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Long Hours, Meagre Earnings: Gender Polarity Is Blurring Role of Fisherwoman

Women have been confined to shore-based labour within the fishing industry.

Long Hours, Meagre Earnings: Gender Polarity Is Blurring Role of Fisherwoman
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Fishing as a trade is often associated with men. Think, of a trawler with a group of men jostling with the fishing net at twilight in the sea. That's the usual picture, right?

Though fisherwomen are a blur in the background, they play an imperative role in the fishing supply chain. They are not only involved in auctioning and selling fish, but they do so while juggling their household chores and tending to their families.

The auctions, almost entirely run by women, begin at 6 am sharp in Tamil Nadu after the men return from the sea.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

To gain insight into the lives, livelihood, and the nature of challenges faced by women in this line of work, we interviewed fisherfolk across the shores of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

We enquired about their trade, fishing techniques, collating income-consumption patterns, how climate change has been impacting them, and their lived experiences from the pandemic to understand how pollution-climate change is affecting their vocation and trade.

We also interacted with several women at the auction sites, where the fresh yield of fish is put up for bid, and the marketplaces, where fish is sold to consumers by largely women traders.

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A Day in the Life of a Fisherwoman

A typical day for a fisherwoman starts at around 3 am and ends at approximately 4 pm when the markets close for the day. She wakes up early to prepare breakfast before her husband leaves for the sea.

The auctions, almost entirely run by women, begin at 6 am sharp in Tamil Nadu after the men return from the sea.

Women engaged in the auctioning and buying of fish at Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi, Tamil Nadu.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

Meanwhile, the auctions at Goubert Fish Market (also known as the main market) and the Ambour Salai Market (formerly known as the Senji Salai Market) in Puducherry begin as early as 4 am.

With their interconnected lanes, visible spots in this expansive market are competitive; the sales even more so. Big buckets of everything – from crabs and lobsters to various local species of fish – adorn the platforms as women call out to customers to grab their attention.

Close to 360 fisherwomen from three villages – Kurichikuppam, Vaithikuppam, and Vamba Keerapalayam – set up their stalls after buying fish in bulk from the auction sites and imports from states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The women keep coming till 7-8 am, with the last set of women carrying the fish that their husbands catch at sea.

As the hustle-bustle at the market sites starts to quiet down after 2 pm, these fisherwomen rush home to tend to their families.

But the day's work is not over yet. Post this "break" from fishing activities, senior women of the household are seen leaving for the market once again.

The daughters-in-law are left behind to cook meals for the latter half of the day.

While some may pack up around 7 pm, others stay till as late as 9 pm. As dawn becomes dusk, fisherwomen continuously shift through locations, from the beachside to auction sites and markets to street-side sales – they have no single "workplace."

A buyer looks for a woman seller in the afternoon time at Goubert Market, the main fish market in Pondicherry.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

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Why Fisherwomen Are Pushed to Shore-Based Labour

Women have been confined to shore-based labour within the fishing industry. The reasons behind these are twofold:

  1. Venturing into the sea is seen as a physically strenuous and unsafe activity, hence women are often expected to avoid that aspect of the trade.

  2. Women from a non-fishing background, when married to a fisher family, are expected to support their husbands through the relentless fishing industry. Since entering the sea requires traditional knowledge and skill, women are allocated the duty of auctioning and sales.

"My family was never in the fishing trade. I was training to be a nurse. But I was forced to get into the business as I was married off to a fisherman, and my husband's family wanted me to support his trade."
Selvi, fish seller from Vaithikuppam, Puducherry

Women clean and cut the fish bought by customers at Serenity Beach, Thandiraayan Kuppam, Tamil Nadu.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

These fisherwomen also play a vital role in managing their household finances.

All respondents to an ethnographic survey of 18 fisherfolk report that the married women in the families take care of the budget, including decisions on how to spend their income.

Male respondents, meanwhile, reported that they are the ones who purchase fishing equipment and other household goods, for which they collect the money from the women in the family.

Fishermen work in a group to tie thermocol blocks to fishing nets in the afternoon at Tsunami Quarters at Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi, Tamil Nadu.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

"All the expenses are taken care of by me. My husband only pays the bills and taxes, but he takes the money from me. I know how difficult it has been to pay the bills and make ends meet."
Mariyamma, a fish seller from Vamba Keerapalayam, Puducherry

"For example, we were unable to pay our electricity bill for months because we did not earn anything during the first seven months of the pandemic. Instead of giving any concessions, they charged interest on our bills. For our household, the electricity bill averages Rs 1,500. But when we did not pay the bill for three to four months, they charged us Rs 10,000 in total," she added.

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Long Hours, Meagre Earnings

Women, specifically between the ages of 35 and 60, are found managing and selling the fish yield. They dominate the auction sites and marketplaces. The bidding often goes up to Rs 1,200-1,400 for the catch.

Dried fish section at Goubert Market in Puducherry.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

The overseeing community members chalk up a receipt, which the fishermen then cash out as their income for the day (10 percent of this amount goes for community welfare). The women then go around selling the catch in markets dedicated to women from specific fishing villages and deposit the required amount to the money collectors at the auction sites.

They go home with a meagre profit of around Rs 50-150 daily, arguably negligible compared to their effort. If the day's catch does not get sold, they are put in iceboxes. If this fish is not sold by the second day, it is the women who brine, cure, and dry them to be sold as Karuvadu, a staple in Tamil Nadu.

"Karuvadu sells at a very low price. For example, if I sell fish at Rs 200, then its dried version sells for Rs 50," said Valli, a fish seller from Vaithikuppam.

Dried Fish section at Goubert Market in Pondicherry.

(Photo: Jignesh Mistry)

Alongside seeking revenue, fisherwomen also feel motivated to spend long, exhausting hours at the markets out of devotion for their families.

Several respondents echoed this sentiment during the interviews, which reinforces the values of a nurturer instilled within a woman from a young age.

"I cannot send my husband in the boat now as he is nearing 60 years. Yet, I have to send him to earn money every day. Even I have to go every day to sell fish in the market. This is seen everywhere in our village. Everyone has to go to the sea and the market every day because if one person goes to the sea, four people will eat that day."
Meena, a fish seller from Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi, Tamil Nadu

Fisherwomen, often, dwell in the lower socio-economic strata of society.

Evidently, fisherwomen actively play the role of breadwinners while also being caregivers and homemakers, but all in a restrictive and gender-polar environment. They have been given minimal choice in their role as nurturers. The patriarchal notion that determines gender duties also reduces their roles to "servers" who support the "providing" men.

"I had to juggle between being a fish seller in the morning and a housewife in the evening. This was particularly difficult when I had to take care of my children, especially after they started going to school. I had to separately spend time with them asking about their school, their studies or any issues that they have. That was why I spent less time in the market. There were times when I did not go to the market to sell fish to take care of my children and making sure they're fed, take care of their schooling lunch to school, go and come back from school safely and so on," said Meena.

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'Had To Pawn My Jewellery'

The pandemic worsened the already bleak conditions in the fishing industry. Mobility and income restrictions added to the pressures faced by the women. The already never-ending to-do list for women expanded further with the constant presence of men and children at home.

Many women, who are educated, had to home tutor their children in the wake of school shutdowns. They also had to assume additional caregiving duties in the household due to dietary changes and health issues. The government welfare schemes were limited to rice distribution and did not provide for the complete nutritional needs of the family, adding to their long list of worries.

"We had to resort to eating fermented rice made from sub-par rice given by the government. We had to reduce our food intake to twice a day. If we usually spent Rs 500 on food every day, my family had to resort to spending half that amount during COVID. It was such a tough time for us."
Saraswathi, a fish seller from Kurichikuppam, Puducherry

The financial hardships that the fisherfolk faced also forced them to pawn jewellery, even the ones that are often passed down through generations as daughters are married off.

Apart from it holding sentimental value, the jewellery is also given as a personal asset to the woman by her parents. Still, it is often pawned off for the welfare of the household.

As market restrictions lifted slowly, the women's previously meagre income did not seem to go back to pre-pandemic levels. Most of the 18 respondents reported low demand for fish post-pandemic, which consequently led to low amounts of fish being caught due to constant losses.

The fisherfolk are currently caught in a dismal cycle, and the women have been affected worse. They have had to drastically change their methods of sale compared to the pre-pandemic times without any added financial or infrastructural support.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, the markets were closed. We had to sit on the streets in the villages to sell our fish. The police would chase us and we would hide. After they'd leave, we would sit back and start selling again. Before the pandemic, I earned Rs 300-400 every day. During the pandemic, it reduced to Rs 200," Selvi said, recalling the hardships during the lockdown.

"After the pandemic started easing, the model changed. People started selling fish by the streets and started opening their own shops. I lost a huge share of my income because of that as no one came to the market. Today, I only get Rs 100-150 on weekdays, and Rs 500 on Sunday."
Selvi, a fish seller from Vaithikuppam, Puducherry
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Why the Fishing Industry Needs To Be Viewed From Women's Context

While women contribute significantly to the fishing industry, their efforts are often left out of the narrative. Their concerns about vulnerability to recurring unexpected shocks, such as environmental catastrophes and the pandemic, need to be assessed and mitigated.

The gendered roles and circumstances, while clearly visible, have not been addressed adequately in any measure. While fishermen are equipped with specific boats which suit the weather and tractors to reel back such boats, infrastructure for fisherwomen is severely underdeveloped.

Even dedicated market spaces for women have crowded seating platforms and dysfunctional toilets. Understanding the polarities that governs this industry is also imminent to make the welfare schemes more inclusive. The state needs to introduce specific policy interventions that acknowledge and target the needs of women.

For instance, the liquidation of women's assets can be minimised with the implementation of Mahila Banks and the provision of loans specifically for fisherwomen. Alongside that, measures need to be taken to create awareness regarding the existing policy options as they currently possess no knowledge regarding the same.

It is vital to include the women specific context in the discourse to normalise their involvement in the paid workforce and protect them from exploitation.

(Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. Sakshi Chindaliya is a Senior Research Assistant at CNES and a TRIP Fellow, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. Jignesh Mistry is Senior Research Analyst and Visual Storyboard Team Lead, CNES, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. Ashika Thomas is Research Analyst, CNES, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. Siddharth G is Senior Research Analyst, CNES, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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