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She sells seashells: the women who harvest shellfish

English edit by Lidias Paes Leme and Carla Elliff

The photograph shows a sunset over a mudflat during low tide. There is a cliff in the distance with some coconut trees on the right. Two women were drawn on top of the photograph. They are silhouettes of shellfish harvesters. The woman to the left is kneeling on the mudflat with a bucket in front of her. She is wearing a skirt, a short sleeve blouse and her hair is tied in a bun with a bandana. The second woman is to the right and is standing up, balancing a bucket on her head. She is also wearing a skirt and a short sleeve blouse, but she is wearing a wide hat and is holding a spoon.

Illustration by Joana Ho.

In our historical social construction, professions have always been divided between those that are feminine and those that are masculine. This means that some activities were (and sometimes still are) seen as being appropriate only for men, while others that usually do not require so much physical effort, mostly related to pink-collar work (home care, teachers, nurses etc.), have been appointed to women. That being so, many of us as women have been discouraged to carry out certain functions, because we have been told that we are biologically “more fragile and less intelligent”.

This short explanation clearly shows that this whole matter is simply an excuse from the patriarchy, right?

But you might be asking yourself where I’m getting at. Well, what I mean to say is that, with every passing day, these professional divisions directed to certain individuals are crumbling and women are showing that yes, we can do well in roles and positions that used to be known as being “manly”.

A big example of this are the women that harvest shellfish. They are all over the Brazillian coast and their job is to gather different types of seafood from the shore. In Portuguese they are called marisqueiras and this activity is known as mariscagem. It is a form of fisheries, which consists of continuously capturing shellfish in an artisanal way. Mariscagem can be carried out as a small or autonomous production, for individual sustenance or for trade.

The shellfish collected through this activity are usually captured in mudflats or sand banks, located in mangroves or near these ecosystems. The most common way to harvest this resource is by hand picking, in which the women scrape the sand using a spoon until they find a shellfish of interest.

he photograph shows a mudflat during low tide in Salinas da Margarida, state of Bahia, Brazil. There is one woman harvesting shellfish in the foreground. She is bent over with a bucket by her side. She is wearing shorts and a short sleeve blouse and her hair is tied in a bandana. In the distance there are another twenty women doing the same activity. There are some hills in the distance and the date is written in the lower right corner of the photograph (July 21st 2015).

Female shellfish harvesters in Salinas da Margarida, state of Bahia, Brazil. (Photograph by Ricardo Guabiraba, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, available at Wikimedia Commons).

This activity was initially performed by men, fishermen, who were considered by society as being more apt for the process, since it requires strength and enduring trips to the ocean and mangroves to obtain sustenance for one’s family. On the other hand, women were usually in charge of dealing with the catch, meaning they would clean the fish and shellfish that their husbands, brothers, uncles and fathers would bring from the sea.

More recently, women also started taking on the role of extracting shellfish. However, this activity has been all but invisible, despite it being extremely important, both socially and economically. What we can conclude from this is that the lack of acknowledgment of harvesters’ rights regarding this profession, either from their partners and families or from the State through the national social security institute (INSS), which guarantees retirement and other rights, is simply because they are women. The lack of labor’s rights has led to inadequate work conditions for these women, who usually have exceedingly long working hours every day.

Studies have sought to carry out a social profile of these women, creating a panorama of socioeconomic aspects and of how they feel about the situations they face. One of these studies was carried out in the community of Barra Grande, municipality of Cajueiro da Praia, state of Piauí, Brazil. This area has a beach strip of 4 km, that is protected by federal decree as an environmental protection area, within the Brazilian category of sustainable use.

Most female shellfish harvesters were between 30 and 60 years of age (mean age was 42 years). Educational level was low, with 34.92% of women not having finished elementary school and another 17.46% had no formal education. Regarding marital status, most women were married (44.44%), followed by those that lived with their partners (28.57%). The study also showed that, in average, these women had four children, though the numbers varied from zero to twelve. Many women participating in the study performed other activities to complement their income, such as working as cleaners, making lace, cooking etc.

In addition to telling their life stories, they shared the problems they face in this study. These challenges were mostly related to their work conditions and bureaucratic issues, such as demanding the creation of a women’s association of harvesters, since they feel excluded from the fishers’ colonies that already exist.

On top of all of this, these women fight sexism on a daily basis. But who says they give up!? A practical example of this fight, besides their persistence in working even in face of so many difficulties, is a project to implement legislation PLC 47/2017. This project defines the profession of Shellfish Harvester and what it entails, including the responsibilities of the government regarding the women in this field, guaranteeing their rights and duties.

Women are conquering their place in society and in work organizations, places which are ours by right. However, we know that there is still a long path for us to conquer egalitarian treatment between men and women. Valuing the work of female shellfish harvesters is also a way to value environmental conservation, it is a way to recognize justly a job that is done with care, love and dedication.


Recommended video:


FREITAS, Simone Tupinambá et al. Conhecimento tradicional das marisqueiras de Barra Grande, área de proteção ambiental do delta do Rio Parnaíba, Piauí, Brasil. Ambiente & Sociedade, [s.l.], v. 15, n. 2, p.91-112, ago. 2012. FapUNIFESP (SciELO). Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 01 mar. 2018

Diário do Nordeste. Marisqueiras reivindicam seus direitos. 2003. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 01 mar. 2018.

Senado Notícias. Política de apoio à atividade de mulheres marisqueiras será analisada na CDH. 2017. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 01 mar. 2018.

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