As in many places around the world, the role of women in fishing industries in Timor-Leste goes largely unrecognized. Yet they make up almost half the global workforce, typically contributing to small-scale operations considered far more sustainable than commercial fishing. To provide for their families, the women of Atauro have taken to the sea.
Steeped in strict religious traditions and social norms, Atauro has not always accepted women participating in community fishing. But when your island is too dry to grow much food and has very little freshwater for farming, defined gender roles relax over time. Everyone has to pull together to survive. As islanders, they naturally turn to the ocean for their bread basket. And while in the past men went out to sea and women stayed on land, the community on Atauro has now broken away from this narrative.
From a young age, girls fish alongside their mothers, bundles of nets, lines, and hooks spilling out of their arms. What makes Atauro unique is that the women, especially those who are not married or who do not have the means to own a boat, have organized themselves as a unit, teaching each other to freedive and engaging in collective resource management. Routinely going out to the reef to fish all together, they decided on a name for themselves: Wawata Topu meaning “women divers” in the Rasua dialect, or “mermaids of Atauro Island.”