The Ocean as Female: How women and the ocean stand to benefit from women's participation in the Blue Economy

Sustainable ocean governance is critical for sustainable economic growth, employment and poverty alleviation. So, as research shows, is gender equality. Creating two-way opportunities for empowering women and growing the Blue Economy was the topic of an Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) webinar, Women’s Economic Empowerment and the Blue Ocean Economy, that took place in January. By Andrea Teagle.

The health of the Earth, and the livelihoods of billions of people globally, relies on our oceans. In South Africa, coastal goods and services alone are estimated to account for over a third (35%) of gross domestic product (GDP). SA’s Ocean Economy national plan, Operation Phakisa, estimates that growing the Blue Economy could provide 1 million new jobs locally by 2033. Although half of the Indian Ocean Region’s Blue Economy– which includes fisheries and aquaculture, shipping, seabed mining, renewable energy, marine biotechnology and tourism – is made up of women, managerial positions remain heavily male dominated.

Last week, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) hosted a IORA webinar on the intersection the Blue Economy and Women’s Economic Development, recognising that the participation of women in ocean economy is not only essential for the realisation of women’s economic potential –  as this nexus of economic activity grows –  but also to achieving sustainable ocean governance. Presenting at the event, which was attended by high-level officials from the members of the IORA states, were Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller and Professor Joleen Steyn Kotze of the HSRC.

“What we would like to focus on…is how the blue economy could enhance and empower women, and how women could play a crucial role in the blue economy.”  Narnia Bohler-Muller, who is also chair of the IORA Academic Group.

Bohler-Muller noted that one of the major obstacles to addressing gaps in women’s participation in the Blue Economy was a lack of quantitative data on women’s contributions across the fields. Although it is estimated that women constitute half of the fishers workforce globally, women’s roles are often overlooked or invisible, and fisheries statistics notoriously do not capture women’s contributions.                          
Women’s contributions in other areas, like oceans renewable energy and science, and as frequent advocates for conservation have also been under-recognized where, in fact, women comprise 38% of ocean scientists worldwide.

The Blue Economy clearly stands to benefit from women’s empowerment simply by way of a broader talent pool.  But there is another reason for prioritizing women in ocean science, particularly marine conservation and renewable oceans energies: women and girls are hardest hit by the effects of climate change. Thus, responding appropriately requires representation of women in science and in all levels of research and decision making processes. In a recent paper, Ungendering the Ocean, Elana Gissi, of the Università Iuav di Venezia, and her colleagues note that women have been shown to practice more environmentally and economically sustainable behaviours than men.

“Within [ocean renewable energies], they need to have a strong gender mainstreaming component,” Kotze said at the IORA conference, “And one of the preliminary policy recommendations is really trying to look developing and adopting IORA wide regulatory framework on sustainable and alternative energy sources within the ocean.

IORA has taken a number of steps to prioritise women’s economic participation and the Blue Economy in the last five years, notably last year’s creation of the Working group on Women’s Economic Empowerment (WGWEE) and the Blue Economy Working Group coordinated by South Africa. Bohler-Muller recommends that the working groups coordinate efforts to optimise impact within this intersection.

But, despite changes at a policy level, on the ground, women still face significant barriers to the ocean economy, particularly in traditionally male dominated sectors like shipping and sea-bed mining. It was as recently as 2016 that South Africa welcomed its first three black female ship captains, or commercial cargo vessel Master Mariners. Kotze emphasised the need for qualitative data to better understand these every-day obstacles and women’s lived realities in these fields.

“The key preliminary policy intervention here is the need to engage the reality of women in this industry,” Kotze said. “To speak to women who has captained unpack the dynamics and experiences of women when they are in positions of leadership in those nonconventional roles… but also some of the specific challenges they face: issues of rape [and] maternity leave for example.”

Country data from the World Values Survey on people’s attitudes and beliefs about social issues suggest that support for gender equality in practice remains low in many IORA member states, where women are still considered less capable than men in fields like business and politics.

Bohler-Muller noted the importance of being sensitive to social and cultural differences between countries, while promoting gender equality through policy. Despite these challenges, however, she remains upbeat about progress. The signing of the Balaclava Declaration on Women’s Economic Empowerment last year was a particularly important shift towards greater gender equality in IORA member states. The declaration includes a clause recognising the potential role of the Blue Economy in uplifting women.

 “The wonderful thing is that we've, we've managed to get a declaration [on gender equality], and it took three to four years to do this...that's a really fantastic development.”  

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