No Sex For Fish: How Women In A Fishing Village Are Fighting For Power

A tall woman with a strong gaze is standing by the shores of Lake Victoria. It’s a busy morning. Boats are coming in full of fish: Nile perch, catfish, tiny silvery fish called omena — aka the Lake Victoria sardine.

She has her eye on one boat in particular. Like the others, it’s made of wood. It’s about 30 feet long. And it has a majestic white sail.

“That is the first boat which we started with for No Sex For Fish,” she says.

The woman is Justine Adhiambo Obura. She’s a big presence — full of energy and righteous indignation — in the village of Nduru Beach, population about 1,000. Wearing bold prints and colors, she strides along the beach as if she owns it.

Justine’s life didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped. She once dreamed of being a doctor but dropped out of high school after she became pregnant. She has nine children, one of whom has developmental disabilities, and nine grandchildren. She has been a paid community health worker, counseling people who are HIV-positive. She’s on the board of the local hospital. She owns some cows, chickens and goats.

And since 2011, she has been the head of the women’s cooperative No Sex For Fish.

It’s a bold name. A revolutionary name. A name that tells you what Justine, now 61, and other women in the village have been fighting for years to change.

Along Lake Victoria, the fish business is divided by gender. Men own boats and go fishing. Women buy fish from them to sell at the market.

The lake’s fish population began dwindling in the 1970s because of overfishing and environmental problems — sewage and agricultural runoff in the lake, for example.

Fishermen weren’t catching enough to supply all the women fishmongers.

So the fishermen started offering a quid pro quo: Give me sex, and I’ll make sure you get fish to sell.

In the local language, Luo, the practice is called jaboya. Boya is the word for the plastic floater attached to the edge of a net. Ja means “mine.” The term is also used as a nickname for the fisherman who is part of the exchange.

For many women, the survival of their family depends on getting fish to sell. So they felt there was no choice but to engage in jaboya.

“I give my jaboya a plastic bag. He goes to the lake; when he comes out with the fish, that fish is mine,” says Milka Onyango, a 40-year-old mother of six who is very open about the practice.

“I exchange sex; I get fish,” she says. “I don’t care about getting HIV. Me, I need fish. I need earning to sustain my family.”

She points to a young fisherman: “He’s my jaboya.”

For the women and men who are part of the jaboya network, the risk of contracting HIV is high. Fishermen typically travel from village to village and may have different sex partners at each location. The men may or may not know their HIV status. They do not like to use condoms, the women say.

The result is that the fishing communities of Kenya have a high rate of HIV prevalence — 30% to 40%. That’s an enormous public health problem that the government is wrestling with.

Because of the lack of economic opportunities in small fishing villages, the women fish traders have been powerless to stop the practice. And so they find themselves in a situation familiar to women around the world.

“There’s a spectrum of men having access to resources and power, and women doing what they need to do to get these resources, to move their careers, to feed their family,” says Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who’s on the staff of the school’s Center on Gender Equity and Health. She does research on transactional sex and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

The spectrum is quite broad. In the U.S., she says, it may mean smiling at your boss and “putting up with more nonsense than we want.”

But in many places far from the shores of Lake Victoria, it can also mean a sexual encounter.

No Sex For Fish is born

Justine has always been outspoken in her opposition to jaboya. She remembers when she first started selling fish and a young fisherman said to her, “I don’t want your money. You are so cute. What I want is just your body. ”

She was embarrassed — and infuriated: “I said, ‘You are very stupid. How can you tell me that!’ ”

Justine was eager to see a change. But what kind of change? And how to make it happen?

Then came a momentous conversation with Dominik Mucklow, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed near Nduru Beach back in 2010.

Working with a local nonprofit called VIRED, the Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development, Mucklow periodically visited Nduru Beach and met the women there. One day, they all began talking about jaboya — how it worked, how much they hated it, how they wanted to stop it.

Mucklow asked if they had any solutions.

And then it came to them: What if they owned their own boats? And hired the fishermen to work for them?

It was a mind-bending proposition.

“You know, our culture does not allow women to have boats,” Justine says. They can’t even set foot in a boat.

And now the women of Nduru Beach had this brainstorm. “The seed just came from [us],” Justine remembers. “We were like sleeping, and Dominik waked us up!”

