Through disruption to aquatic food value chains, the COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the livelihoods of small-scale fish farmers in Bangladesh.
Many of the nation’s rural inland and coastal communities depend on the aquatic food systems for income-generation and good nutrition. However, travel restrictions and limited markets have slowed aquatic food production and threatened actors along fish value chains, posing particular challenges for fisherwomen faced with gender-related employment barriers.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s leading inland aquatic food producers, and both women and men actively participate in the aquaculture sector. Nonetheless, rural women often face cultural, religious and physical barriers to performing hands-on work as fish harvesters. Obstacles to women’s work make families more susceptible to financial losses, if the male provider of the household becomes unemployed or unable to work.
Countering barriers to women’s participation
To further women’s involvement in aquaculture, WorldFish researchers in Bangladesh were instrumental in forming a Women Business Center in partnership with the Women Business in Gillnet Project. The center is a resource hub for women to access information, training, and business opportunities. Through the dissemination of low-cost gill-net technology, the project aims to make fish harvesting more accessible to women and increase household consumption of nutritious fish species.
Gill nets enable women to enter homestead ponds and harvest fish without getting their sarees wet—which need to be washed and hung out to dry and remain a major deterrent to women’s participation. With gill nets, women can stand on the pond bank to collect enough fish for family meals; before, they were reliant on their husbands to harvest fish or employed local men in their absence, a costly endeavor. Reducing barriers for fisherwomen can also increase children’s consumption of nutrient-rich small fish, which is critical in a nation where 36 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition.
With the aid of the Women Business Center, women were also able to make informed choices to buffer themselves against market disruptions from COVID-19. Women received training on market linkages, alternative business plans, and coping strategies, along with health precautions to protect themselves and their families. The training added a new dimension to the role of women in aquaculture and provided them the skills and confidence to manage family finances.
Shamoly, a 22 year-old fish farmer the rural village of Amtola, was one such success. Staff at the Women Business Center advised her on inputs and cultivation practices, allowing her to profit nearly 70,000 BDT, or 800 USD, from homestead fish production.
“I’m now economically independent and able to meet my family’s financial obligations. I’ve gained confidence as a woman that I can do it,” said Shamoly.
Through working with the Women Business Center fish farmer Ety from Gongarampur village learned how to reorganize her business to compensate for COVID-19 losses. As part of her alternative business plan, she adopted a polyculture approach—cultivating pangas, a type of larger freshwater fish native to Asia, alongside traditional small white fish. Later, she applied her new knowledge on linking markets through dealers to sell her products for BDT 30,000, or 353 USD, in profit.
When recalling the early challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ety said, “In those times, quality feed was not available in the market, and I worried about low fish production. But now I know how to cope and survive.”