Human body parts become fruit on the land, while they become fish in the sea. Both of them are food for us -Toby Alice Volkman, cultural anthropologist
Women employed in the fishing industry in Georgia are usually informal workers, so there is scarce data on their incomes and contributions to the sector. Even though women's work is often invisible, it is essential. Most sort, clean, dry, and sell fish, all crucial work to getting fish to customers. However, the difference between women’s and men’s earnings is glaring: it takes women about three years to earn as much as men do in a year.
The most invisible is what they do before fishing, like weaving fishing nets. Traditionally, fishing nets in Georgia were made from flax fiber and it was believed they could protect women and newborns from the “evil eye” if they were used to cover women during labor.
One of the best examples is the "Net of a Woman in Labor," which is kept at the Georgian National Museum, in the capital Tbilisi.
Anthropologists have studied the role of women in fishing from different directions, including how the work affects the mobility of women and men. In some cultures, men went to sea and had the opportunity to travel, while women stayed at home on land. Anthologists have started to question if staying on the land really means relinquishing power—a long held belief. For example, in fishing communities, the fact that men spent long periods at sea reinforced women's dominance, power, and freedom in the so-called private sphere of the home.
In Tskaltsminda, a village in west Georgia, near the Black sea, Nona stands by a covered shed on the highway in all seasons and sells fish with about 12 other women. They have to wake up at 6 a.m. to leave their housework and head to the highway from the nearby village of Shroma. They often return home at 10 p.m. because, apart from the locals, tourists and travelers pass through and buy fish late into the night.
"The income is paltry here. It takes a lot of hard work to earn 10 GEL per day. You sacrifice your health, and you get worn out. It's difficult for a 67-year-old woman to stand on the street. We can't take care of our health because we physically don't have time."
In addition to cleaning, processing and selling fish, Lili – together with other fishermen – uses a net to remove the fish from the Black Sea near the villages of Ureki, Shekvetili and Grigoleti, and from the nearby Supsa and Natanebi rivers. She is an economist by profession, and she worked for the private and public sectors for years before she lost her job.
"Times change, everything changes and I change too. Then you have to find some solution so you do not die of hunger."
Even though she works from morning to night with other women, her income is small, so she also manages the family farm.
"When men catch fish, they probably get paid a lot more, and they catch a lot of fish. However, they work in groups and have to share their income. And their wage is what?! They have so many expenses! They need to buy gas; they need to eat. Even if they catch 100 kilos of fish, it's nothing for 20 people. However, we all have some money left for food. We do not go hungry."
Iamze is 63 and has been working in fish production for 25 years. Now, with her sister and three other women, she works at her fish shop in Maltakva, a district in Poti, on the Black Sea. She has worked in various places, including the market in Kobuleti, another Black Sea town in Georgia’s Adjara region. Years ago, she even used to walk to houses in the community to sell fish from loaded storage boxes.
"Then I put a table here, on the Maltakva Bridge, and covered it with a good cover so that it would dazzle the people as they passed. Anyone passing would see the fish and stop the car. I thought I had nothing else to do in Kobuleti as I would earn more money here. I used to buy and sell fresh fish from the fishermen's brigade. Then I made a counter near the bridge, covered it up, and continued working. Other women joined me, and the four of us started working together. Then we were thrown away off the bridge, they said it was the wrong place for trading. They told us to move off the road a bit. Other women returned to the market again, feeling discouraged. But I came here, closer to the water, and rented this building.
Now I get fresh fish from the fishermen and sell them. There are fish from the sea, as well as from Paliastomi Lake. We catch catfish, mullet, salmon and "barrabulka" (Black Sea mullus). We clean the fish as soon as we get them. Now I'm thinking about making a place where I can fry fish for customers so they can dine in a clean area by the water. I will also employ young women.
I've worked in the market, so I know what it's like to be there and what work women do. They should have better conditions. Men are already appreciated. I pay women about 50 lari daily, but when there are very few fish, it's just 30 lari per day. There are still a lot of expenses: taxes, shopping bags... You also need to eat something when you are at work from morning till night. But still, the most important thing is that when I give good, fresh fish to the customer, he's satisfied."
Amalia is Iamze's sister. Two years ago, she started working at her sister's business. Before that, she worked in a bakery in Kobuleti. Iamze picks her up and takes her home every day.
"Every other family here makes a living with fish. My father was a fisherman, and my mother sold fish in Kobuleti. She was a good cook in general. When she got old, she would bring fish to Poti and Batumi. She often took me with her to sell it. When she got tired carrying the fish, she would leave the bags with me in the shade and tell me to pay attention. She herself would go and sell fish on the streets, in houses, and on the beach.”
At age 10, Lali’s ties to the sea began when her father taught her to weave fishing nets. Growing up in a family of fishermen, she says net weaving was a family tradition: her grandfather was blind, but he was still able to weave perfectly. She was happy to help his father. Soon she started receiving orders, and the schoolgirl was already earning money.
