12 / 1997
In the fishing port of Vigia in the province of Para in Brazil, a majority of women weave fishing nets. This activity, however, is perceived as being just a part of routine domestic activities like managing the house, cooking and looking after the children. This is because it is done at home and only after all the daily chores have been carried out.
The women of Vigia only weave nets. They do not know how to repair nets, nor do they try to learn. They say that repairing is much more difficult than weaving; that is why it is left to the men. But the fact is that it is a result of the social and cultural norms and division of labour prevailing in the society. Women are generally confined to the domestic sphere. As it is not necessary to have a large area for weaving, women can weave nets at home. In contrast, repairing of nets requires a lot of space making it necessary to move out of the house. This, therefore, is considered the work of men.
This spatial division between the public and the private is sometimes applied with rigour. It becomes also a matter of prestige. Some fishermen choose to live in greater difficulty rather than accept that their wives work out in the open.
Men are perceived as the breadwinners, whereas a woman’s income is often viewed as a supplement to her husband’s salary. This popular perception, however, masks the fact that in numerous families, women contribute to a great, if not greater, extent, to the family’s income since a fisherman’s earnings are, by nature, uncertain.
Since the market for female labour is very weak in Vigia and orders for weaving nets are becoming rare, the women have come up with different strategies to survive. They wash clothes or cook for others, while those who have a refrigerator - which is even rarer - sell ice- cream or cold juices, and some others sell corn soup.
They also have some harvest activities in proximate fisheries- on banks of river or near the beach- the high seas being a fishing territory reserved for men. Women harvest the siri crab in the river, the turu mollusc and the caranguejo crab in the mangrove and set traps along the banks. They fish individually or in the company of their husbands, fathers or friends, mainly to feed their families and to sell their surplus catch. The money earned enables them to survive when their husbands are at sea, or when income from the fishery is scarce.
Although through weaving nets and catching limited amounts of crabs and molluscs, the women of Vigia play a role in the fisheries economy of their community, their work is still not recognised as being a true profession. Rare are those who speak of a `profession’ and who think of enrolling in a professional organisation such as the colia (an organisation aimed at registering fishermen and collecting subscriptions for retirement benefits)or IBAMA (Brazilian Institute for the Protection of Environment).
It is difficult to estimate the number of weavers in Vigia since all the women from a family invariably know how to weave. This source of income, meagre but essential for the maintenance of an economic balance, is, however, being threatened. Plastic nets, made in China, are slowly replacing the traditional nylon nets. Although female labour is cheap, it can not compete with the low production costs of the nets manufactured by industry.
What impact will the introduction of new technology have on female employment? Will the consequences be similar to those already observed in other areas of the world where women are being phased out of the fishery resulting in rampant unemployment, the disappearance of women weavers, or a greater exploitation of female labour? These are the questions that will plague the women of Vigia in the years to come.
Women of Vigia contribute significantly to household income and to the sustenance of the family, as do women in other parts of the world. However, as elsewhere, their work is not recognised. They are seen as supplementary wage earners and are confined to the private sphere. They are not considered eligible for enrolment in professional organisations and are not organised. This also implies that they have little support and financial and technical assistance for their work.
As a consequence, women are in no position to defend their spaces in the fisheries in the face of threats to their income and employment. In Vigia factory made nets are phasing out the demand for hand-woven nets. This has also happened in other countries, as in India, rendering women net-weavers jobless. Until women’s work is recognised and supported, and until they are able to organise, they will be in no position to defend their employment and income. The impact on families on communities, which depend on women’s work and income, will be severe. Unfortunately, policy makers remain blind to the need to recognise and support women fishworkers.
Articles and files
ESCALLIER, Christine; MANESCHY, Maria Cristina, Weaving a living in. Samudra Report, 1996/03, 14