The women were excited — but uncertain how to proceed. Mucklow told them he’d come up with a plan to get funds to, as Justine puts it, “empower women to come out from this selling sex for fish.”

He was true to his word. He secured a grant from the U.S. government’s largest foreign HIV program, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

PEPFAR paid for the first round of five boats. A charity called World Connect issued three subsequent grants. All in all, nine villages got boats — around 30 in total. They got nets as well. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Geilhufe, helped provide business training.

The women also got turquoise T-shirts that state their cooperative’s name (and raison d’être) in Luo and in English: “NO SEX FOR FISH.”

For the women who got boats, the moment was transformational.

Naomy Akoth, a widowed mother of eight, used to practice jaboya to obtain fish to sell. She contracted AIDS from one of her sexual encounters. “I had some suicidal thoughts in my mind,” she says. “I thought of taking rat poison and of taking my life away.”

Her oldest daughter helped her through this awful time. Then, through No Sex For Fish, Naomy got her own boat.

“I was very, very happy because my life changed,” she says. “Even my children were happy because I was owning a boat.” She and other members of the cooperative were making more money than before.

There was another benefit as well. Even some women who didn’t own boats were freed from jaboya: They could buy fish from the boat-owning women.

One might imagine that the men in the community — the men who own boats and who fish — would not welcome female competition. And there was opposition at first. “No, they didn’t like it,” Justine says.

But she insists that views have changed: “They are seeing you can put food on the table; you can pay 100 or 200 shillings to put their kids in school. Now they are saying it’s good for women to get empowered.”

And that’s what a number of the men in the village told us.

They said that they are glad the women own boats and that they don’t like the idea of women engaging in transactional sex to secure fish. They said that they don’t want their mothers, their sisters, their wives or their daughters caught up in this practice.

What’s more, more boats mean more jobs for fishermen.

“Justine is a good boss,” says one fisherman who works for her. “She encourages you.” If a fishing expedition doesn’t yield a lot of fish, he says, “she just tells you good luck next time.”

But not every man is convinced. Brightone Otien, who’s 19, says he worries that “the women will come and take the fish.”

Meanwhile, he himself admits that he does jaboya — he’ll find a quiet place by the beach to have sex with a woman before giving her a supply of fish.

When Justine hears Brightone talking about jaboya, she is not happy. She squares her shoulders and delivers a mini-lecture to the strapping teen: “By having so many sexual partners, he will endanger his life. He’s just practicing sex, sex, sex. He will get an infection, and where will his life be?”

Brightone takes it all in and says, “I really congratulate her for the good advice.” It is not clear, though, if her words had an impact.

On the rocks

In 2019, the No Sex For Fish project has run into obstacles.

There weren’t a lot of boats to start with. And over the years, some of them broke down. They sprang leaks. They had to be grounded.

By Justine’s estimation, today about six boats are still able to go out on the lake — three of them at Nduru Beach and the remainder at neighboring villages.

Buying a new boat requires cash — the equivalent of about $1,000 for a sailboat and $1,500 for a boat with a motor that could go deeper into the lake, where fish are more plentiful (the motorboat idea came from the women in the cooperative).

Even for a longtime fisherman, that’s a lot of money. One fisherman told us he recently had to sell a cow to buy a new boat.

The women whose boats are out of commission do not have the savings or resources to buy new boats. Many of them are widows.

The women who used to earn a living from the fish brought in on their boats now have to cobble together money through other means — selling vegetables they grow, cleaning fish on the beach, relying on a goat or a cow for milk or sending it to slaughter if need be.

When her boat was grounded, Naomy had this reaction: “I was very discouraged. Because the money I was getting from the boat I was using to pay for my firstborn’s school fees. And when [the boat] fell apart, my heart was broken, and I felt low.”

Rebbeccah Atieno, 35, is another boat owner whose boat was grounded. She’s a widow, raising six children. Asked if she thinks she’ll get another boat, she says quietly, “I have no hope.”

What went awry?

How did this project, which held so much promise, come to falter?

There are lots of theories. The women say the initial boats they received were well made. They blame VIRED for the problems — that’s the local nonprofit group that administered the money from the first several grants. The women say that VIRED commissioned inferior boats in subsequent years. “Yeah, the timber which was used to make those boats were not quality — in fact the lowest one,” says Justine.

