Malawi female fish traders mobilise against transactional sex

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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.

“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, associate 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 said.

“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.

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”.