Young girls the new bait for fishermen

Dunga Beach, along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya's western city of Kisumu, erupts into activity when the boats bring in their catch. Female fishmongers scramble along the beach to buy fish, shouting themselves hoarse to get the attention of the fishermen and middlemen, who control whether or not the women will have anything to sell that day.

Mingling with the jostling fishmongers is 19-year-old Lillian Onoka; stylishly dressed and with neatly plaited hair, she is easily noticed. "I do not sell fish but my aunt does, and she brings me along with her. I just help her get the fish without her having to scramble," Onoka told IRIN/PlusNews.

Her aunt brings her as an inducement to the fishermen to hand over the best of their catch. Onoka says she is not tied to one fisherman, but will sleep with whoever offers the best deal on any given day.

This trend is a new take on an old system, known as 'jaboya' (a customer who is also a lover, in the local Luo language), in which female fishmongers develop sexual relationships with fishermen and middlemen in exchange for fish.

Fishing is the economic mainstay of this community, and jaboya the only way for fish traders to make a living. Stiff competition for a catch that is often less than plentiful means offering their own bodies is no longer enough, so desperate traders have now resorted to making available their younger, more nubile relatives - many of them under 18 years of age - to ensure they have an edge.

"Most of them [fishmongers] give us money and we are able to dress well and take care of ourselves," Onoka said. She was orphaned when both her parents died from HIV-related illnesses, dropped out of school and left her village to live with her aunt in Kisumu, capital of Nyanza Province.

''I would rather have sex with the young girls they bring to us rather than have sex with my mother's age-mates''

Kennedy Omondi, 28, has been a fisherman since he was 17, when he dropped out of high school to help his father run his fleet of 10 fishing boats. After his father's death, he took over the management of the business, making him relatively affluent in this community. Although married with two children, he told IRIN/PlusNews he regularly has sex with young girls in exchange for fish.

"I would rather have sex with the young girls they bring to us than have sex with my mother's age-mates," he said. Omondi is not conscientious about using condoms; he will use a condom if a girl brings one along, but if she doesn't, he will have unprotected sex.

The updated version of the jaboya system puts a new generation in the crosshairs of the pandemic, local health workers say. Nyanza Province has an HIV prevalence of 15.3 percent, the country's highest. According to statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, prevalence among Kenyan fisher folk reached 30.5 percent in 2006.

"These young girls are lured into this kind of business to make quick money to fit into urban life," Dr Charles Okal, acting provincial medical officer for Nyanza Province, told IRIN/PlusNews.

Okal said the main cause of the new trend was increased poverty, and the government was planning to start HIV/AIDS programmes with local youth groups to target young girls involved in the sex-for-fish trade.

A local NGO, the Dunga Fishermen and Women Association, is also working to end the dangerous sexual practices that have become so acceptable in the fishing community.

"We have lost many of our people to HIV and it is sad to see many of us engage in such risky sexual behaviours," said Sabina Achieng, an official of the NGO who is also a fish trader. "It is true that these things happen - we are now partnering with other like-minded organisations to create awareness."

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The group is working with another local NGO, OSIENALA (Friends of Lake Victoria) and Radio Nam Lolwe (Radio Lake Victoria), a local broadcaster, to create media messages targeting the fishing community in Nyanza. The UK-based medical relief charity, Merlin, is also working with beach communities to raise HIV awareness through local music, dance and drama competitions.

Achieng said her organisation planned to enlist the help of the provincial administration to help them find more productive activities for the young girls who spend their days idling on the beach.

According to Kenya's Centre for the Study of Adolescence (CSA), Nyanza has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, as well as some of the highest school dropout rates.

Girls in Nyanza begin sexual activity earlier than their counterparts in other regions: the average girls in Nyanza starts having sex aged 16, compared to 19 in Nairobi Province. CSA said the main reasons for this were poverty and lack of access to comprehensive sex education, including information on HIV/AIDS.