By: Ioanna Gotschall
The livelihoods and food security of Kiribati’s people, or I-Kiribati, depend significantly on marine resources due to the limited amount of arable land. All men and women in Kiribati participate in fishing activities, whether it is aquaculture, gleaning, harvesting, hook-and-line fishing, gillnetting, spearing, trapping, diving, or deep-sea boat fishing (MFMRD 2020; MFMRD and SPC 2019. Marine resources sustain the diets of I-Kiribati and increasingly provide income to communities with few other available economic opportunities (Tekanene 2005, 2006; Lambeth et al. 2006).
Although the Kiribati Constitution guarantees rights to women, it supports a cultural practice that distances women from decision-making processes such as village, island, and government councils (GoK 2009; UN Women 2020). Women’s lack of representation in local governments (only 10 out of 332 Island Councilors are women) is important because under the Local Government Act of 1984 (Kiribati National Statistics Office 2016), Island Councils control nearshore resources within three nautical miles, which are the primary fishing grounds of women (MFMRD 2020).
Consequently, women’s fisheries have historically been excluded in local government discussions and in overall national policies. I-Kiribati women support their families with their fishing activities and should receive institutional recognition and support for doing so (Fay-Sauni and Sauni 2005; Tekanene 2006; MFMRD and SPC 2019.
An inability to participate in community decision-making and underrepresentation in coastal fishery activities increases poverty among women and worsens associated vulnerabilities such as unemployment, domestic violence, and food insecurity for I-Kiribati families (Dekens 2017; Kronen and Vunisea 2007; UN Women 2020.
The Government of Kiribati (GoK), the United Nations (UN), and the Pacific Community (SPC) acknowledge that the underrepresentation of women in traditional local government hierarchies has contributed to the dramatic decline of coastal fishery stocks such as the bivalve arc shell Anadara holoserica (te bun) (Fay-Sauni and Sauni 2005; Gillett 2016; Gillett and Tauati 2018; GoK 2014).
Lack of representation of women Anadara fishers on the Tarawa Urban Council has allowed the devaluation of coastal resources such as the arc shell and has further enabled coastal pollution and overexploitation (Fay-Sauni and Sauni 2005). It is critical that women’s fishing grounds and activities are considered in every coastal development project, especially projects in urban South Tarawa.
Such projects must first work within cultural norms to give women freedom of choice (empowerment) in the economy, within their families, and society while also ensuring local support and the implementation of community-based fisheries management (CBFM). Of course, cultural norms must evolve in order to accommodate women’s important roles in coastal fisheries.
Valuing the organisms that women traditionally harvest is an important initial step for increasing women’s esteem and status in their families, villages, and local governments.