Dan Abuto, a field officer at VIRED, disagrees. He says the women helped select the wood. And he suspects that they used the boats in ways that put too much strain on their frames, like hauling sand.

But there is a bigger question to ponder: Perhaps giving boats to a small number of women is not the most effective way to stop jaboya and reduce HIV transmission.

The women optimistically claim that the boats did bring down the rates of jaboya. It is hard to imagine otherwise when some of the women boat owners interviewed by NPR said yes, they had done jaboya — but now they’ve stopped.

But there has been no careful collection of data by an objective source.

Some Kenyan health officials wonder if the various beach councils could come up with a simple solution: Assign each woman fishmonger to a specific boat and require that the boat sell fish to her with no jaboya as part of the transaction, suggests Zachary Kwena of the Kenya Medical Research Institute. He does research on strategies to reduce the rate of HIV.

Such a municipal ruling might be hard to enforce, says Patrick Higdon of World Connect, which issued three of the grants for boats.

As for reducing HIV rates in Kenya’s fishing communities, it’s not clear how much of an impact a small number of boats can make. Public health programs might be more effective.

For example, just getting people to know their HIV status and take antiretroviral medications if they are HIV-positive could help control the spread of the virus, says Kwena. But there’s a lot of stigma around testing. “Some men don’t want to know their status,” he says.

The Health Ministry is running programs to find ways to promote testing among men. Like offering a reward: “a coupon for something that will be helpful in fishing work,” Kwena says. Or a competition where everyone who’s tested is eligible to win a reward such as a bicycle, radio or phone. “So people come,” he says.

And in some clinics, a patient who comes in for a health problem, like hypertension or malaria, is given an HIV test as a matter of routine.

Meanwhile, no one thinks it’ll be easy to convince fishermen that HIV is a looming threat and that the combination of jaboya and unprotected sex puts them at risk. These men go out on a lake where storms swell up and crocodiles lurk and an angry hippo could snap you in two in its jaws. The potential danger of an invisible disease may not seem all that real, says Kwena.

Unafraid to hope

The women of No Sex For Fish are convinced that boats are their way to a better future.

Justine and another villager, Mark Adede, who keeps all the financial records for the collective, have just submitted a grant asking for funds to buy 10 new boats and nets to keep No Sex For Fish going.

World Connect will consider the new grant application. The charity plans to do on-the-ground research to see what worked and what went wrong with the boats.

If the charity decides to offer another grant, the money will go directly to the No Sex For Fish cooperative, with no middleman like VIRED handling the money. That’s the way its third grant was arranged, and it’s the way World Connect prefers to work — directly with local people with no intermediaries.

Reflecting on the project’s short history, Higdon of World Connect says, “The ups and downs are not at all surprising.” Things can seem “very messy” with programs at the local level, he says.

“Whatever happens, we really believe in these women and the work they’re doing to help control HIV — and to help women fishmongers be more economically independent,” says Higdon. “They’ve got a really impressive commitment to a difficult problem. It’s an uphill climb. And that inspires me — that they felt courageous enough to take that on.”

Fielding-Miller, of the Center on Gender Equity and Health, agrees with his assessment. “Ten boats seems minuscule in the short run,” she says. But in the long run, the boats are part of a campaign to attack the root causes of the HIV epidemic along Lake Victoria, where the most marginalized women — poor women, single moms, widows — are at the highest risk of infection.

If one woman, as a result of owning a boat, is earning more income and not doing jaboya and has a better life — then “Done! Success! Worth it!” she says.

There are, she says, other potential benefits of No Sex For Fish.

“There are little girls looking at Justine and saying, ‘I can do it that way,’ ” says Fielding-Miller. “That’s incredibly important — to have a role model doing something a totally different way. It resonates across generations.”

As for Justine, she believes that the project will keep going.

But she was taken aback when we told her that Rebbeccah, whose boat was grounded, says she has “no hope” of getting a new boat.

With a look of frustration and determination, Justine stands tall in the living room of her home. Its mud walls are decorated with lace hangings, photos of family members and a framed certificate declaring her the “Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014” in Kisumu County.

Rebbeccah “must have hope,” Justine declares. “When you have hope, you can get.”

The proof, to her, is the simple wooden boat she owns with the words “No Sex For Fish” painted on the bow.

Viola Kosome and Maxwel Otieno Kaudo contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.