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Foto 109 - Reunião Universidade de San Diego e Coordenação da Rede de Mulheres do Litoral
Women's Network against Structural Machismo

With the creation of the AMEX in 2006, fishers and shellfish gatherers gained an umbrella organization to attend to and advocate for their needs. However, the political spaces associated with fishing and the extractive reserve were mostly male spaces. While women took care of their children and the home, political relations and spaces of power and decision-making were occupied by men. As a result, AMEX leadership observed that there was very little female participation in associations, meetings, and decision-making processes. Women's issues were not brought into discussions, nor were there women in positions of power.

This is how in 2009, following a call for proposals from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and with the support of a Conservation International (CI) technician, Jaqueline Rodrigues, and the coordinator at FGV-EAESP, Isabela Curado, the fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers of the RESEX created the Women Fishermen's Network of Southern Bahia, with the objective of  empowering women by listening to their issues, strengthening their leadership, and involving them in political decision-making spaces. Since then, the Women's Network has been working to empower women at grassroots level, attending to the issues and experiences of shellfish gatherers and family farmers in their daily lives and offering them resources, training and workshops to help them in a wide range of personal, professional, social and political contexts.

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Women's Network celebrating Women's Day

One of the major issues faced by the Women's Network is the very high level of domestic violence present in the RESEX communities. The Network has sought to provide women with education, in order to combat physical, emotional, and institutional violence. For many women, unwanted sexual relations, physical aggression, forced financial dependance, and emotional violence were taken for granted parts of their lives that they didn’t even know they could say no to. It is common to hear about the experience of women like Dona Maria do Caranguejo, who say that through the Network, they discovered that they did not have to accept such violence. 


During the celebration of Women's Day in 2023, hosted by the Network in the community of Atalaia, around 200 women gathered to discuss their lives, concerns, dreams for the future, but also to listen to each other, to let off steam, to talk about their pain, and to feel welcomed and supported by others. In addition to being the most active political force in the Canavieiras RESEX today, as Gesiane, the Network's coordinator, told me, the Women's Network is a place of security, trust, and female solidarity. All of its efforts aim to empower and liberate women from adverse conditions. Some of the practical ways in which this work is being enacted are through classes on making jams and jellies as an alternative source of income, or by working with the National Rural Housing Program, which offers financing for houses for women in situations of domestic violence.

Women's network against domestic violence

Another important front of the Women's Network is focused on the health of fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers, since these women are subject to challenging conditions typical to life in the mangroves. These diseases include vaginal fungus due to exposure to constant humidity from spending many hours in the water. They also suffer from skin diseases and mycoses all over the body due to constant contact with the mangrove mud, fungi, and bacteria, as well as frequent exposure to the sun and mosquitoes. Others experience thrombosis and other circulatory diseases due to the extreme force exerted when walking through the mangrove mud. Vertebral and lumbar diseases due to the stooped position required to walk through the mangrove branches and for many hours sitting down to process the shellfish are common. Many suffer from arthritis and joint inflammation in the hands due to the excessive work involved in gathering shellfish. Others develop lung and respiratory infections, especially in winter due to extended periods of exposure to the cold and damp.

Foto 106 - Reunião das Mulheres da Associação de Pescadores e catadeiras de camarão de Can

Meeting of the Women of the Canavieiras Fishermen's and Shrimp Pickers' Association

And these are just the most common illnesses suffered by these women. There are constant reports of doctors at public health centers who don't know about and don't consider these women’s specific realities in their diagnoses and treatments. As the Network asserts, women fishers need a medical approach that takes into account their social and environmental reality and offers them treatments that are possible in light of their particular socio-economic situation. The Network itself has worked to offer resources to improve health, such as the distribution of PPE (boots, gloves, and clothing with UV protection), as well as held classes on post-fishing hygiene and other forms of self-care.

Another point of struggle for the Network has been to raise the profile and recognition of fisherwomen, since one of the major issues experienced by these women, even today, is the feeling of invisibility. Socially, there is a kind of common sense that sees fishing as something masculine, based on a cultural tendency to assign value to the adventure of going out to sea, mixed with the structural machismo that keeps women trapped in the domestic sphere, with sole responsibility for looking after the children and the home. The normalization of these gender conventions and ideas about divisions of labor effectively erase female participation in fishing, rendering women’s labor invisible when in fact they play critical roles in the activity, be it in the processing of fish, or fishing themselves from mainland beaches, mangroves, or rivers.

