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As the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the tiny Ilha de Maré off the coast of Salvador, Brazil, Eliete Paraguassu, a 42-year-old shellfish harvester, mobilized her community. To avoid the spread of the virus, Paraguassu spurred the community to erect physical barriers to deter tourists who, despite the pandemic, never ceased trying to visit the island. And with the closure of the street market, which crippled the community’s fish sales and left residents with less money and few options to leave the island to buy groceries, Paraguassu and the other fishers began growing their own food.
“We implemented a productive yards policy,” Paraguassu says. “People, especially women, started to plant arugula, pumpkins, okra, and coriander. And we began to eat more fish.”
The women’s group led by Paraguassu established partnerships with NGOs and a local university, and members were trained to keep the community protected from the virus. They received and distributed donations of face masks and hand sanitizer, and treated people with traditional medicine.
“With our actions, we were able to keep our community alive and healthy. Nobody died from COVID-19,” she says.
Paraguassu’s story is uplifting, but it is not exceptional. According to a recently published study examining how small fishing communities in Brazil have coped with the pandemic, female leaders often took on vital roles in ensuring their communities’ subsistence, and in helping to prevent contagion. In fact, the research suggests that in Brazil’s fishing communities, the pandemic has thrust women into more prominent positions, leading to something of a shift in the balance of power.
For her part, Paraguassu is no stranger to leadership. As a member of Brazil’s quilombola community—the descendants of African slaves who fled captivity and created autonomous settlements during the slavery era from 1500 to 1888—Paraguassu has spent two decades struggling to protect Ilha de Maré and its community from industrial pollution and rampant tourism development.
But in the traditionally misogynistic fishing sector, women have to fight to be heard, says Monalisa Rodrigues da Silva, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte.
Yet da Silva and her colleagues found that, at the onset of the pandemic, female fishers were more prepared to respond to the pandemic’s impacts because they had a more realistic understanding of the situation than their male colleagues.
This was Paraguassu’s experience as well. “Most men refused to understand the seriousness of the disease from the beginning,” she says. “We had to assume the role of caretakers.”
Da Silva says that because women took the pandemic more seriously, it “resulted in a more proactive attitude in decision-making and [strengthened them] as role models.”
But the study’s findings went a step further. Their evidence shows, says da Silva, that empowering female fishers can be important for ensuring the food security, sovereignty, and safety of fishing families and communities. Socioeconomically supporting female leaders in fishing communities, da Silva adds, helps prepare those communities for future adverse scenarios.
Da Silva says that in Brazil, women have been gradually gaining standing in fishing communities since the 1980s, taking on leadership positions in fishing associations and federations. But the pandemic, says Ormezita Barbosa, executive director of the Catholic Church’s Fishermen Pastoral Council, seems to have accelerated the process of leadership change.
In most fishing communities, women took on multifaceted roles: they demanded relief aid from the authorities; negotiated food exchanges with other communities, such as trading fish for vegetables; and established collective efforts to produce food. They even stood as bastions against fake news. “They have been protagonists during this serious crisis,” Barbosa says.
Barbosa is quick to note that ever since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, women have been the targets of political attacks. Broadly seen as misogynistic (only 23 percent of women support Bolsonaro in the upcoming presidential election), Bolsonaro’s government has suspended several programs designed to empower women.
“With so many attacks, the women have organized to strengthen their movement, including in the fishing segment,” Barbosa says.
Paraguassu says that in her community, women will continue to be protagonists “because we have been able to keep them united and alive during the pandemic.”