With the maritime sector emerging as the new economic frontier for African countries, the issue of gender parity in its activities is gaining currency.
At the recently concluded three-day Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, inclusion of more women was one of the key areas of discussion.
Delegates dedicated three sessions to discuss it as they lobbied political leaders for a greater role for women.
The delegates were concerned that while about 80 per cent of global trade is seaborne, women comprise only 2 per cent of the marine sector.
And even in the fisheries sub-sector where the majority of women participate, only 15 per cent are directly engaged globally.
In most countries in Africa, women face cultural biases that exclude them from actual fishing activities, and are mostly involved in the processing and low level retailing of fish and fish products.
This makes them dependent on fishermen and middlemen, exposing them to exploitation and unfair market competition and access to fishing resources.
Elizabeth Marami, the first Kenyan woman marine pilot, said that cultural barriers and lack of consistent maternity policies by maritime companies have made it difficult for women to join and advance in the sector.
“You cannot change what you do not know. This gender gap can only be changed if we change the culture and narrative regarding women in the marine sector,” said Ms Marami.
The 26-year old marine pilot, who also operates a blog, Change the Tides, said that since projections reveal that there will be a demand for about 150,000 seafarers by 2025, 75,000 of them need to be women.
A recently published handbook by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa says that despite women being an integral part of the communities that interact sustainably with oceans, lakes and rivers, their contribution to fisheries is considered “invisible.”
“Gender discrimination stems from the low value attached to the work carried out by women and becomes perpetuated in their limited access to credit and entrepreneurial support, processing technology, storage facilities and training,” says the handbook.
According to Safina Kwekwe, Kenya’s Principal Secretary for Gender Affairs, while the Blue Economy provides opportunities for economic empowerment of women, they are still not presented in the entire value chain in the fisheries sector, where they are confined to processing.
“Blue Economy is not a new thing because it represents the cultural identities of communities living in wetlands, coastal regions, lakes, shores and close to rivers.
“The identity cannot be complete without women and it is time that we link women with regional markets, provide tax subsidies and ensure that every sector of the value chain in fisheries is attractive,” said Ms Kwekwe.
Women in the Maritime Sector in Eastern and Southern Africa (Womesa), an association founded in 2010 with membership from 25 countries in East and Southern Africa, is out to make a difference.
Womesa, with the support of the International Maritime Organisation and the African Union, aims to ensure that women actively participate in meaningful areas in the maritime sector by offering training, opportunities and resources to elevate women to senior decision-making levels.
Womesa’s members are drawn from Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Swaziland, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, DR Congo, Comoros, Somalia, South Africa and Kenya.
Kenya’s Permanent Secretary for Shipping and Maritime Affairs Nancy Karigithu said that age-old patriarchal traditions are a major barrier to women joining the maritime sector.