“I was born and grew up in the city of Poti. I was a gymnast, and I loved this sport very much. Once, people came from Tbilisi, chose seven boys and one girl from Poti, and took us to Tbilisi. But my mom took me back to Poti because I was a girl, and she was afraid that being alone would be dangerous for me. I was angry, and I didn't even want to study anymore. I started playing handball, and I secretly went to the classes. Finally, net weaving interested me. My grandmother's brother and grandfather were the first to receive their fishing licenses here. They started fishing when no one was doing it in Poti.
In the 90s, when there were frequent power outages, I didn't go to bed. I sat and waited as if I knew in advance when the light would come on. As soon as the electricity came back on, I would open my eyes to continue weaving the net. This activity saved me at that time.
Earlier, nets were not sold. So, I would cut the mooring rope, twist it into small pieces, turn it into thread and weave a net from it. It took so much time to dismantle... Now we weave with "pali" ropes, and that's why it's so solid."
Lali weaves nets of different sizes: there are 22 mm, 40 mm, 100 mm, and 200 mm nets, depending on the size of the fish to catch.
“I weave all kinds of nets. There are three-walled fishing nets, as well as double-walled ones. Some fish need a single-walled net, for example, herring. The net requires a rope. We have to put corks on the top of the net and make a lead line on the bottom, after which we can start weaving the net. I weave 100 meters above and 100 meters below a day, which is one net. This work requires knowledge of mathematics, speed, and hard thinking. You have to measure accurately because if the net is made incorrectly, it will not catch the fish.”
Lali recalls that during the Soviet Union, they used to buy net material from ships near a collective fish farm not far from Poti. Now she orders it from Azerbaijan and Turkey.
"It depends on how long one net lasts. Sometimes you use it once, and it's torn. It's over; it's no longer useful. Everything has become so expensive that the fishermen can no longer afford to throw the net away. Therefore, they cut off the parts, such as the lead and the corks, and reuse them."
The lead and corks are also sometimes made at home.
A few years ago, Lali, together with her two children, rented a building on Guria Street in Poti and set up a small canteen there. Passers-by can try the fish on the spot. Sometimes she takes freshly caught fish from the fishermen, and sometimes she goes fishing herself.
"People faced so many problems when fishing was prohibited. They don't even fish anymore because the fines are huge, starting from 2000 lari. If people had that much money, they wouldn't go fishing at all. It's a life saver for people in Poti. That's how they feed their families. There is not much factory work and, besides, regardless of where they go to work–in the metallurgy or copper plants–they get lung disease. People are being destroyed. Two of them even died.
“And what do the women get from selling the fish? 50 tetri per kilogram? Or one lari, maybe. I, especially, don’t have any money left as I have to pay rent for this building. And there are even more taxes on entrepreneurs.”
Not even a year has passed since 24-year-old Ia started working at the Batumi Fish Market, in Adjara with her 18-year-old sister and her husband. She has to leave her young son with her mother. She says that it's an exhausting job. Some women have been selling fish at the market every day for 20-25 years.
"I've been working here for about 8-9 months. My relative suggested this business to me, saying there was a counter I could use. Soon I took up this business. I shout most of the time, enticing customers to buy fish. Then I weigh it, clean it and give it to them. I still have to invest my daily profit in fish. I buy fish with the money I get. I have a little money left every day, though. It's very exhausting. I have to get up at 7 in the morning. I don't have the strength anymore. Sometimes I don't even have the strength to eat. I suffer from physical and mental fatigue every day. I have a young child, and if I make something out of this business, it will be for him. I can't say that I have any other wishes or dreams. All my dreams are small."
Marina has been working in the fishing industry for 42 years. Together with about 50 other women working at the fish market, she interacts with tourists from different countries every day.
"I used to live in Surami and came to Batumi with my son. I met a young guy who told me that if I came to work on the coast, I would meet the boats, take fish and sell them. I can say that Batumi is like my birthplace. When I have to go somewhere and I return to Batumi, I have the feeling that I was born and raised here. All the customers who enter my place, whether they are Ukrainians, Russians, Uzbeks, or Tajiks, are like my family members. Empathy, connection and love are essential in our work.
The management allows free trading, so we are responsible for our working conditions. Also, we can decide when to take a break. If you work here, you're so busy that you cannot go anywhere else. There is no life beyond this. I have always been limited in when I can come and go.
It's necessary to put your heart into this work. Any inventory, stuffing, or fish collection should be in order. Fish is like a child to care for. It should be completely clean at all times, and you have to wash your hands every time you touch the fish. Also, you can't put many of them together as they may get squashed. If you do, they will soon become spoiled. I have so much experience that if I see fish being sold anywhere, in Tbilisi or elsewhere, I can immediately tell whether it's fresh or old. Fish need love. They need care."
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.