Lake Victoria borders- Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and this expansive water body stretches into the horizon. It’s known in Kenya as Nam Lolwe (“Body of endless love”) and in Uganda as Nnalubaale (Home of Gods). It’s a haven for wildlife including a spectacular array of birdlife and wetland animals.
The majority of the fish that is fished are tilapia, Nile perch and omena. They are a good source of healthy food. Fishing provides an employment opportunity to the fishermen, fish raders and other people involved in the supply chain such as sellers of petrol for boat engines, or sellers of nets, thus uplifting their economic livelihood, providing the expected taxes, and also earning foreign reserves through exports. Mostly, fishing is done at night with wooden boats and fishing nets, with the boats being manned by at least 4 men who are employed by the boat owner. The fishermen spend most of their nights on the lake and sleep during the day after selling their fish.
Like in any other fishing communities, the Lake Victoria fish business is divided by gender. Men own the boats and they go fishing, while women buy fish from them to sell at the market. In recent years, the lake’s fish population began dwindling because of overfishing, using the wrong fishing gear, as well as environmental challenges like sewage and agricultural runoff in the lake, under the watchful eye of Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO).
With the decline in the number of fish, the situation led to the fishermen taking advantage and demanding sex on promise for steady fish supply to the ladies who accept. Usually, the women have no option but to accept since that is their only livelihood. This gave birth to the practice of bartering fish for sex creating a perfect condition for the spread of HIV/AIDs. This has become an enormous public health problem that governments have been wrestling with and informs why there is a high rate of HIV prevalence amongst fishing communities, going as high as 7.7% based on Kenya Ministry of Health HIV Estimates report of 2018.
For many women, the survival of their family depends on getting fish to sell and they have little choice but to engage in sex work in order to buy them as this is a controlled market where one cannot just go and buy. Fishermen get the fish and they sell to whoever they want through their middlemen. Usually, fishermen travel from one beach to the other and have different sex partners at each location. This precarious life faced by female fish sellers is caused by the lack of economic opportunities rendering the women fish traders powerless to stop the practice.
Traders Speak Out Lucy Nerima, (not her real name) 28 years, a widow and a mother of 3 children, prepares her purchases for the market by removing the scales and innards of the fish. She says: “I’m sometimes forced to pay for the fish with sex because I have no other means. Life has become hard and even the fish is very rare, demand is high so anything the fisherman says I do because I want the fish. I usually sleep with one or two fishermen in a week.”
Everline Akinyi, a 33-year-old mother with 2 children, says due to the tough competition and low supply, and thus high demand to secure access to the limited fish, sex for fish is like a bridge between her and the fish. She says it’s a common practice though people are not ready to talk about it openly. In exchange for fish, female traders are given priority to buy fish and those who are not ready for it will have to wait and hope for any surplus in order to get their fish.
Brenda Nabwire, a 56-year-old woman with 4 children, narrates how she goes to the lake with her daughter so that she can learn the trade and help her. But due to her old age, she trades the daughter because she is still young and thus the preference of the fishermen. This has been the norm though she feels devastated because the life of her daughter is at risk.
Fishermen Speak Out Felix Agunda, a 35-year-old fisherman, is married with children but still sleeps with women in return for his fish. He says, sometimes a female fish trader may want fish worth 4,000 Kenyan Shillings but she pays 2,500 in cash and is compelled to have sex with the fisherman as payment for the remaining balance of 1,500 since she cannot afford to pay. “This is something that has been ongoing since I started fishing. Sometimes we have sex for fish multiple times in different fishing beaches,” he said.
These are our mothers, our sisters and our daughters, and we are calling for an urgent action to protect them from this devastation, that is fueled by social ills such as inequality, poverty and discrimination. Fish is currency. It is power. Men use it here to lure women and girls into transactional sex. Let’s rise against this age-old practice of Sex for Fish.