Poor Women in Mangochi Forced to Trade Sex for Fish

Along the shores of Lake Malawi, poverty and food shortages are chronic problems, due to declining fish catches in the lake. Women facing hunger, or trying to feed their families, sometimes resort to having sex with fishermen in order to get something to eat. 

Women carrying buckets each morning to buy fish at Lake Malawi is a common sight in the Makawa area.  

A less fortunate common sight is many of the women paying for the fish with sex. 

Cecelia Iman is secretary of the Village Beach Committee, responsible for taking care of lake resources in the area.

“[The practice] really happens here. Most fishermen came to the lake with a mission that they will find women right here. But the relationships do not last, they only bring problems to village women,” Iman said.

The women are lured into transactional sex when they don’t have enough money to buy fish, or when they accept an overture from fishermen, say local officials.

“For example, one can have MK 2,000 but want go to the lake to buy some fish and there, one fisherman offers her free fish. Taking into account that she didn’t eat last night together with her child, she would end up accepting the offer which would end into something,” Iman said.

The practice has brought a lot of misery to the women.

Iman says, “If the prevalence of HIV infection is increasing in our area, it is largely because of fishermen. Women are too desperate for fish. And also most of the fishermen are just impregnating the women then run away, leaving them struggle taking care of babies.”

Although transactional sex between women and fishermen in Lake Malawi is rampant, stigma and discrimination make it difficult to identify those involved.

One villager, Laika Atibu, said she can’t allow fishermen to seduce her with fish.

“I don’t allow that. I try my best to do some piece work to raise money to buy fish. Because I fear, if I do this, I can contract HIV. And If I contract HIV, who can feed my children because I am the only parent to take care of them,” Atibu explained.

Fishermen distance themselves from the matter.

Yalid Nkhoma says using fish as a lure is tantamount to abuse of women.

He says, “We don’t do that. If a woman doesn’t have enough money to buy fish, we don’t ask to do anything with her,” Nkhoma said.

Different research shows that sex for fish in Malawi is more common between December and March because it is a period when the country is hard-hit with food shortages.

To curb the problem, community leaders have introduced economic empowerment initiatives for women, including a loan program, to ensure they have their own sources of income and don’t have rely on the fishermen to stave off hunger.

Reporting by Lameck Masina for VOA