Rumphi, Malawi: For three consecutive days in October 2018, Catherine (real name withheld) went to a fishing camp in Luwuchi community on the shores of Lake Malawi to buy fish known locally as usipa.
On each occasion, the widowed mother of three returned empty-handed because the fishermen she approached all wanted sex in exchange, not money.
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“I always refused but then life was becoming very hard for me and my children [and] I was in desperate need of making sales since the [fish-selling] business was my only source of income,” Catherine, now 44, told Al Jazeera. “The next day, I went back to the beach and when the first fisherman demanded sex in exchange for usipa, I had to comply.”
According to the Malawian government’s 2021 annual economic report, the fisheries sector, which employs more than 50,000 people, contributed at least 4 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In recent years, the fish population has been declining largely because of overfishing and climate change, experts say.
That decline has become a key driver for transactional sex across Malawi’s lakeshore districts – where fishing is a way of life and means of income – especially in markets where many buyers are impoverished women, said Fanuel Kapute, professor of fisheries and aquatic science at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi.
“The practice is worse during the lean season around November and December,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is when the catches of usipa are significantly low, and competition is high.”
Frank Nkhani, a fisherman since 2012, claims to have never engaged in transactional sex but admits that he knows many fishermen in Luwuchi who do. He alleged that some women also offer themselves to the fishermen. “Some do not have the money at all so they just say they will pay through sex to get the fish,” he said.
Due to the clandestine nature of the practice, it is challenging to determine the exact number of fishermen and fish vendors who engage in transactional sex because many cases go unreported.
But the sex-for-fish practice has put many of the participants at risk of HIV/AIDS, said Othaniel Duwe, a fisheries extension worker in the department of fisheries in Rumphi district.
“Many fishers migrate from one fishing camp to the next, if they have the virus, they can bring it into a community or they can be infected during their travels,” he said.
Sex for fish
Catherine had dreams of becoming a teacher, but life took a different turn. She dropped out of secondary school when she became pregnant with her first child at 21. Two years later, she began the fish-selling business, she told Al Jazeera.
In 2017, her husband, a clinical officer, died from malaria, leaving Catherine as her family’s sole breadwinner. With no other source of income, she felt helpless.
“When I didn’t make any sales or buy fish from the fishermen [then], my husband would take care of us,” she said. “[After he died,] I could not stop selling fish because it was the only way I could make money.”
In 2018, she began engaging in transactional sex with several men just to access fish more easily and sometimes buy at a lower price.
That ended last year when a woman in Luwuchi named Kate Mwafulirwa introduced her to a women’s cooperative called Titukulane, which means “uplift each other” in the Chichewa language.
Mwafulirwa, 58, leads the 30-person cooperative which began last year. Like Catherine, she is her family’s sole provider, but for an elderly husband and seven children. Mwafulirwa started her fish-selling business in the 1980s, a time when sex for fish trade was not prevalent as it is today, she said.
Despite her refusal to partake in the practice, even at her age, Mwafulirwa sometimes still faces demands from young fishermen seeking sexual favours in exchange for fish. These requests have been “very embarrassing and very demeaning”, she told Al Jazeera.
‘One huge family’
The cooperative was established through a project funded by USAID and implemented in partnership with several organisations, including Find Your Feet, an international nonprofit, working in rural areas.
Titukulane’s goal is to empower women to run small businesses and diversify their sources of income.
“One way to combat the practice is to encourage women not to solely rely on fish,” said Mwafulirwa.
The cooperative members have divided the responsibilities among themselves, with some selling vegetables and fruits, and others selling maize, rice, soya beans, chickens, and potatoes. They share the proceeds and have even established a village bank managed by Mwafulirwa.
The cooperative meets twice a month to discuss financial management, and savings culture, as well as a rotation of which members go to the beach to buy fish.
Instead of buying fish individually, the women now go in groups of three or four, enhancing their bargaining power and making it harder for fishermen to make sexual advances on them, said Mwafulirwa.
She hopes to reach out to more women in the village to join them – and find a better life. On top of selling fish, Catherine for instance, now earns more from selling fruits and soya beans.
“I feel like I’m part of one huge family, we support one another,” she said. “The group is surely transforming lives slowly.”
So far, the project has established 33 women cooperatives in all lakeshore districts in the country.
“Apart from economic empowerment, we also want these women to be aware that sex for fish is exploitation, and they must rise up against it,” Sain Muskambo, programme manager for Find Your Feet, told Al Jazeera.
Malawi has a Gender Equality Act that prohibits sexual harassment with a penalty of 1 million kwacha (approximately $974) and a five-year jail term. But it has barely been enforced and information about it is hardly disseminated in rural areas.
In 2016, the Malawi government approved the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy, to regulate activities in the sector.
However, Friday Njaya, a director at Malawi’s Department of Fisheries, admits that the policy does not adequately consider gender as the authorities responsible for fisheries at the community level, the Beach Village Committees, are still mostly led by men.
“Women in fishing still have inferior roles, further leaving them prone to gender-based violence including sex for fish,” he said.
To fix the gap, Njaya says the department is now collaborating on projects with various NGOs, encouraging women to join more cooperatives like Titukulane.
“We are also working with district councils to come up with by-laws which include banning the selling of fish in the floating shelters on the lake and at the beach. We want to upgrade the value chain by constructing market shades so that women can go buy fish there and not at the beach where they are susceptible to transactional sex,” he said.
Kapute emphasised that women groups like Titukulane may help, but advocated for a change in mindsets too.
“It appears to me that this practice is a mindset change thing other than material although the latter plays a role sometimes,” he said. “I say this because there are some cases where you would find some women with good capital but still indulging in this practice.”
For Catherine, that life is now behind her.
She is grateful to not have contracted any diseases, even though she remains mentally scarred from engaging in transactional sex. “I am just lucky … most of these people [fishermen] like unprotected sex. They don’t care. I am ashamed.”
“I try to move on but memories still haunt me, and to know that there are still many women who are still stuck in this practice, it breaks my heart,” she said. “I hate it. I just want it to stop.”