NYANZA, Kenya– Achieng, a 35 year-old widow and mother of six, lives in the western Kenyan province of Nyanza on the shore of Lake Victoria. She works in the fish trade and in order to support her family, she’s been forced to make some brutal choices. Like too many women involved in the local fish trade, Achieng resorts to having sex with fishermen to secure the best catch of the day.
“When you are a woman and you want to get into the business of selling fish, you must be ready to lose your pride and use your body for bargaining,” she told reporters.
It is a system called ‘jaboya’ in the local Luo language. Achieng further explained the practice by saying it is “being ready to give sex as and when it is needed by the fishermen… It guarantees your survival here on the beach.”
Jaboya has for a number of years been associated with high levels of HIV infection. In Nyanza province, the rate of infection is around 15% — double the national average.
Within fishing communities, the rate is even higher — estimated at around a shocking 30%.
And yet, even with this knowledge, the practice rages on, poverty driving women to do the unthinkable. Achieng again sheds light, “You know you can get HIV… but then you remember you have a family that needs to be provided for, and you say, let me die providing for them.”
Aware of the deadly practice, local and international development groups are working to combat jaboya. Since 2011, Peace Corps volunteers have worked to empower women financially in the “No Sex for Fish” project. Teaming up with Kenyan businesses and U.S. government partners, the volunteers have acquired boats for women in the fish trade and helped them cultivate their own fishing business.
According to Okeyo Owuor, director of the Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development, this empowerment of women is the key to eradicating the deadly fish-for-trade sex: “These women need fish but they don’t own any boat. This means they have to play along with whoever has the boat and these are men who will demand for sex before giving any fish. But when you empower them to own the boat, then they have the ultimate power to say no to sexual demands.”
Happily, one of the Peace Corps volunteers reports that the No Sex for Fish project “has been very well received by the community” commenting that “both the district commissioner and district officer have been advocates and supporters on behalf of the project.”
Thus there is hope for the approximately 27,000 women who are directly or indirectly involved in the fish trade.
One of the beneficiaries of the project, Millicent Onyango, confirms: “When you have nothing, those who have something must tell you to bend over backwards for them. Now we have boats and we will no longer be at anybody’s mercy.”
– Kelley Calkins