“I am a Woman Fisher from Bitung!” – a Success Story of Indonesian Women Working for Change in Northern Sulawesi’s Fisheries

Women leaders working in fisheries from Bitung and Manado gather during a break at the "USAID Oceans Partnership Transition Workshop" held on 26 November 2019. Photo credit: J. Parks/USAID Oceans

It was a hot, sunny day during June 2019 when several women working in fisheries supply chains based in Bitung, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, participated in a workshop on “Mainstreaming Gender among Fishing Communities.”  Over the past three decades, each week these women have gone out to sea and fished for tunas and small pelagic fish species that they can sell to local women buyers and traders in Bitung who supply retailers and processors.  The fish caught by these women are mixed with other fish catches landed by their husbands or other male fishers.  The workshop was designed to bring these women fishers together so that they could exchange experiences and stories relating to fisheries management and sustainability in support of the international “Coral Triangle Day,” organized in Indonesia by the Coral Triangle Initiative for Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) in partnership with the USAID Oceans and Fisheries Partnership (USAID Oceans).

Throughout Indonesia, it is common knowledge and practice that women are prohibited to go out on boats to do fishing. However, in Bitung City (and neighboring Manado), there are a number of women who go out to sea regularly to catch fish.  During the June 2019 workshop, the women shared with one another how despite their many years working as fishers and spending time catching fish at sea, they were prohibited from being able to officially register as a “fisher” and therefore unable to obtain a fisher identification (ID) card in order to access the government incentives and benefits available to all registered (male) fishers.

As part of activities implemented through the USAID Oceans project to investigate and intervene on issues relating to gender in fisheries, project staff and partners worked closely with local authorities and stakeholders from the City of Bitung to address the inability of women fishers to register and obtain their fisher ID card.  Following completion of participatory fact-finding research conducted in September and October 2019, the project learned that the reason that Bitung’s women fishers were unable to register as fishers was because as women, their default occupation (if not formally employed) listed on their national ID cards is “housewife,” according to the Sistem Data Kependudukan (Population Demographic Data System). Therefore, before obtaining a fisher ID card, they would need to have their listed occupation changed from “housewife” (default) to “fisher” (actual occupation) within this national system.  Once done, they could then proceed with registering as a “fisher” within the national fisher registration system (Kartu Pelaku Usaha Kelautan dan Perikanan, or KUSUKA) offered by the Indonesia Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF).  Once registered as fishers, these women would then be ‘officially’ recognized as fishers, thereby being recognized as a fisher operating legally within Indonesian waters and with their fisher ID card being able to avail of the Government’s national incentive programs for fishers, including insurance.

With the assistance and support of the USAID Oceans project, MMAF’s national program to help women fishers, and the municipal Marine and Fisheries Office (MFO) of Bitung City, as of early 2020 these women are now in the process of formally changing the occupation listed in the national ID system from “housewife” to “fisher.”

Mrs. Elsye, a fisher group leader from Batu Putih, Bitung, said that the national ID system changing her occupation to “fisher” made her feel empowered.

“USAID Oceans together with extension agents came directly to meet us at the Batu Putih shores. We as women fishers in the fisher group “Kakap” felt recognized and prouder of our daily job as fishers. Even more and more women in our neighborhood are now keen to learn how to fish as they see us going out fishing almost every day.” – Mrs. Elsye

This women fishers’ group was originally named “Gorara” (after the blue-striped snapper, a small, local fish), but was later changed to “Kakap” (generally referring to larger snapper fish) because kakap are bigger and stronger than gorara, just as the women fishers of Bitung aspire to become empowered and operate at larger and more openly-recognized and -appreciated scales.

Mrs. Nortji, a fisher from Kasawari, Bitung, has been fishing since the mid-1980s. When her husband was still living, they regularly went out together to the sea to go fishing.  Mrs. Nortji felt grateful to the USAID Oceans project because of the programmatic focus and increased efforts to engage and empower women fishers to become more involved in the sustainable management and decision-making of Bitung’s fisheries.  During a USAID Oceans workshop attended by nearly 100 fishery management stakeholders from Bitung and Manado in November 2019, Mrs. Nortji stood up in front of everyone to openly convey her perspectives, as stated below:

“I feel honored and proud to be in the same room with all of you amazing people. In contrast to the fishing group in Batu Putih, we in Kasawari go fishing with nets in nearshore waters. I hope we—the women fishers in Kasawari—can be given alternative fishing gear to our current nets. We want to use more suitable gear that is designed for women and can be good to care for and sustain our natural environment.” – Mrs. Nortji

Aside from fishing, Mrs. Nortji is also the elected head of her village.  With support from USAID Oceans, she worked very hard during 2019 to identify and organize all of the women fishers from her village and helped them with the process for changing their occupation information in the national ID system from “housewife” to “fisher.” She has successfully been able to do so, with support from with the local Bitung MFO extension agents. In her village, they do not have a women’s fisher group—yet. Mrs. Nortji thinks that in the future, with suitable fishing gears and appropriate training, a women’s fisher group can be formed and become actively involved in the sustainable management of their local fisheries.

During the USAID Oceans’ Closeout Event held at the MMAF Headquarters Office in Jakarta on 19 February 2020, Mrs. Elsye shared with national government leaders her experiences in working with partners under the USAID Oceans project, proudly saying, “I am a woman fisher from Bitung!” Following her sharing her story of her daily fishing activities since the 1980s, Mrs. Elsye told the Government of Indonesia that she hoped that all stakeholders would continue to engage, support, and partner with women fishers beyond the close of the USAID Oceans project in mid-2020.

“I hope all the help and experiences that I have received and gained can provide a positive impact for our future generations. Our women fisher’s group is expanding.  The women in my village want to learn how to fish sustainably.  As of now, there are approximately 30 of us working together to do this, as women fishers.” – Mrs. Elsye

In early 2020, USAID Oceans’ project partners in Bitung submitted a legal document to the Bitung MFO entitled “Recommendations to Develop Municipal Policy in Improving the Access of Women Fishers to Fisher Registration and ID Issuance in Bitung City, North Sulawesi, Indonesia.”  This legal document was generated as an output of the collaboration and consultations completed among the many Bitung fishers, local businesses, NGOs, and community stakeholders who all partnered together under the USAID Oceans project to promote women fisher’s empowerment and gender equity within fishery supply chains.  At the end of March 2020, the legal document was formally submitted to and accepted by the Mayor’s Office of the City of Bitung.  During April, the agreement was approved and incorporated as a new input into forthcoming City Regulation updates, providing a new legal basis to nationally update demographic data for Bitung’s women fishers. It is hoped that from this local leadership being provided from Bitung, similar legal agreements can be brought to other cities and provinces in Indonesia, as well as to a national level in order to create a legal basis for revising national demographic data management policy in Indonesia.

Learn More:

Mrs. Elsye was identified as one of the “Women Leaders in Indonesian Fisheries” during the late 2019 by USAID Oceans and the Second Muse Seafood Improvement Project.  Read her profile and story here.

Type: Feature Article, Success Story | Author: Dr. Arlene Nietes Satapornvanit and Ms. Novena Rena Parengkuan, USAID Oceans | Date: 16 June, 2020 | Subject: Human Welfare, Partnerships and Engagement, Regulations | Country: Indonesia