Fish For Sex - PhMuseum

Fish For Sex

Julia Gunther

2018

This series, made possible by a grant from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), looks at the skewed gender dynamics in the relationship between fishermen and female fish traders across southern Malawi, the reasons behind the so-called fish-for-sex trade, and its effects on those who engage in it.

A major driver of the AIDS crisis in Malawi, fish-for-sex refers to an ‘arrangement’ between female fish traders and fishermen, in which the traders engage in a short-or long term sexual relationship to get fish to sell on the market. Women receive more fish if they agree to have unprotected sex, and because both the fishermen and fish traders move around in search of lucrative fishing areas or markets, the probability of contracting HIV is high.

In many areas in Malawi, fish-for-sex is commonplace, although the manner in which it occurs often differs. Fishermen and fish traders, who almost only female, negotiate how many litres of fish should be traded for an hour or a night. The agreement can be between a fisherman and a sex worker, a fish trader, or a woman looking to buy fish for her own consumption. In some areas this happens out in the open, and in others they hide the trade. Sometimes sex is used as a direct payment, as a bonus, or a ‘fine’ for not repaying a loan.

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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  • Fisherman Peter (not his real name) stands on the front of an abandoned fishing boat, Chisi Island, Lake Chilwa, Malawi.

    Peter sells his fish on Chisi Island, and across the water at Mchenga. Most of his customers are female fish traders, who will buy from him and sell on his fish in one of the many local markets. Some of the traders will not have enough money to buy his fish and in that case, Peter will sleep with them. In return he gives them a pre-agreed amount of fish. If a woman agrees to have unprotected sex, Peter will give her more fish. He estimates that he has sex with more than half of his customers in this way.

  • Chambo hang from a gate, waiting to be taken home, Nkopola, Mangochi, Malawi.

    Chambo is Malawi’s most popular fish and a good source of protein. Once plentiful, it is now endangered, with stocks dangerously low due to overfishing.

  • Fisherman Mark (not his real name) stands next to an old fishing boat, with a chambo in each hand, Nkopola, Lake Malawi.

    Like many fishermen at Lake Malawi, Mark spends some of the money he earns from selling fish on sex workers. In many areas in Malawi, fish-for-sex is commonplace, although the manner in which it occurs often differs. Fishermen and fish traders, who are almost exclusively female, negotiate how many litres of fish should be traded for an hour or a night. The agreement can be between a fisherman and a sex worker, a fish trader, or a woman looking to buy fish for her own consumption. In some areas this happens out in the open, and in others the trade is hidden. Sometimes sex is used as a direct payment, as a bonus, or a ‘fine’ for failing to repay a loan. 

  • John (not his real name) uses a long flexible stick to manoeuvre his canoe, Elephant Marsh, Malawi.

    John is married, uses sex workers, and maintains several ‘relationships’ with women to whom he will give a basin of fish once in a while, in return for sex. He claims many of the female fish traders hide the fact that they have made profit after selling his catch. “I would much rather have my money. I think it is a betrayal. They force me into sex. As a man I have no option but to agree to sex.”

  • Fisherman Dominic stands in Lake Malawi.

    Dominic became a fisherman three years ago. He says he has never engaged in transactional sex but knows plenty of men who do. "My friends have said to me that I must do it. They force me to come with them and drink beer. Then they tell me I have to have sex with a woman there. But I do not do it."

  • Cynthia (not her real name) walks home with her one-year-old son, Chisi Island, Lake Chilwa, Malawi.

    Cynthia became a sex worker after both her parents died. She would see between five and ten clients a day, many of whom would demand unprotected sex for which they’d pay more. Some would pay with fish while others gave her money. Cynthia stopped her sex work after becoming pregnant, but plans to return once her son is two years old. Gathering firewood, her only other source of income, does not earn enough to feed her and her son.

  • Several boats make their way across the shallow waters of Lake Chilwa, Malawi.

    Lake Chilwa is a basin lake which forms when water run-off from the rainy season collects at a low point on the land. A large portion of Lake Chilwa dries out every year, and the fishing industry disappears along with it. Most fishermen will head to Lake Malawi where there is fishing year round.

  • Fishermen watch the sunset over Lake Malawi as they make their way to fishing grounds out on the open water, Lake Malawi, Malawi, 2018.

    Fishermen, many of whom can't swim, not only have to deal with the dangers of working on a volatile lake such as Lake Malawi, where storms often turn its calm waters into big waves. Since the arrival of fishing trawlers, stocks have been dwindling, and the men no longer catch what they used to.

  • Sex worker Martha (not her real name) leans against a wall in a room at Kaka’s Rest House, Nkopola, Mangochi, Malawi.

    Martha used to work on a construction site until the work became too physically demanding, and she became a sex worker two years ago. Martha accepts any kind of fish as payment, which she subsequently sells at a local market. On some days she will travel several hours away by minibus to sell her fish in Blantyre or Chiponde near the border with Mozambique. If she does not sell enough fish there, she has sex with a minibus driver to pay for her way back to Nkopola. Martha wants to quit sex work and leave Malawi. “I am saving money to go to South Africa. I just need the money for transport. I already have a passport.”

  • A fisherman smoothes over thousands of usipa, a small sardine-like fish which fill the bottom of his boat, which he and the rest of his crew will sell on the beach at Masaka, Lake Malawi, Malawi, 2018.


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