Gender norms and relations: implications for agency in coastal livelihoods

  • Sarah LawlessEmail author
  • Philippa Cohen
  • Cynthia McDougall
  • Grace Orirana
  • Faye Siota
  • Kate Doyle


Improving livelihoods and livelihood opportunities is a popular thrust of development investments. Gender and other forms of social differentiation influence individual agency to access, participate in, and benefit from existing, new, or improved livelihood opportunities. Recent research illustrates that many initiatives intended to improve livelihoods still proceed as “gender blind,” failing to account for the norms and relations that will influence how women and men experience opportunities and outcomes. To examine gender in livelihoods, we employed empirical case studies in three coastal communities in Solomon Islands; a small island developing state where livelihoods are predominantly based on fisheries and agriculture. Using the GENNOVATE methodology (a series of focus groups) we investigated how gender norms and relations influence agency (i.e., the availability of choice and capacity to exercise choice). We find that men are able to pursue a broader range of livelihood activities than women who tend to be constrained by individual perceptions of risk and socially prescribed physical mobility restraints. We find the livelihood portfolios of women and men are more diverse than in the past. However, livelihood diversity may limit women’s more immediate freedoms to exercise agency because they are simultaneously experiencing intensified time and labor demands. Our findings challenge the broad proposition that livelihood diversification will lead to improvements for agency and overall wellbeing. In community-level decision-making, men’s capacity to exercise choice was perceived to be greater in relation to livelihoods, as well as strategic life decisions more broadly. By contrast, capacity to exercise choice within households involved spousal negotiation, and consensus was considered more important than male or female dominance in decision-making. The prevailing global insight is that livelihood initiatives are more likely to bring about sustained and equitable outcomes if they are designed based on understandings of the distinct ways women and men participate in and experience livelihoods. Our study provides insights to make these improvements in a Solomon Islands setting. We suggest that better accounting for these gendered differences not only improves livelihood outcomes but also presents opportunity to catalyze the re-negotiation of gender norms and relations; thereby promoting greater individual agency.


Fisheries Agriculture Development Gender equality Pacific Women 



This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) led by WorldFish. The program is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund. Funding support was provided by the Australian Government and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research grants (FIS/2012/074 and FIS/2016/300). We acknowledge the GENNOVATE Initiative of the CGIAR for spearheading the methods and fieldwork on which this study draws. We thank our anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Thanks to those who participated in this study, the WorldFish team in Solomon Islands, Anne-Maree Schwarz, Miranda Morgan, and Michelle Dyer’s support in methodological adaptation and data collection. Lastly, special thanks go to Andrew Dart for his guidance, edits, and support.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Agarwal, B. 1997. “Bargaining” and gender relations: Within and beyond the household. Feminist Economics 3 (1): 1–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Akin, D. 2003. Concealment, confession and innocation in Kwaio women’s taboos. American Ethnologist 3: 381–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Allen, M., Dinnen, S., Evans, D., and Monson, R. 2013. Justice delivered locally: Systems, challenges, and innovations in Solomon Islands. Retrieved from Washington.Google Scholar
  4. AusAid. 2008. Making land work. Vol. 1. Canberra: AusAid.Google Scholar
  5. Badstue, L., P. Petesch, S. Feldman, G. Prain, M. Elias, and P. Kantor. 2018. Qualitative, comparative, and collaborative research at large scale: An introduction to GENNOVATE. Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security 3 (1): 1–27.Google Scholar
  6. Bandura, A. 1990. Perceived self-efficacy in the exercise of personal agency. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 2 (2): 128–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barclay, K., N. McClean, S. Foale, R. Sulu, and S. Lawless. 2018. Lagoon livelihoods: Gender and shell money in Langalanga. Maritime Studies: Solomon Islands.Google Scholar
