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Women Fishworkers in El Salvador

The Tattered Net of Statistics

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

From anecdotal evidence, casual observation and ethnographic studies, it is obvious that women are an indivisible part of the artisanal and industrial fishing economy. Yet researchers consistently underestimate the role women play in harvesting fish, in generating household and national income from fishing activities, and in providing labour to the fish processing industry that ultimately enables economies to earn vital foreign exchange. The 1990 Fishing Census by the Ministry of Agriculture identifies only a little over six per cent of all fishers in El Salvador and almost nine per cent in the department of La Union to be women.

Yet, observing the daily activities of fishers and the pattern of household involvement in fish production and processing in El Salvador and much of Central America, this figure differs markedly.

In El Tamarindo, La Union, El Salvador, while men fish in the open seas, the majority of female fishers confine their activities to the estuaries and shore line. A few women also fish in the open sea, accompanying other members of their families, to catch shrimp in coastal waters.

Women are disproportionately involved in cleaning, eviscerating and processing the catch. They prepare and dry fish for sale in local and regional markets; they are involved in beheading and packing shrimp in ice; and they gather shellfish and crab in the estuaries, providing essential nutrients and proteins to supplement the family diet. In a quantitative survey of 110 mangrove households and 489 individuals undertaken in 1993 and 1994 in El Tamarindo, only one woman declared herself to be a fisher, and six per cent stated that they were actively involved in fish processing and marketing. The majority of female respondents defined their occupation to be `housewife’.

Yet, the household consumption and expenditure data revealed that almost 29 per cent of the women here earned an income. To throw more light on this apparent contradiction a time allocation questionnaire was administered. This revealed that almost 26 per cent of women fished either in the estuary or close to the shore line; approximately 60 per cent cleaned and processed the catch; 33 per cent mended the nets, along with other household members; 42 per cent cleaned the boats and helped their husbands haul the catch in from the beach; and 17 per cent marketed the produce locally.

Why then do the official statistics underestimate the number of women fishers? Perhaps the answer lies in the use of survey and census questionnaires that are too rigid in their definition of what constitutes a fisher, too inflexible in their precoded responses, and too gender-blind to seek out both male and female respondents.

As women are not recognised as fishers, they do not have access to the financial and physical resources and extension services they need to improve their productivity and increase their incomes. Moreover, their ability to undertake resource conservation, to fish sustainably, or switch the focus of their fishing activities may be severely limited by their lack of fishing capital.

In El Tamarindo, for example, the consensus is that estuary fishing is becoming unsustainable and is threatening offshore fisheries by depleting breeding grounds and undermining a source of nutrients for marine fish. The women, however, are confined to this resource base by their limited access to capital and information, and by the time constraints they faced balancing their productive activities with their household tasks. They fish for resources that are increasingly scarce, or contaminated from pesticide run-off and siltation.

The invisibility of women in fishing, especially to local legal, economic and political institutions that determine the allocation and use of common resources, also means that their rights are more likely to go unrecognised by such institutions. In El Tamarindo, recognising local opinion and the Ministry of Agriculture’s concerns, the community leaders imposed an informal ban on estuary fishing. With the ban, women lost their access to inshore resources

and to a vital source of household protein, even as their income-earning activities were displaced.

Palabras claves


, El salvador, El Tamarindo


Women play a vital role in fisheries in most parts of the world. Yet this is not reflected in official statistics. Quantitative survey instruments fail to capture the gender diversity of the fishing economy, and systematically introduce biases that underestimate the role women play in the fishing economy. As a result, women’s contributions remain unrecognised and policymakers fail to take account of women’s roles in environmental and

development planning.

If there is any genuine concern about poverty and income inequality, it is important to realise that a failure to understand the nature of each individual’s contribution to household survival, and the constraints faced in generating income, may result in the inappropriate application of transfers or the wrong targeting of those facing economic scarcity.

The effective revision of survey instruments to include the full range of activities that women perform in the fishing economy is a prerequisite to enabling social and political institutions to respond appropriately and ensure the sustainable use of fisheries resources. Researchers should judiciously use qualitative and quantitative methods to gather information about fishing populations. In this way, policymakers can be better informed about the needs of women fishers and be better able to channel resources to support changes in resource use and



Artículos y dossiers

GAMMAGE, Sarah, The tattered net of statistics in. Samudra Report, 1996/11, 16

ICSF (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers) - 27 College Road, Chennai 600006, INDIA - Tel. (91) 44-2827 5303 - Fax (91) 44-2825 4457 - India - - icsf (@)

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