Coastal Resources Center helps African women’s shellfish-harvesting collective make history, change lives

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KINGSTON, R.I. – August 27, 2013 – One day in 2007, Fatou Janha stopped to buy oysters from a roadside woman vendor, something Janha had been doing since she was a young child growing up in The Gambia. But this particular day, something struck her for the first time. “I realized that these women were still working under the same conditions, with no improvement in their livelihood,” she recalled. “I wanted to help them.”

The arduous work of shellfish harvesting in this tiny West African nation is left primarily to uneducated women in the small villages who eke out a precarious living by harvesting, processing and selling this crucial food source. Janha helped them organize, and an initial group of 40 women formed a collective, the TRY Oyster Women’s Association. The cooperative chose that name because the women decided to join together to “try” to improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities, she said.

Today, that collective has not only “tried” but has succeeded on many fronts. Executive Director Janha is the first to note that TRY could not have made the strides it has without help from the Coastal Resources Center at the Graduate School of Oceanography. The relationship started with an unexpected meeting: In 2009 Janha stopped when she saw two Western-looking women speaking with some TRY members at a roadside oyster stand. Janha recalled asking the strangers, “What do you want; why are you talking to my women?”

The women — Kathy Castro and Virginia Lee — were from the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Fisheries and from the Coastal Resources Center, respectively. They, too, were interested in improving the lives of local women while protecting the coastal ecosystem. Soon after, CRC began working with TRY as part of a five-year sustainable fisheries project funded by the United States Agency for International Development’s West Africa Mission at an approximate cost of $800,000 to $1 million.

“There was no way we could have done it without them,” Janha said.

Precedent-setting achievements are among the results of the CRC/TRY partnership:

• In 2012, the government of The Gambia granted TRY exclusive use rights through a fisheries co-management plan for the cockle and oyster grounds in the Tanbi wetlands.

• TRY is the first women’s group in Africa to be granted such rights by a national government, and the importance can’t be overstated. Those rights include responsibility for sustainable management, which includes an eight-month closure of the shellfishing grounds to prevent overfishing and to protect the mangrove habitats that are crucial to the shellfish’s survival and to the coastal ecosystem.

• TRY’s work won an Equator Prize at the 2012 Rio+20 Summit. More than 125 projects competed for the prizes awarded by the United Nations Development Program

• TRY membership now numbers more than 500 women (and a few men) in 15 communities

• In June 2013, the women voted to uphold the fishery closure period despite pressure to change the timing and reduce its duration.

TRY’s accomplishments are particularly noteworthy given the women’s few means, Janha noted.

“They are the poorest of the poor in The Gambia. They work from six in the morning until eight at night. They are the breadwinners for their families,” Janha told an audience at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., in late July. She was invited to speak as part of the panel, “Oysters, Octopus and Resilience,” presented through the center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. At the close of Janha’s presentation, the Wilson Center’s Roger-Mark Desouza said, “Thank you for allowing us to see the story behind these women.”

That story—one of empowerment, education and ecosystems—gets written anew every day by this once-disenfranchised group of women as they continue to improve their lives.

During the fishery closure, from July through February, the women remain busy. They sell peanuts, catfish or other commodities and gather for TRY workshops, where an offer of a meal or a few dollars can be a crucial incentive. Janha tells of one woman who helped with mangrove replanting although pregnant and due to give birth at any time. She simply couldn’t afford to skip the $5 incentive offered that day. Later that night she delivered her sixth child and named the baby “toutou”, which means “to plant” in her native language.

The replanting of mangrove trees has raised the profile of the TRY women in their communities. The trees had long been cut down for home building and fuel, but today the women educate the community on their value to the environment and to their livelihoods; and men, women and children now come together to replant them.

As the mangroves are taking firm root, so are changes in the women since TRY was founded: They now make decisions that affect their communities, speak with confidence in public, vote for what they believe in and take charge of their bodies and their health. “They were marginalized women. They never had confidence. They didn’t know they could achieve anything by themselves,” Janha said.

For these women, the subject of family planning was taboo; menopause was a mystery; and cervical cancer was not screened for because no one knew it existed. By integrating population and health initiatives into TRY’s work, that has changed. Now, Janha says with deserved pride, 80 percent of the 50 members who attended workshops on cervical cancer have been screened.

That level of turnout following a training event is significant, says Karen Kent, CRC’s project manager for the project. She noted, “that rate of behavior change at a personal level—education to actual action—is worth applauding.”

Today, the women also learn about protecting themselves from AIDS and unwanted pregnancies through TRY. Reproductive rights and access to contraception are important in this nation, where the average woman has five children, and the population is expected to double by 2050. “Women leave the babies home with the older children at six months to go looking for food. The young girls are unsupervised, and this leads to early pregnancy and other problems,” Janha said.

The daughters’ of the TRY women are making gains as well. With help from a United States Peace Corps volunteer, TRY trained 15 young women in a two-year program in culinary skills, beekeeping, tie and die making as well as soap making. With certificates in hand, they can now earn their own livings with less dependence (and less pressure) on the oyster and mangrove resources.

The fishery closure provides another benefit. It allows the oysters to grow in size, so they gain in market value, and the women get a better income per kilogram harvested. To encourage lasting standard of living improvements, TRY introduced microfinance savings programs for the women, for whom this was new. Previously, whatever money they might have had left at the end of the day they buried in a hole under a tree, Janha said. Now they save money with TRY and can take out loans at very low interest rates. Many women eventually deposit their savings with local banks. This helps them pay for school fees for their children or get a tin roof for their homes.

At a recent TRY meeting, one woman spoke with pride of how far the women had progressed in terms of both their business skills and their sense of empowerment: “We have reached grade 12; we will not go back to grade one!”

And the women have ideas about how to keep moving forward. For example, although TRY rents a main office in the greater Banjul metro area, it also is seeking offices in outlying villages to make it easier for the women to attend trainings. “Now, we meet under the trees,” Janha said.

Long-term goals include creating a more comprehensive national organization to address gender, health and environment issues on a countrywide level. Improvements in sanitation and processing—oysters are vacuum packed now—will allow the women to sell to restaurants within The Gambia. Janha said the group hopes to establish a regional processing plant in the next five years so that it can receive certification to export shellfish and further improve the lives of more women in The Gambia.