For centuries the vibrant coastal communities of Ghana’s Western Region have relied on wild caught fish from the once fertile waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, fish remains a staple food for even the poorest in these communities and is critical to Ghana’s food security, with a national per capita fish consumption rate 44% higher than the global average.
However growing competition at sea, dwindling fish stocks and a lack of enforcement of fisheries laws, among other factors, have fuelled destructive and illegal fishing practices that have further depleted stocks.
"After the training the men have all come to realize that we, the women, have ideas too, so we can speak." - Emelia Abaka Edu, fish processor
This impacts the livelihoods of more than 2.5 million Ghanaians who depend on the fisheries sector, including women fishmongers like Emelia Abaka Edu who smokes fish to sell at her local market in Axim and Agona Nkwanta.
“It’s the women who finance the men. We give them petrol, food, everything that they need to go to fishing. When they bring the fish, then we’ll deduct the money that we used for those expenses and give the rest to them. So when they go and they don’t get any fish, our money is lost,” she explains.
Despite playing critical roles in Ghana’s fisheries sector as financers, retailers and processors, women have traditionally had little say in how the coastal resources are managed.
“In the past, the women, we were not vocal because even when you want to speak the men would shut you down and say, “You are a woman, what do you know?” recalls Emelia.
This perception, based on the cultural norms and beliefs of their patriachal society, meant that the issues facing women fishmongers went unaddressed.
One such issue is that illegal fishing methods using chemicals and bright lights cause the fish to hemorrhage, damaging the flesh and reducing the time they can be preserved through smoking from months to mere days.
This affects the women’s businesses as the smoked fish often spoils before being sold, and cannot be stored for the leaner months when fish prices are higher.
To support their desire to contribute to decision-making processes the USAID-funded Resilience and Adaptability of Fishing Communities in Fiji, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Vietnam project (popularly called “Hen Mpoano”) provided formal capacity building training for around 120 women in Anlo Beach over two years.
The participants learned about a variety of topics including marine ecosystems, fisheries management and laws, as well as practical skills like public speaking.
The project also provided training in alternative livelihoods such as hairdressing and garment manufacture, enabling the women to earn money when fish catches are low or unreliable.
The group identified and prioritized the challenges they wanted to overcome and developed action plans for achieving their goals.
The first objective identified by the women in the Anlo Beach community was to build a fish market along a main road to attract new customers and maximize the benefit from their labor, which was successful after they formed a committee to lobby the local government and council of elders.
Hundreds more women from the fishing communities were also directly involved through community meetings, along with thousands of men, including community leaders, who learned about the importance of co-management and women’s participation in decision-making.
“After the training the men have all come to realize that we, the women, have ideas too, so we can speak,” Emelia says.
While the women report they are now vocal in fisheries management discussions, Emelia is frustrated by the continued use of illegal fishing methods such as chemical fishing.
“WorldFish has trained us on advocacy. So we went from beach to beach telling the fishermen that this is illegal and the fishermen have accepted it. But who is going to enforce the law?” she says.
After the project ended in January 2014, the women decided to use their new skills to collectively take action.
“All the women we had wanted to gather ourselves so when they bring the chemical caught fish, we’ll not buy it. We went to meetings, formed associations… but do you know what happened?” asks Emelia. “Some of the women, their husbands told them, “If I bring the fish and you’ll not buy it, it means I’m going to marry somebody else who’ll come and buy the fish.”
The women remain motivated and have begun lobbying the local authorities to enforce the ban on illegal fishing in the area.
“The men are afraid, because they know when we are empowered to do something we can do it and do it well,” says Emelia.
The Hen Mpoano project was implemented by the University of Rhode Island, Friends of the Nation and Sustainametrix, in partnership with WorldFish.