No Sex For Fish

Julia Gunther


As in many places around the world, the fishing industry along Lake Victoria is divided by gender. Men, only, do the fishing as they own the boats. Women buy fish from the fishermen to sell at markets or in the cities.

This skewed power dynamic has resulted in ‘jaboya’: the practice of trading sex for fish. The fishermen control the supply, and the women, mostly widowed or unmarried, depend on the fish for survival. The resulting ‘trade’ not only drives a high rate of HIV prevalence in local communities, but the lack of economic opportunities in the region means the women fish traders cannot stop it from happening. The declining fish numbers in the lake only add to the reduction of bargaining power that the women have.

But on Nduru Beach, in 2010, one group of women tried and stop ‘jaboya’. They called themselves ‘No-Sex-For-Fish’. Working together with local and international aid organisations, the women bought their own boats, allowing them to control the supply of fish, and making the need for ‘jaboya’ redundant. Not only were the women who owned the boats now able to make a living, they also sold fish to other women traders who no longer had to engage in transactional sex.

Recently, however, the group has been struggling. When I photographed ‘No-Sex-For-Fish’ in November 2019, several of the boats were leaking, and outboard motors had disappeared. Yet despite their financial troubles, the women believe in what they are doing. While they wait for their grant application for extra funding, they continue to educate their communities about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

This series, shot for NPR with Rebecca Davis and Marc Silver, directly resulted from a story that writer Nick Schönfeld and I did in 2018 on the transactional sex trade in Malawi’s inland fisheries.

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  • Justine Adhiambo Obura, chairwoman of the No Sex Fish cooperative, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Every morning, women of Nduru Beach head to the shore of Lake Victoria to purchase fish from boats that have been out most of the night, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • In her "No Sex For Fish" T-shirt, Justine Adhiambo Obura joins other traders who take fish from the day's catch to sell at the market, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Fishing nets lay out to dry, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • A sample of fish caught in Lake Victoria. Since the 1970s, the fish stock has diminished because of overfishing and pollutants in the water, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Like many women in Nduru Beach, Milka Onyango earns money to support her family by cleaning and selling fish, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Fishing nets need constant repair and are expensive to replace. After a fishing expedition, the crew lays its nets out on the shore to dry, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Lorine Abuto has one of the few No Sex For Fish boats that are still functioning in Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Naomy Akoth, a widowed mother of eight, got her own boat through the No Sex For Fish project, but after a couple of years it was grounded. "My heart was broken, and I felt low," says Naomy, who now buys fish that she fries and sells at the market, Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Naomy Akoth with two of her children at home. When her boat was grounded, she says, "I was very discouraged. Because the money I was getting ... I was using to pay for my firstborn's school fees", Nduru Beach, Kenya, 2019.

  • Justine Adhiambo Obura in her living room at Nduru Beach. A framed certificate naming her "Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014" hangs on the wall.

  • Six of the women from the No Sex For Fish cooperative: from left, Rebbeccah Atieno, Alice Akinyi, Lorine Otieno Abuto, Justine Adhiambo Obura, Rose Atieno Abongo and Naomy Akoth. Even though some of their boats are now grounded, they are part of the pioneering effort to, as Justine puts it, "empower women to come out from this selling sex for fish."