Like many other sectors, role of women in fishing is also invisible in Bangladesh. Women in fisher community repair boats, knit and nets, separate different species of fish after big catch, dry fish for sale or household consumption, sometimes go to fishing with their counterparts. But their contribution is never recognized. its a common practice in the country.
Fisher community in the country has been fishing in the river, haors and beels (waterbodies) for centuries. But now scenario is different. For different reasons including encroachment of rivers and waterbodies, lack of proper management, water pollution and climate change, the sources of livelihood of fishermen is narrowing day by day. They are leaving their profession and taking alternative occupations in the different parts of the country.
But fishermen of the haor regions like Sunamganj, Habiganj, Kishorganj or Netrokona has a different reality. They have not much choice to change the occupation. They live in the small villages in the midst of the haor or beels (small waterbody). These villages remain surrounded by water most of the time. During the dry season people can produce crops only. It’s a one crop land. There is a very limited opportunity of other business activities in haor areas, one of the remotest place in the country, except Fishing.
Therefore, when survival of fishing community is challenged, situation of women in this sector is becoming more velnerable. Kamala was telling that story at a workshop in Dhaka last week.
A widow, at her late fifties, never thought she would ever come to Dhaka to attend the workshop and shared her experience with government officials and foreigners or give an interview to journalists. “ I was poorer of the poor, I had to struggled a lot with three kids to manage meals for three times after my husband, who was a fisherman, died 20 years ago” she was memorising her difficult days with eyes full of tears.
Kamala is a fisherwoman. She is now the elected treasurer of ‘Abuhoa Nainda Nodi Beel Baborharkari Smaity’, a community group formed by real fishermen and fisherwoman, known as Beel Users Group (BUG)). It has taken lease of the beel that surrounded her villege Kholachandpur. But it was not easy for her, not for her community either.
Kholachandpur is one of the remotest village in Bishwambhar Purupzila in Sunamganj. The tiny villege remain inundated by water almost nine months of the year. Around 120 households live there. Most of them are Hindu. They dont have farm land, live mainly on fishing. During the dry season they work as farm labour or travel to other places seeking works.
Like others, Kamala and his fisherman husband were living on fishing. Their community has been fishing in the Abuhoa Nainda Nodi Beel, adjcent to their village for generations. They believe they have a right to fishing there. But they were wrong. It was leased to businessmen, local political or influential people, who always occupy more land than they were leased. They used armed gurds to prevent poor fishermen from fishing. They never cared about the bio-diversity of water resources. Therefore, a number of species disappeared from this place forever. Many family left the village and rushed to the cities in search of jobs.
Kamala recalled that time, “ We couldnt catch fish in the beel which we believed is a natural resources for all of us and we have a right in fishing there. But we havent. We were prevented brutally. Our people were severly beaten by the musclemen of lease owner many times. We were not even allowed to work in our land on the bank of the beel. We were very poor and never could think of taking lease of a waterbody.’
When her husband died, she fell into deep trouble. Her children were very young to earn, it was only her to run the family. She tried to take loan from NGO’s to do some income generating activity. But there was no NGO in her place. She went to Bishwambhar Pur, upzila headquarter and asked for loan to some NGO’s but was denied. None was interested to work in a remote place like Kholachandpur. She had to work as domestic help to survive.
‘Kamala was very poor, one Kamala could never be abled to manage lease money but many could do’ this was the concept with which Sunamganj Community Based Resource Management Project (SCBRMP) intervened in Sunamganj in 2003. It implementted “Jal jar jalmahal tar (Real fishermen and fisherwomen own the waterbody)” first time in the country. It recognized fisherwomen formally in the documents of government and entitled them to take lease of a waterbody in groups.
The project was implemented by Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), co-financed by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The project ended in March this year but by this time it transferred 250 waterbodies from Ministry of Land and leased to community groups. Now more than nine thousand fishermen in 11 upzilas are enjoying theiraccess to their surrouding waterbodies. Among them 2248 are fisherwoman and Kamala is one of them.
She is one of the 80 members who took lease ‘Abuhoa Nainda Nodi Beel’ with a contribution of only TK 1000, six years ago that changed her whole life.
Afetr she joined BUG and started earning profit as a fisherwoman, her confidence grew up. She started taking part in the meetings of the group regularly. She even contested the BUG election and won twice the post of treasurer. She was illiterate. Never went to school. Never went to outside her village. She learnt to give signature, speaking to people. Now she goes to markets, banks and government offices and attend meetings. She has become the face of fisher community of Kholachanpur.
Kamala is an idol among the women of her village. Including her 32 women are members of ‘Abuhoa Nainda Nodi Beel Baborharkari Smaity’. They are investing their profits in other income generating activities like in fishing business or opening grocery shops in their village.
She was asked, “does she enjoy her position in BUG?” She smiled and answered “ Yes I do, but I feel happy more when I think that our men can fising in our river now and we, the women are recognized as fisherwomen.” ‘
Project Director Sheikh Mohammad Mohsin said, “Women have prooved that they contribute a lot in fishing sector. They are capable, more disciplined, honest and can manage financial records better than men in BUGs. They are also contributing in preservation of bio-diversity”
Fisherwomen plant swamp trees in the beels or haors and take good care of those which work as a sanctuary for fish during the monsoon.
Fisher community has indegeneous knowledge, they know the law of nature from their ancestors and always follow it. They know when to fishing when not, what is the breeding time of which fish, how to maintain a sanctuary. A real fishermen never destroy their source of livlihoods. Therefore, they can manage resources than any other can do.
In Sunamganj, now people started getting result of community based resource management, a study conducted by Worldfish foundthatfish species increased from 73 to 139 in project area. On the otherhand, Ministry of Land is earning more money than before. Because it is getting lease money regularly from the BUGs.