Women's Vital Role toward achieving a Sustainable Ocean Future

Enablers and essential contributors to a healthy ocean and a sustainable Blue Economy

May 30, 2024

While steady progress is being made in increasing women’s representation and recognition in the Blue Economy space, we still have a long way to go. 

Photo: UNDP

By Ana Lucia Londono

The reality for women in the Blue Economy is undeniable: their crucial contributions are frequently overshadowed at best; unnoticed at their worst.  

This reality brings forth a number of pertinent questions, most notable: How can development agencies, governments, private sector, and civil society organization mainstream gender into the Blue Economy seascape? And secondly, what does success look like?  

For women across the Pacific and beyond, the ocean acts as a life-support system – providing food, resources, and jobs. Women are crucial contributors to the fisheries sector through harvesting and processing procedures, aquaculture, and seaweed farming. In many coastal communities, women comprise up to 50 percent of the workforce in small-scale fisheries and are often involved in post-harvest activities, which constitute up to 90 percent of the workforce in some regions.

As explained by Ms. Yasmin Rasheed, Assistant Resident Representative, UNDP Maldives, women are also essential to the care economy that enables other Blue Economy-related activities like marine transportation or fishing. Women also often bring traditional knowledge and unique perspectives and skills to marine resource management and community resilience.  

So where is the deserved recognition, one may ask?  

Change happens slowly until it happens fast, and while steady progress is being made in increasing women’s representation and recognition in the Blue Economy space, we still have a long way to go.  

Women and girls remain disproportionally affected by the impacts and consequences of climate change and its repercussion in ocean resource use. For instance, increased salinity levels in ground waters caused by saltwater intrusion was found to be directly correlated to serious health issues such as hypertension, and kidney diseases. A study in Bangladesh found that women in affected areas faced higher rates of these health issues due to their greater reliance on contaminated water for household tasks.  

However, despite their significant contributions and differential burden-sharing conditions, women and girls are frequently underrepresented in decision-making processes, and face barriers to accessing resources and opportunities.  

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report (2022), women hold only 27 percent of managerial positions globally and progress in closing the gender gap in the political sphere remains slow, with women holding just 26 percent of parliamentary seats and 22 percent of ministerial positions worldwide. This can also be applied to the Blue Economy and associated sectors, where women also continue to be underrepresented.  

According to the International Maritime Organization, women constitute a minor portion of the maritime industry's workforce, representing just 2 percent of seafarers globally and 20 percent of shore-based positions. Hence, there is a clear need to mainstream gender in ocean-related policy dialogues to achieve sustainable and inclusive solutions across all sectors of the Blue Economy.  

But what does it mean to mainstream gender in the Blue Economy?  

It involves ensuring that women and girls have equal access to education, training, decision-making processes, and financial resources with regards to Blue Economy-related activities. It sees the inclusion of gender-specific statistics and indicators in national statistics to enable greater visibility in decision-making processes. Think of what could be done to accelerate progress towards equality in the Blue Economy if improvements were made in the collection and use of gender disaggregated data in relation to women in small-scale fisheries, aquaculture, and the informal sector.  

Mainstreaming gender in the Blue Economy also means promoting women's leadership in marine governance and encouraging gender-sensitive and informed policies and practices. Only with such an enabling environment can financing be mobilized towards truly inclusive and gender-sensitive Blue Economy investments.  

For women across the Pacific and beyond, the ocean acts as a life-support system – providing food, resources, and jobs.

Photo: UNDP

The transformative potential of women's inclusion in the Blue Economy is vividly illustrated through various examples across the Asia-Pacific region, as showcased at the UN Development Programme Regional Asia-Pacific Blue Economy Regional Workshop, which took place this May in the Maldives.  

Take the case of SME Lamops Craftwork in Indonesia, founded by Anita Handayani, which stands as a beacon of empowerment. This innovative enterprise trains women in sustainable craftwork, offering them economic opportunities while promoting marine conservation by repurposing mother of pearl waste from the pearl farming industry into new products.  

In Vietnam, the government has introduced small-scale credit programs specifically designed for women, facilitating their active participation in the ocean-linked business. And in the Maldives, efforts to overcome cultural barriers have significantly encouraged women's roles in the tourism sector, adopting a comprehensive service-industry approach to bolster their contributions.  

