Knowledge of how people interact with each other and with their environment is a necessary component of effective resource policy. Policymaking, including for MPAs, appears to be most informed and innovative when it is open to the views and experience of all stakeholders. However, despite their involvement in the use of coastal and marine resources around the world, many women face barriers to participating fully in the planning and management of those resources. Such barriers can be institutional, educational, or cultural in nature, and can profoundly influence decisionmaking that affects the welfare of marine resources and coastal communities.

This month, MPA News examines gender-related issues in the fields of coastal resource management and MPA practice, including the challenges faced by female practitioners and how they are meeting those challenges.

Missing half the information

Problems arise when any major stakeholder group is excluded from resource-use decisionmaking, says Nancy Diamond, a US-based consultant who has conducted social science research and other activities for the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and other environmental programs. Excluded groups and individuals often withdraw from project activities, taking their ideas and insights with them. When planners and policymakers make decisions based on information from only part of the population, says Diamond, resource threats may be inadequately understood and solutions will not incorporate all possible ideas.

Yet decisionmaking on the use of coastal and marine resources is often principally based on the input of men, according to Diamond and other experts interviewed for this article. “When planners consult only men in resource management, they’re consulting only half the population,” she said. “They miss half the information that way.”

Diamond has seen this first-hand in coastal management projects around the world. Fisheries researchers are usually men, she says, and most of their informants are men. As a result, policies often focus exclusively on males’ needs and priorities. Men – who, across cultures, generally serve as the primary offshore fishers in small coastal communities – not only have greater control of marine resources, says Diamond, but also often have greater access to decisionmaking, credit, and extension services, such as new fishing practices and technologies. This situation occurs despite the fact that women, too, often play significant roles in resource use, such as processing and selling captured fish and collecting mollusks inshore.

“Women frequently know more about certain aspects of the resources, because they often occupy different spaces in the landscape,” she said. “Planners need to make sure that women have the confidence and skills to speak up.” She said planners can use culturally appropriate and nonthreatening ways to elicit information from women, such as conducting single-sex focus groups and separately interviewing male and female adults from each household.

Lorena Aguilar is the senior gender advisor for the IUCN (World Conservation Union). She cites an example in Mexico where coastal-management efforts to improve the living conditions of a community in Campeche focused on improving the nets, outboard motors, and other fishing technologies of crab fishermen. When living standards failed to improve, planners discovered that the main obstacle to development of the fishery was actually that women in the community lacked access to cold storage: responsible for processing and selling the catch, the women had been forced to sell the crab meat at whatever price they were offered before it spoiled. “Particularly in rural and underdeveloped countries, the major problem is that women are not seen as stakeholders – they don’t appear in surveys,” said Aguilar.

Cultural mores or myths can hinder the involvement of women in marine activities in general, beyond just management. “In some countries, women are not allowed in fishing boats because they are thought to bring bad luck,” said Aguilar. “In many countries, young girls are not even taught to swim.”

Aguilar’s book About Fishermen, Fisherwomen, Oceans, and Tides provides an adaptable framework to help coastal planners incorporate gender-equity concerns in their work. (It is downloadable for free in PDF format at She is now working on another publication designed to help laypeople improve gender equity in coastal management, without the presence of an outside planner.

“I hope there will eventually be gender equity in coastal management,” she said. “The whole gender system has taken thousands of years to develop. It will take some time to undo the knots.”

Bringing a unique set of skills and experiences

Marion Howard, coordinator of a plan to network MPAs within the 300,000-km2 marine section of Colombia’s Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, says women bring a set of skills that can be useful in community-based planning. “Women can be especially effective at setting up community-based MPAs with disenfranchised resource-user groups that are distrustful of authority,” said Howard. “Women are generally not seen as part of the power structure or as competing for authority.”

Howard says she has seen a tendency in women on her MPA team to focus on “the human side” and consider social issues, irrespective of whether their training is in social sciences. She says this gives them an integrated approach and makes them especially effective advocates for the rights of communities in MPA planning and management. “Women are used to having their knowledge devalued and opinions ignored, so the female team members understand that marginalized peoples can have a wealth of knowledge about their environment and surroundings,” she said. “Honoring stakeholder knowledge equally with science and incorporating traditional information is central to our MPA planning process.”

Lesley Squillante, assistant director of the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at the University of Rhode Island (US), leads a CRC initiative named WILD to help mainstream the consideration of gender equity and population demographics into coastal management programs. “Are women likely to lend different experiences and insights than men to coastal management?” she said. “Sure – not because they inherently have different capabilities or skill levels, but rather because of how society has categorized their position, which then shapes their experience and the issues they consider most important. For example, it is usually women who take care of the family, including tending to children when they’re sick. As a result, clean water is often a high-priority issue to them, while a lower one for men.”

Squillante suggests that coastal-management projects use a combination of male and female extension workers and research assistants, thus ensuring access to a range of venues where women or men gather. The WILD initiative just secured funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for a 22-month study of coastal-management field programs in East Africa, the Western Pacific and Mexico, generating baseline data on gender roles and developing a set of tools and best practices for linking gender and demographics with effective coastal management.

Around the world, various projects to train women in fisheries-related skills and knowledge are ongoing. The New Zealand School of Fisheries has offered training courses on fisheries subjects, including conservation, to women from the southwestern Pacific region. Designed to train people who will in turn train other women at the grassroots level, the school’s courses have attracted participants from 11 nations.

Alec Woods, director of the school, says the main challenge faced by most of the course participants revolves around the lack of support in many fisheries departments for the role of women as fisheries trainers. “Most fisheries departments are dominated by men, and most training of women is still done by men,” said Woods. “However, the hard work that is done at the village level to make new fisheries management initiatives succeed is usually done by women.” He said that some of the best opportunities for women in southwestern Pacific fishing communities may lie in the development of conservation initiatives, a nontraditional area not yet established as a male bastion.

Conservation is very important to women in fishing communities, says Chandrika Sharma, editor of Yemaya, a newsletter on gender and fisheries published by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF). “We would say that concerns for sustainability are viewed in conjunction with concerns related to access to resources, technologies, and business opportunities,” said Sharma. “It is only where communities benefit from the resource that they feel a sense of responsibility for it, or even feel that they can play a role in its conservation and management.”

Women’s concern for sustainability, however, is mediated by their material reality and immediate survival concerns, said Sharma. Thus, poor women who process the bycatch of trawlers, for example, may see their interests closely tied to the continuation of bottom-trawling activities that provide them an income, even where those activities are proven to be destructive. “Where the community basis of fisheries continues to be a reality, it would be fair to say that women have a clear interest in the continuation of small-scale, selective fisheries that provide them a supply of fish to process and sell, bringing back the income from the fisheries to the family and community,” she said. “The problem, of course, is that with the growth of the industrial fisheries model, the community basis of fisheries is being rapidly eroded. As a consequence, small-scale fishermen in several parts of the world have joined the race for fish by adopting technologies that are often destructive to the resource base, but which bring them a livelihood.”

Achieving gender equity within the dominant, industrial fisheries model would not be in the long-term interests of either environmental sustainability or women’s well-being, said Sharma. There is a need to re-value the services provided by natural resources and the often-unpaid work done by women in fishing communities, she said. Policies should be based on recognizing these aspects. “Such policies are much more likely to come about when women are better represented at all levels of decisionmaking and implementation,” she said.

Women in MPA practice

Angelique Songco is manager of the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Philippines. The main obstacle she has encountered in her management work relates to the gender-related views of some rangers in the park. “Most marine park rangers in Tubbataha come from the military service and all are male,” she said. “Military personnel here are known for their chauvinism. There have been instances when rangers made sexist remarks, mostly out of earshot, but which were related to me by other rangers. These remarks can be infuriating at times, but can be solved through private conversations.”

Songco says that although her gender allows her to bring more empathy, and perhaps thoroughness, to her job than a male manager might, other characteristics that are unrelated to gender can be more important, such as disposition, experience, and willingness to learn. “I deal with colleagues as a person, not as a female person,” she said.

It is unusual for women to be managers of terrestrial or marine parks in the Philippines. “Protected areas are mostly located in isolated places where living conditions are usually spartan and where a female manager will be in the company of males for extended periods,” said Songco. “These factors may be a reason for the paucity of females in protected area management in the Philippines. However, more local women have gotten involved in activities related to Tubbataha as a result of my position in the park because I endeavor to demonstrate that MPA management, even of an isolated reef in the middle of the sea, is everyone’s concern. Conservation, I think, transcends issues of gender.”

