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Upending the sex-for-fish economy in Kenya

Dwindling fish stocks in Lake Victoria and predatory fishermen conspired to ensnare local women. Fish farms have helped change that.

On the shores of Lake Victoria in southwestern Kenya, wooden fishing boats compete for space. Here, the practice of jaboya, or sex for fish, has entrapped local women who depend on fish as a source of income.Tonny Onyulo

SUBA, Kenya —

In a small fishing village in Suba, a region of southwestern Kenya, women have for decades bought the fish they sell at the local market from fishermen along the shores of nearby Lake Victoria.

They have had to pay with sex.

This practice, locally known as jaboya (“sex for fish”), has resulted in a surge of HIV infections in this fishing community and others in the region. But the women say they had no choice.

“Getting fish to sell at the market without sleeping with fishermen was impossible — fishermen were only selling fish to women who would have sex with them,” Seline Achieng, 38, told me. She says she started having sex with fishermen when she became a fishmonger five years ago — a move she made to be able to feed her three children after she was widowed. But thanks to a new program, she and other female fishmongers in the region have been able to avoid jaboya.

Fishing is the main economic activity in this impoverished region. However, overfishing has been threatening the livelihoods of residents here, especially widows and other single mothers. The fish stocks have been dwindling at an unsustainable rate, local officials and residents say.

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A decade ago, a local restaurateur, Dennis Odhiambo, was dismayed by the sex-for-fish trade, recalling how 30 fishermen would line up to have unprotected sex with one woman in exchange for a fish basket containing around 20 fish. The high rates of HIV in Suba and the surrounding regions left thousands of women without husbands, and children without parents. Worried that the problem was worsening, Odhiambo had an idea that would change the landscape: cage fish farming. “The project aimed to reduce HIV rates in our region by empowering women and ensuring there is enough fish despite the dwindling fish stocks in Lake Victoria,” says Odhiambo.

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In Odhiambo’s method, fish are cultivated and fed in large bodies of water while enclosed in a metal net cages that are roughly 100 square feet and hold up to 5,000 fingerlings each. The fish are harvested after six months, Odhiambo says.

He set up his first cage fish farm in 2016 with earnings from his restaurant business. Soon after, he began enticing locals and investors to venture into the practice. These days, Odhiambo owns 30 fish cages and employs dozens to help with the farming. He is also a director of the Women in Fishing Industry Community Based Organization. In the past six years, the cage fish farming community has grown to include dozens of farmers with hundreds of cages in Suba and in other areas of western Kenya.

A fisherman feeds his caged stock on Lake Victoria.Tonny Onyulo

The proliferation of such farms has produced change that goes far beyond replenishing fish stocks. Buyers, mainly women, are no longer obliged to scramble for the meager catch from the lake — trading their dignity and risking their health in the process.

“Cage fish farms have really helped women here,” Achieng told me. “We buy fish from cage owners at an affordable price, and we are happy about that.”

More to the point, she added, “These days, we are safe. We don’t sell our bodies to fishermen to get fish.”

Ending jaboya has sparked other empowerment initiatives in the region. Around Lake Victoria, for example, several local and international NGOs have donated boats to womens’ groups so that the women can fish for themselves and not rely on fishermen.

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The National AIDS Control Council reported in 2018 — the latest statistics available — that HIV prevalence declined from 26 percent in 2015 to 20.7 percent in Homa Bay County, which encompasses the villages of Suba. A similar drop has taken place in other areas around Lake Victoria.

“We are giving women options so that they don’t entirely depend on fishermen to earn an income,” says Odhiambo. “We are encouraging them also to own boats and be managers. Others are being encouraged to start other businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores, shops, and general-merchandise stores.”

Not everyone has welcomed the changes. Fredrick Onyango, who owns dozens of cages in nearby Kisumu, says he and other cage fish farmers face opposition from the traditional fishermen.

“The fishermen are fighting back by stealing our cages and fish — they don’t want to let the women go,” he says. “They want to continue transacting sex for fish, and the only way to do that is to ensure there are no fish cages. The fishermen know that fish stocks have increased and women no longer depend on them.”

Tonny Onyulo is a journalist based in Nairobi. Follow him on Twitter @tonnyonyulo.