Further demonstrating the region's commitment to supporting women in the Blue Economy, the Maldives' SME Development Finance Corporation provides targeted financial products and services to women-led enterprises in the marine industry. This support has enabled women entrepreneurs to overcome traditional barriers and succeed in male-dominated sectors.

Finally, Sri Lanka’s Chamber of Marine Industries has implemented programs specifically aimed at empowering women entrepreneurs in the marine sector. Through mentorship, financial support, and access to markets, these programs are enabling women to establish and grow their businesses, proving that gender inclusion is a powerful driver of economic growth and sustainability in the Blue Economy.

Women make up only a small percentage of the total workforce in the maritime industry across the Pacific.

Photo: UNDP

Empowering women and girls in the Blue Economy through gender mainstreaming is not only a matter of equity but also a driver of innovation, sustainability, and transformative change.  

Multiple examples are starting to emerge across the Asia-Pacific region in terms of innovative solutions to increase and make visible the role of women and girls in the Blue Economy. There are significant efforts made by many public and private stakeholders pushing for a change around the world.  

Low hanging fruit already exist and can be looked toward as not only inspiration, but as Pacific-led initiatives that position the region as a leader in the promotion of women and girls within the Blue Economy.  

While it is often common to look for ideas and best practices that can be replicated beyond the Pacific, we should recognize and celebrate the innovative and effective solutions already being developed within our own region.

Looking at Fiji alone, the country's Exclusive Economic Zone is 70 percent larger than its landmass and is ranked as the 26th largest sovereign ocean space in the world. Fiji is also home to 3.5 percent of the world’s coral reefs and over 65,000 hectares of mangroves that make up some of the many features of the country’s rich marine biodiversity.  

The UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji remains dedicated to fostering sustainable and inclusive development in Facross the Pacific. In 2023, the office earned the prestigious Gender Equality Gold Seal, underscoring its commitment to gender equality. All projects are guided by the Gender Equality Strategy of the Pacific MCO.

One notable example is UNDP’s Investing in Coral Reefs and Blue Economy Project in Fiji, financed by the Global Fund for Coral Reefs and the Join Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Fund. This project collaborates with governments, local communities, and resource owners to leverage grants and concessional financing, aiming to create investment-ready projects that promote marine biodiversity conservation and accelerate reef-positive solutions to support sustainable livelihoods.  

Additionally, the Solevaka Development Accelerator Project and the Blue Accelerator Grant Scheme (BAGS) exemplify SME incubation and accelerator projects, mobilizing domestic finance for green and blue solutions. For instance, one BAGS project focuses on sustainable marine transport, supporting the development of a 24-meter sail and solar-powered cargo proa with a 10-ton capacity, as well as mini cargo proas for fishers, particularly benefiting women in fisheries.  

Another flagship initiative was a women in maritime conference held last year by UNDP, which discussed the future of maritime and border security, historically male-dominated sectors, to advocate for women increasing role in decision-making in Fiji, Palau, and Vanuatu.  

The Asia-Pacific Blue Economy Forum brings together government ministries, private sector representatives, civil society organizations, and practitioners from 15 countries to discuss key themes on the blue economy.

Photo: UNDP

These initiatives collectively enhance marine conservation efforts and foster economic opportunities in the Pacific with specific benefits for women.

The concept of the Blue Economy, which promotes economic growth, social inclusion and improved livelihoods at the same time as ensuring the environmental sustainability of the ocean, is inherent to the way of living of Pacific people.  

This places Pacific people as the experts in the field, and it is time to ensure that the wider narrative is reflective of this knowledge and associated pioneering actions.  

Continued efforts from governments, the private sector and financial institutions, and civil society organizations at local, national, and regional levels are critical to break down barriers and ensure that women can fully participate in and benefit from the Blue Economy. 

By joining forces, we can create a Blue Economy that not only thrives but also harnesses the full potential of everyone's contributions, driving sustainable growth and innovation for all.

This article comes on the back of the Regional Asia-Pacific Blue Economy Regional Workshop, sponsored by the United Kingdom-supported Climate Finance Network hosted by UNDP. The conference took place in Male, Maldives from 13-14 May.