In the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, several community-based marine sanctuaries have been established and are serving as demonstration sites as part of a district-wide, community-based coastal resource management program. In the village of Blongko, the objectives of the 0.12-km2 sanctuary include economic benefits for local stakeholders through sustainable fisheries production; empowerment for the rural community (including women) in managing resources; and conservation. The project – made possible through the joint efforts of national, regional, and local Indonesian government entities, as well as the US Agency for International development and Coastal Resources Center of the University of Rhode Island – has tracked women’s awareness of and participation in the village’s management plan and MPA development.

“The project met a target of at least 30% female participation in project activities such as trainings and workshops,” said Johnnes Tulungen, the project’s field program manager, citing the results of an interim assessment performed in 2000. However, he notes, the percentage of community females who participated in community decisionmaking bodies was just 2%, compared with 20% of males. “The lack of female participation in these organizations risks the exclusion of concerns and inputs from half of the village stakeholders,” said Tulungen. “The project team needs to put more effort into designing appropriate strategies for increasing female participation rates, especially in formal organizations.”

Although women’s attendance at formal meetings has remained lower than what project leaders would like, extension workers have held multiple informal meetings and discussions about the sanctuary with women in the community. Monitoring results have shown no differences in knowledge of sanctuary rules and perceptions of human impacts on the marine environment between male and female survey respondents in the village – indicating the importance of the informal meetings in reaching women.

In Tanzania, the Mafia Island Marine Park has benefited markedly from the involvement of women. Catherine Chando, a Tanzanian who studied the park for her master’s thesis at the University of Tromso (Norway), says that women in surrounding communities have developed alternative livelihoods – including seaweed farming, shell collection and factory work – that have raised household income and thereby decreased the need for fishing to support families. As a result, the once-rampant practice of dynamite-fishing by men, which had placed severe pressure on fish stocks, has declined.

Although men are the traditional household bread-winners in Tanzanian society, women have been included in the park’s planning since its establishment in 1995. “From the very beginning, the ideology and structure of the project included women,” said Chando. “The projects mobilized women: they were leaders of planning committees and active participants. And as they gained a better socio-economic status [through the development of alternative livelihoods], women found it easier to share their experiences and knowledge with the rest of the community.” The Mafia Island Marine Park has a gender officer on staff who is paid by the Tanzanian government.

In 2001, WWF, an international NGO, launched a scholarship program on Mafia Island for 25 girls at the primary- and secondary-school levels. Currently the scholarship provides them with general educational instruction. In the future, WWF intends to supplement that with participation in a “conservation camp”, which will introduce the girls to resource-management issues and hands-on conservation experience at the marine park. (WWF already operates a conservation camp for girls and boys at the Kiunga National Marine Reserve in Kenya.) “Girls’ scholarships are long-term investments in women’s capacities,” said Mia MacDonald, a consultant for WWF. The conservation payoffs, she says, could include increased, effective participation of women in conservation activities and management, and the likelihood of smaller, healthier families. In addition, WWF hopes that students will understand and accept the need for conservation of marine resources, and share that message with their households and the greater community.

For more information:

Nancy Diamond, Diamond Consulting, USA. Tel: +1 202 667 5818; E-mail:

Lorena Aguilar, IUCN, Post Office Box 146-2150, Moravia, San Jose, Costa Rica. Tel: +506 241 0101; E-mail:

Marion Howard, CORALINA, San Luis Road, The Bight, San Andres Island, Colombia. Tel: +578 512 6853; E-mail:

Lesley Squillante, Coastal Resources Center, University of Rhode Island, 220 South Ferry Road, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA. Tel: +1 401 874 6489; E-mail:

Alec Woods, New Zealand School of Fisheries, Private Bag 19, Nelson, New Zealand. E-mail:

Chandrika Sharma, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, 27 College Road, Chennai 600 006, India. Tel: +91 44 827 5303; E-mail:

Angelique Songco, Tubbataha Management Office, 2nd Floor, Basaya Building/National Highway, San Miguel, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines. Tel: +63 48 434 5759; E-mail:

Johnnes Tulungen, CRMP-Manado, Jl. Wolter Monginsidi No. 5, Kleak Lingkungan I, Manado, Sulawesi Utara 95115, Indonesia. Tel: +62 431 841671; E-mail:; Web:

Catherine Chando, fisheries officer, Fisheries Department Headquarters, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. E-mail:

Sarah Christiansen (contact for girls’ scholarship program), WWF-US, 1250 Twenty-Fourth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037, USA. Tel: +1 202 861 8303; E-mail: