Fishing For Equality and Sustainability


In a wooden boat on the estuary of the Densu River in Ghana, Cecila dips a salinator into the water and declares that the salinity is only two parts per thousand. With a small frown, she runs another simple test that indicates the water clarity is only one foot deep.

These findings tell her that the day’s conditions are not ideal for the potential oyster seed site that she and her fellow Densu Oyster Pickers Association (DOPA)1 members have been monitoring. DOPA members will return twice a week to record data and identify the ideal locations for their oyster sanctuaries, with the aim of replenishing a formerly flourishing habitat.

The women and men of the estuary’s fishing-dependant community are fiercely proud to be of and from the marine area, but sharp declines in small pelagic fish and oysters are threatening their livelihoods. The oysters face threats from overharvesting, habitat destruction, a lack of waste management facilities, and a nearby dam that releases freshwater into the area—decreasing salinity and increasing turbidity.

Despite the poor results, Cecila delivers the news with confidence. She and her fellow DOPA members learned how to conduct monitoring tests through USAID/Ghana’s Sustainable Fisheries Management Program (SFMP), and they have used this knowledge to advocate for and implement a closed fisheries season to allow for a recovery in oyster populations. Cecila is proud to share her knowledge and experiences with an international cohort from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the United States. Together, this group met in Ghana in September 2019, to share knowledge and experiences about how women’s empowerment, access to finance, and sustainable fisheries management might deliver stronger development outcomes when intentionally programmed together.

The group is participating in a USAID Learning Initiative on Women’s Empowerment, Access to Finance, and Sustainable Fisheries. USAID launched the Initiative based on the findings of the ‘Gender in Fisheries-A Sea of Opportunities’ report, which highlighted a need for more evidence on the interlinkages among these three areas. The initiative uses a cross-site, mixed methods approach to test two hypotheses in current USAID fisheries management programs:

  1. Empowering women through access to finance and capacity building interventions results in stronger fisheries management outcomes than programs lacking these elements, and
  2. Engaging women as key stakeholders in fisheries management and improving access to financial tools provides meaningful pathways for women’s empowerment

Following their site visit to the Densu Estuary, Learning Initiative group members discussed how to design and implement integrated interventions across these technical areas and learned how their peers have addressed similar challenges. Representatives from Bangladesh, for example, shared how their program incorporates access to finance and women’s economic empowerment at its sites, an approach that was particularly useful for the team from the Philippines to learn more about, as they are experiencing a similar challenge in tackling cycles of microfinance debt among their program beneficiaries.

To test the Learning Initiative’s two hypotheses, pilot sites in Ghana, Indonesia, and the Philippines will conduct baseline household surveys, implement project interventions, and then re-survey households to measure change over time. The Initiative anticipates gaining an evidence-based understanding about the value of integrated programming: whether sustainable fisheries management can indeed be an effective entry point for women’s economic empowerment and whether women’s economic empowerment can improve fisheries outcomes. After its data collection and analysis phase, the Learning Initiative will share its findings across USAID to contribute to improved, integrated development outcomes.

The work ongoing in Ghana illustrates the importance of addressing and strengthening women’s empowerment in improved natural resource governance. Globally, women are often an “invisible” force in the fisheries sector, however, along the Densu Estuary, women are a regular sight, monitoring the water conditions and checking on their oysters. They have planted 20,000 mangrove seedlings to restore degraded habitats and plan to plant thousands more. By monitoring illegal fishing, the women teach local men about how harmful practices hurt the community upstream. To help tackle plastic waste, the women have put on their DOPA and SFMP shirts and engaged local hotels, which are top waste contributors, demanding and receiving assurance of improved management. On Tuesdays, a fishing holiday in Ghana, the women encourage community members to help clean waste out of the fisheries habitat. Afterward, they meet at their village savings and loan group, which is co-managed with women fish processors from the estuary's Development Action Association (DAA).2 Together, they are creating their own access to finance, increasing their income, and helping to ensure the success of the closed fishery seasons.

1 The women of the Densu Oyster Pickers Association work to protect and re-grow local oyster stocks. In collaboration with USAID, DOPA has, to date, conducted two five-month closed seasons to allow for a rebound in oyster populations.

2 The Development Action Association is a non-governmental organization composed of women fish processors along the Densu River area. Together, working with DOPA, the women strive towards co-managing sustainable fisheries approaches.