Cleaning Shrimp, Losing Fingerprints

The sense of invisibility experienced by these women is also felt institutionally, as they are constantly questioned and confronted when they claim to be fisherwomen in public settings, even when simply attempting to exercise their rights. Many women face considerable difficulty in securing a pension from the INSS (National Institute of Social Security). In fact, this is so common that many women in the region are forced to go to court to demand their rights, sometimes with support from AMEX's lawyer, after the government denies their pension requests.

"Every year I have to go and prove that I'm a fisherwoman. A doctor becomes a doctor and doesn't have to prove that they are a doctor every single year."

Foto 105 - Gesiane Santos - Coordenadora da Rede de Mulheres do Litoral Sul da Bahia.JPG

Gesiani Leite, Coordinator of the Women's Network of the South Coast of Bahia

Gesiani’s comment well encapsulated the disrespect and prejudice towards fishers that occurs on a regular basis. Mistreatment on the part of government agencies, combined with prejudice and discrimination due to the way fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers dress or speak, reflects a state apparatus that is unprepared to deal with fishing communities in a respectful fashion. The colony, for example, is often accused of cheating fishermen and shellfish gatherers, charging unjustified fees, creating major problems in  how they count years of work toward retirement, and failing to accurately regulate and administer license through the General Fishing Register. However, this is changing. The feeling of finally being seen, recognized, and valued is frequently reported among fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers within the RESEX:

"Only now we are being recognized"

AMEX headquarters

The AMEX is currently made up of 80% women, who have found in the Network the possibility of participating politically in leadership and decision-making spaces, strengthening their voices, and coming to occupy positions of power in their associations. There are now women in all the leadership positions of the associations that make up AMEX, and some of the boards are exclusively women. The fight for the maintenance of the RESEX has also been carried out predominately by women.

Headquarters of the Women's Network of the South Coast of Bahia

At various times, the women's strength has been called upon to confront groups opposed to the RESEX who hold demonstrations and attempt irregular votes in the Chamber of Deputies, supported by the town hall and the fishermen's colony. They seek to change the terms of use and occupation of the land. The current mayor, who is opposed to the RESEX, works in partnership with the president of the colony, who is a federal appointee. Despite the fact that the colony is an institution that should represent fishermen, fisherwomen, and shellfish gatherers, it has instead, according to many women we spoke with, harmed these populations, mishandling their documentation, spreading misinformation, leaving the fishing community to fend for itself.

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Women's Network facing adversity

Fortunately, the AMEX has welcomed the fishing community and offered them the services and support should be offered by the colony. The Women's Network continues to face demonstrations organized by the mayor, which attract crowds with alcohol, famous musicians, while also delivering threats and incitement to violence against the representatives of AMEX and the Network. The poor management of the municipality and the fishermen's colony is damaging the lives of fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers, their access to their rights and the image of the state in the eyes of those who don't trust the colony or the state as a tool to support their trade. The invisibilization of fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers, reinforced by the state, as the coordinator of the Women's Network told me, contributes to anxiety and depression among these women— women who are oppressed by the patriarchal forces that surround them, and which prevent them from having their way of life, craft and history recognized in affirming ways.

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Dona Maria and her daughter-in-law Marcela - crab pickers

Faced with so many difficulties, the fisherwomen and shellfish gatherers of the RESEX de Canavieiras are organizing and fighting to face an array of challenges that have arisen over the past several years. Community-based solutions to deal with the major oil spill that occurred off the coast of the Northeast in 2019, the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and the floods that hit the region in the summers of 2021 and 2022, were anchored mainly by the Network. In Canavieiras, the collective sense of struggle is part of the identity of a fisherwoman and these women now inspire other women's movements in the various conservation units across the country. The Women's Network is currently an important reference in the political movement for women's empowerment. In 2023, together with other women's organizations, it took part in the National Network of Women of the Tides and Waters, which took place at the Comissão Nacional de Fortalecimento das Reservas Extrativistas e Povos Tradicionais Extrativistas Costeiros e Marinhos (CONFREM) national meeting to strengthen the articulation of women in Brazil and encourage the creation of new collectives and movements.

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Yemanjá - the mother of fishermen in Porto and Canavieiras

Comunidades da Reserva
Caranguejo, Siri e Aratu
Beneficiamento e Comercialização
Viver do mangue - Embarracar
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