A tribute to the resilient women from the past, and those of today

8th Mar 24 by Yves Reichling

On this International Women’s Day, we stand with West African women processors and fishmongers against the destruction of their livelihoods.

It probably won’t surprise that fish played a crucial role in the diets of Dutch coastal communities, and that many shaped not only their profession, but also their identities around this staple food. Dutch proverbs dating back centuries bear testimony of this:

  • ‘De haring braadt hier niet’ (‘the herring doesn’t fry here’nothing’s going according to plan),
  • ‘de haring braaden om de hom of kuit’ (‘to fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe’ – doing much but achieving little),
  • ‘de haring hangt aan zijn eigen kieuwen’ (‘the herring hangs on its own gills’ – one’s responsible for one’s own actions),
  • ‘daar steekt meer in dan een eenkele panharing’ (‘there’s more in there than one herring’ – there’s more to it than meets the eye),
  • ‘achter het net vissen’ (‘fishing behind the net’ – to miss an opportunity).

Herring seller. The Herring Woman. By Charles Howard Hodges

Herring in particular remains a staple in Dutch national cuisine and festivals such as the Vlaggetjesdag celebrate the Dutch herring fishery each year in early summer. While fishing was traditionally a man’s job, women took to any matters on-land, including processing and selling the catch. In short: they were managing the family and the business on shore, independently.

Just like their Scottish and English counterparts, society didn’t necessarily cherish them. They were looked down upon for their crude language, and the lingering smell of fish marked them. Not that it bothered them too much – it’s a small price to pay for an entirely self-sufficient and empowered way of living in a time when women were openly oppressed.

Cornelie Quist from the International Collective in Support for Fishworkers adds this:

“In the 19th century, fishermen were paid wholly or partly in kind (i.e. the fish they helped catch). This fish was called women’s fish because it went to the fishwives to feed the family and to sell in the market or at the door. With the advent of industrialization in Dutch fisheries, fishermen’s pay in kind was abolished and replaced by direct cash payments.

In addition, fishermen now went to sea for longer periods (sometimes up to months at a time), which meant that women had to care for their families alone. Fish was still available, but now had to be bought. Women now generated the income needed for the family by taking out loans and/or doing wage work for fishing companies, such as repairing nets and processing fish, or as maids for an employer and less and less as self-employed workers. Before industrialization, the entire fish chain was a household and family-based activity with interdependent roles. Industrialization changed this and marginalized small-scale fishing and the status of women in fisheries.”

Credit: Katwijks Museum’s photo archive

On this International Women’s Day, we want to pay tribute to not only these resilient women from the past, but also those of today, and underline their crucial role in society (providers of food, especially for the less fortunate), as caretakers for their families and communities as well as in the local economies.

In our work, we fight alongside West African women processors and fishmongers for their right to food and against the destruction of their livelihoods and profession by a rotten food system, where staple wild fish are pillaged and reduced to meal and oil for export and to produce farmed fish for luxury markets – driving a phenomenon we can only call food colonialism.

Fish processors protesting against industrial overfishing in Bargny, Senegal, with empty calabash bowls made from gourds, which symbolize the lack of fish in the seas off West Africa. © Clément Tardif / Greenpeace

They’ve consistently called for action and stand up for their rights, and our partner organisation Greenpeace Africa made sure their voices are heard again today:

There are many ways to join the fight, including reading our latest report Blue Empire: How the Norwegian Salmon Industry extract nutrition and undermines livelihoods in West Africa, and signing on to our latest petition to have Wagamama drop farmed salmon off their menu. Dropping farmed fish off one’s menu is another clear individual call for change in the food system, and using one’s agency as a citizen (writing to your local MP or MEP) and as a consumer (writing to your supermarket, and leaving reviews) will help counter the root causes of the problems faced by local fishing communities the world over: harmful private sector practices and insufficient regulation.

We certainly won’t give up the fight, so please stay tuned for our future campaigns.

Further reading:

How your supermarket salmon is impacting communities in West Africa

Blue Empire report

Right to Resources


What can you do next?

Follow us on Instagram to see our work in action.

Follow us