  8. Bennett, J. 1987. Wealth of the Solomons: A history of a Pacific archipelago, 1800-1978 (Vol. issue 3 of Pacific islands monograph series). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Google Scholar
  9. Boudet, A., P. Petesch, C. Turk, and A. Thumala. 2013. On norms and agency: Conversations about gender equality with women and men in 20 countries. In Directions in development. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  10. Buvinić, M. 1986. Projects for women in the third world: Explaining their misbehavior. World Development 14 (5): 653–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cinner, J. E., and Bodin. 2010. Livelihood diversification in tropical coastal communities: a network-based approach to analyzing ‘livelihood landscapes’. PLoS ONE, 5(8), e11999.Google Scholar
  12. Cohen, P., S. Lawless, M. Dyer, M. Morgan, E. Saeni, H. Teioli, and P. Kantor. 2016. Understanding adaptive capacity and capacity to innovate in social-ecological systems; applying a gender lens. Ambio 45 (3): 309–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cole, S. M., C. McDougall, A. M. Kaminski, A. S. Kefi, A. Chilala, and G. Chisule. 2018. Postharvest fish losses and unequal gender relations: drivers of the social-ecological trap in the Barotse Floodplain fishery, Zambia. Ecology and Society 23(2):18.Google Scholar
  14. Cornwall, A. 2003. Whose voices? Whose choices? Reflections on gender and participatory development. World Development 31: 1325–1342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. de Haas, H. 2009. Mobility and human development, human development research paper. Vol. 01. UNDP.Google Scholar
  16. Ellis, F. 2000. Rural livelihoods and diversity in developing countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Foale, S.J., and M. Macintyre. 2000. Dynamic and flexible aspects of property tenure at West Nggela, Solomon Islands: Implications for marine resource management. Oceania 71: 30–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fothergill, A. 1996. Gender, risk and disaster. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 14 (1): 33–56.Google Scholar
  19. Gillett, R., G. Preston, W. Nash, H. Govan, T. Adams, and M. Lam. 2008. Livelihood diversification as a marine resource management tool in the Pacific Islands: Lessons learned. SPC Fisheries Newsletter 125: 32–39.Google Scholar
  20. Gustafson, P. 1998. Gender differences in risk perception: Theoretical and methodological perspectives. Risk Analysis 18 (6): 805–811.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hviding, E. 1998. Contextual flexibility: Present status and future of customary marine tenure in Solomon Islands. Ocean and Coastal Management 40: 253–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ibrahim, S., and S. Alkire. 2007. Agency and empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. Oxford Development Studies 35 (4): 379–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jiao, X., M. Pouliot, and S.Z. Walelign. 2017. Livelihood strategies and dynamics in rural Cambodia. World Development 97: 266–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. JICA. 2010. Country gender profile: Solomon Islands. Retrieved from Accessed 15 May 2014
  25. Kabeer, N. (1999a). The Conditions and Consequences of Choice: Reflections on the Measurement of Women's Empowerment, Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. ISBN:1012-6511, UNRISD Discussion Paper No. 108, August 1999.Google Scholar
  26. Kabeer, N. 1999b. Resources, agency, achievements. Reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment. Development and Change 30: 435–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kawarazuka, N., C. Locke, C. McDougall, P. Kantor, and M. Morgan. 2016. Bringing gender analysis and resilience analysis together in small scale fisheries research: Challenges and opportunities. Working Paper 53. United Kingdom: The School of International Development, University of East Anglia.Google Scholar
  28. Kleiber, D., P. Cohen, C. Gomese, and C. McDougall. 2019. Gender-integrated research for development in Pacific coastal fisheries. Vol. FISH-2019-02. Penang: CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems.Google Scholar
  29. Kronen, M., and A. Vunisea. 2009. Fishing impact and food security – Gender differences in finfisheries across Pacific Island countries and cultural groups. SPC Women in Fisheries Information Bulletin 19: 3–10.Google Scholar
  30. Lightfoot, C., Ryan, T., & Quitazol, J. (2001). Poverty: Is it in an issue in the Pacific? Asian Development Bank.Google Scholar
  31. Locke, C., Muljono, P., McDougall, C., & Morgan, M. (2017). Innovation and gendered negotiations: Insights from six small- scale fishing communities. Fish and Fisheries, 18, 943-957.Google Scholar
  32. Macintyre, M.A. 2008. Matrilineal structures and patriarchal attitudes: Lihirian women’s health. Canberra: ANU Press.Google Scholar
