Sex For Fish

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With a furrowed brow, Elizabeth Masere faced the camera and told the story of her life matter-of-factly. She spoke of the tough job of trying to raise her six children by selling fish at the shores of Lake Victoria – East Africa’s largest lake. She told about the men who controlled fishing and who exploited women for sex. As hard as money was to come by, having it did not guarantee she would get the fish she needed to sell, Elizabeth said. To sell her their fish, the fishermen demanded not just money, but sex.

As the world marks World AIDS Day 2016, UNAIDS is calling for urgent action to help women and girls protect themselves from HIV. In its annual report, UNAIDS says that progress on HIV prevention among adults has stalled, and an estimated 2.1 million people were newly infected in 2015.

As Elizabeth’s story demonstrates, HIV is fueled by social ills such as inequality, poverty and discrimination. An individual’s vulnerability to these factors varies over the course of a lifetime. To defeat HIV, UNAIDS suggests a “life-cycle approach” – one that offers diverse prevention solutions for different people throughout their lifetime. Defeating HIV also calls for embracing a comprehensive approach that goes beyond medical prevention methods to address behavioral, cultural and structural factors that predispose people to HIV.

In Sirongo, the fishing village where Elizabeth lives, gender inequality and poverty are some of the most pressing challenges to achieving better HIV prevention.

Sex for Fish: Toward Gender Equality and Fewer HIV Infections

With help from community health volunteers, a group of women have organized themselves to become economically less dependent on men, in order to avoid the degrading practice called "Sex for Fish".

To talk to the people of Sirongo about HIV is to understand the utter devastation the disease has wrought on the community. Here a man died; over there a man and his wife. A few yards on, a man, his wife and child wiped away. Up the road, another family gone.

When Elizabeth’s parents died, she dropped out of school and started to fend for herself. She was 12. By 15, she had her first baby. Now 30, she is a single mother of six, living with HIV. She speaks passionately against the men who continue to exploit others for sex, but also about the few good men who are fighting alongside women against a disease that presents an existential crisis for her family and her community.

Sirongo is quiet: the kind of place where vehicles are rare, where livestock laze in the middle of the town’s dirt roads. The rhythms of life revolve around Omena – fish the size of the small finger. Amid that calm is the storm of HIV, which is intricately tied to fish trade.

On a recent morning, the breaking dawn revealed about two dozen wooden boats and their crews returned from a night of fishing. Men emptied the nets and the women drew near, vying for their stake. Some struck up conversations with the men, haggling over prices or cutting deals to work as day laborers. Others looked past, into the lake where oncoming lamplights told of more men and fish yet to arrive.

Scenes at Sirongo

Fish is currency. It is power. Men here use it to lure women and girls into transactional sex. The practice is known as Jaboya, loosely translated as “the man who casts the net.” To get fish, women here often have to have sex with a Jaboya.

Declining fish stocks and a practice of bartering fish for sex have created a toxic mix – perfect conditions to spread HIV. While Kenya has an average HIV prevalence of about 5 percent, Siaya County where Sirongo is situated logs about 24 percent. For fishing communities like Sirongo, the rate soars to 34 percent.

To counter this devastation, health partners came together with the community to develop a stronger community health system. The Kenya Red Cross and Sanne Landin Children Centre, supported by the Global Fund, recruited community health volunteers as the central pillar of their approach to fighting HIV in Sirongo. The community health volunteers are trained and deployed to support prevention and care programs for people affected by HIV. Having some of the fishermen join the effort as health volunteers is central to the strategy.

Peter Osinde, the community health volunteer in charge of the beach, is a man on a mission to reduce HIV infections. He engages both men and women regarding the dangers of the sex-for-fish practice. He provides condoms and health education. He monitors treatment as well as prevention of transmission of HIV from mothers to their children.

But Peter knows that ending the HIV epidemic here will take much more than that. It will take organizing communities to lift themselves up from poverty while challenging the age-old practice of Jaboya. He and other health volunteers have helped the community build support groups for people with HIV, which have morphed into collectives that not only discuss health matters, but also seek to empower women and men economically. They do not separate their physical and financial well-being.

Steps to Reducing HIV Infections

One such group brings together women and some men regularly to pool resources and loan money to individuals to help them invest in diverse economic activities. The group is led by a woman called Jane Adoya.

Jane Adoya, leader of the local HIV support group, keeps careful track of contributions and loans that allow members to set up their own businesses.

There is no better person to inspire the group to think about dreams of a bigger and brighter future than Jane herself. When she lost her husband in 2000, she joined a similar group with the hope that it would help her find a way to raise her children. Jane’s husband, also a fisherman in Sirongo, had died of HIV. That was at a time when HIV treatment in Sirongo and much of the world was still not available to most people. It was a time of gloom.

The group helped her save enough money to rent a boat, which would head out every morning with four men she would hire to fish for her. In a matter of years, she accumulated enough capital to buy her own boat at a cost of US$1,000. That set her on a path to securing freedom from relying on fish from the men.

On a recent morning, as Jane’s boat docked at Sirongo, she spoke of how far she has come, and how no man now dares to proposition her for transactional sex. She now sends men to fish for her on her own boat.

Through a loan scheme set up with support from local community health workers, Jane saved enough money to buy her own fishing boat. She now generates income by renting out her boat to fishermen.

Every morning, she makes that walk of freedom from her squeaky clean, one-room house atop the hill down to the lakeside to oversee the men haul her own fish to the shore. She then sells to other women – of course with no strings attached.

Published 01 December 2016