community. Next, through online training using Learn.ink, the network was introduced to key techniques around community journalism and research. At each stage of the training, community members get digital certificates that they can use to show their level of transferable skills. 

At the third stage, the project moved into reporting and research, with community insight being gathered locally and shared with us via a chat app. Weekly assignments were set which acted as a guide but were by no means a mandatory activity. Some women find this helps to give shape to their enquiries, others prefer to report on issues that are emerging in their own communities more organically. Alongside the reporting, each reporter had a dedicated mentoring programme, held by Eastina, and this helps with the relevance of the insight being gathered, as well as the confidence and conviction that they are being heard and the information is being used properly.

After 6 weeks of reporting, we reached the fourth stage, moving towards a collaborative commissioning process. This involved the network voting in and collectively deciding on the priority themes and issues. Once decided, there was a second wave of more advanced training on how to shoot audio and video on a basic smartphone, and how to send those large files back to our team.

From this, they co-created a short film that will be showcased at upcoming summits and shared back with the various communities. Their experiences and solutions also fed into the ‘COVID-19 impacts on women processors and traders in sub-Saharan Africa‘ report, where they set out their recommendations for building forward better. We hope that this will spark a deeper conversation, add more context to the data and research shared, and trigger more action at a local, regional and global level.

What does communications work need to focus on?

Our work should boost the confidence and visibility of women fish traders and processors so that other women see a place for themselves around the table. Their voices unmediated, and their experiences respected.

Still, we cannot enforce a solutions focus lens on communities. Just because they are the ones going through the crisis or the challenges, doesn’t mean that they should be the ones required to do the emotional and, often, complex labour of working out what needs to change. Nor do we want to force a positive story of inspiration if the crisis feels so hard that the positives are perceived locally as far less urgent than the problems. 

There is a balance between ensuring that our communications are making space for women in communities to escape the reductive process of being seen as just vulnerable, or tied simply to poverty or unstable livelihoods. But instead, to be seen as agents of change, while, at the same time, not passing the buck entirely to them to come up with solutions.

It is just as powerful to bring together communities who are demanding that those that they are represented by, who they voted in, who lead the unions and their networks, are there working on the solutions alongside them. These calls to action, whether they are manifestos or charters for change, can arise beautifully from citizen journalism and community reporting (see how this was done in Beyond the Bite).

Following Libby, Eastina, our Sierra Leone Engagement Coordinator, went on to discuss the realities of working with marginalised communities.

What are the challenges and opportunities of community reporter networks?

From the early conversations and back and forth of training, to the liveliness of the group chat and the feedback as they upvoted the issues that stood out to them; these women have shared the barriers they face. They spoke of a lack of empowerment, particularly in relation to their ability to acquire land and the training needed to know how to find different kinds of fish and fend for their families.

Through our interactions on the group chat, and individually, these women discussed the challenges of waste and how it affects the quality of their catch, the amount of fish they can get, how they sell, and the profit they make. They also face issues of economic empowerment, capacity development and difficulties accessing funding and financial stability. 

Still, not many people consider the experiences of women in fishing communities when undergoing research or storytelling. As more and more land is sold off to other countries, the livelihoods of this group are affected. Their usual sources of food and income are taken away and everyday life becomes increasingly difficult. 

Yet, the women in the network all share a desire to teach others and conduct training on how to breed different fish. They not only report on the issues they are facing within their fishing communities but also put forward solutions and ideas for change. Importantly, they see themselves as part of this change. 

How can we engage media in ethical reporting?

All too often community voices have been diluted in the media. The messages are mediated and shaped to fit a predefined story, from those outside the community. Because of this, they’re asking for the media to report the issues as real as they are, not to sugar coat it, not to play around with it, but to report it as they have spoken. 

These women want to be respected. They feel like as much as they are given their voices, the result of this is often redundant, never leaving the pages and slides of research presentations. They rarely see the changes that are coming out of the issues that they raise. Again, they want to be respected and want to be given equal opportunity to prove themselves in their local networks.


Find out more about the project here.