  33. Malhotra, A., R.S. Schuler, and C. Boender. 2002. Measuring women’s empowerment as a variable in international development. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  34. McDougall, D. 2014. “Tired for nothing”? Women, chiefs, and the domestication of customary authority in Solomon Islands. In Divine Domesticities, ed. Hyaeweol Choi and M. Jolly, 199–224. ANU Press.Google Scholar
  35. Meinzen-Dick, R., L. Brown, H. Sims Feldstein, and A. Quisumbing. 1997. Gender, property rights, and natural resources. World Development 25 (8): 1303–1315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Meinzen-Dick, R., A.R. Quisumbing, and J.A. Behrman. 2014. A system that delivers: Integrating gender into agricultural research, development and extension. In Gender in Agriculture: Closing the Knowledge Gap, ed. A.R. Quisumbing, R. Meinzen-Dick, T.L. Raney, A. Croppenstedt, J. Berhman, and A. Peterman, 373–391. FAO.Google Scholar
  37. Montgomery, R., D. Bhattacharya, and D. Hulme. 1996. Credit for the poor in Bangladesh. In Finance Against Poverty, ed. D.H.a.P. Mosley. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  38. Nielsen, Ø.J., S. Rayamajhi, P. Uberhuaga, H. Meilby, and C. Smith-Hall. 2013. Quantifying rural livelihood strategies in developing countries using an activity choice approach. Agricultural Economics 44 (1): 57–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Nightingale, A. 2006. The nature of gender: work, gender, and environment. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24 (2): 165–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Okali, C. 2006. Linking livelihoods and gender analysis for achieving gender transformative change. Rome: FAO.Google Scholar
  41. Pearson, R. (2000). All Change? Men, Women and Reproductive Work in the Global Economy. European Journal of Development Research, 12(2), 219-237.Google Scholar
  42. Petesch, P., L. Badstue, L. Camfield, S. Feldman, G. Prain, and P. Kantor. 2018. Qualitative, comparative, and collaborative research at large scale: The GENNOVATE field methodology. Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security 3 (1): 28–53.Google Scholar
  43. Pollard, A. 2000. Givers of wisdom, labourers without gain: Essays on women in the Solomon Islands. Fiji: University of the South Pacific.Google Scholar
  44. Resurrección, B.J., and R. Elmhirst. 2009. Gender, environment and natural resource management: New dimensions, new debates. In Gender and Natural Resource Management: Livelihoods, Mobility and Interventions, 3–20. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  45. Rohe, J., A. Schlüter, and S.C. Ferse. 2018. A gender lens on women’s harvesting activities and interactions with local marine governance in a South Pacific fishing community. Maritime Studies 17 (2): 155–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Scheyvens, R. 2003. Church women’s groups and the empowerment of women in Solomon Islands. Oceania 74 (1/2): 24–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sen, A. 1985. Well-being, agency and freedom. Journal of Philosophy 82 (4): 169–221.Google Scholar
  48. Solomon Islands National Statistics Office. 2009. Report of economic activity and labour force. Honiara.Google Scholar
  49. Stacey, N., Gibson, E., Loneragan, N. R., Warren, C., Wiryawan, B., Adhuri, D., & Fitriana, R. (2019). Enhancing coastal livelihoods in Indonesia: an evaluation of recent initiatives on gender, women and sustainable livelihoods in small-scale fisheries. Maritime Studies.
  50. Start, D., and C. Johnson. 2004. Livelihood options?: The political economy of access, opportunity and diversification. London: Overseas Development Institute London.Google Scholar
  51. UNDP. 2018. Human development indices and indicators: 2018 statistical update. New York: United Nations Development Programme.Google Scholar
  52. Vijaya, R.M., R. Lahoti, and H. Swaminathan. 2014. Moving from the household to the individual: Multidimensional poverty analysis. World Development 59: 70–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Whitehead, A., Hashim, I.M., & Iversen, V. 2007. Child migration, child agency and inter-generational relations in Africa and South Asia. Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty Working Paper Series, 24.Google Scholar
  54. World Bank. 2013. Inclusion matters: The Foundation for shared prosperity. Washington, DC: World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Lawless
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Philippa Cohen
    • 1
    • 3
  • Cynthia McDougall
    • 3
  • Grace Orirana
    • 2
  • Faye Siota
    • 2
  • Kate Doyle
    • 4
  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.WorldFishHoniaraSolomon Islands
  3. 3.WorldFish, Jalan Batu Maung, Batu MaungBayan LepasMalaysia
  4. 4.PromundoWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations