For the past five years, Achieng*, a 35-year-old widow and mother of six, has sold fish on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria; like many women in the fish trade, Achieng often has to have sex with fishermen in order to get the best catch of the day, a system known in the local Luo language as 'jaboya'.
"When you are a woman and you want to get into the business of selling fish, you must be ready to lose your pride and use your body for bargaining," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "Being ready to give sex as and when it is needed by the fishermen... it guarantees your survival here on the beach."
'Jaboya' has long been associated with the high levels of HIV infection in Kenya's western Nyanza Province, where HIV prevalence is over 14.9 percent, double the national average of 7.4 percent. It is even higher among fishing communities. The Kenya HIV Prevention Response and Modes of Transmission Analysis 2009 reported that HIV prevalence among fishing communities stands at 30 percent, while an estimated 25 percent of all new infections in Nyanza are attributed to this group.
An estimated 27,000 women are involved in the fish trade in Nyanza either directly or indirectly, according to the Ministry of Fisheries.
Achieng says she is aware of the risks, but the immediate needs of her family override any concern she may have about contracting HIV.
"You know you can get HIV... but then you remember you have a family that needs to be provided for, and you say, let me die providing for them," she said.
|When you are a woman and you want to get into the business of selling fish, you must be ready to lose your pride and use your body for bargaining|
According to Charles Okal, the provincial AIDS and sexually transmitted infections coordinator for Nyanza, while efforts to reach out to fishing communities with HIV prevention messages have begun to show results, the continued poverty of women means they remain vulnerable to 'jaboya'.
"Fish trade that goes along with sex-for-fish continues to be one of the greatest challenges in the prevention of HIV in Nyanza... There are still challenges which involve the economic and social vulnerabilities of the women involved in the trade," he said.
A recent donation of six boats to women's groups in Nyanza by the US Peace Corps shows some of the ways 'jaboya' can be addressed; the women are able to fish for themselves, eliminating dependence on fishermen.
"When you have nothing, those who have something must tell you to bend over backwards for them. Now we have boats and we will no longer be at anybody's mercy," Millicent Onyango, one of the beneficiaries of the US Peace Corps' "No Sex for Fish" project.
According to Okeyo Owuor, director of the Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development, which is part of the initiative, empowering women economically is key to ending the dangerous fish-for-sex trade. "These women need fish but they don't own any boat. This means they have to play along with whoever has the boat and these are men who will demand for sex before giving any fish. But when you empower them to own the boat, then they have the ultimate power to say no to sexual demands," he said.
"Six boats might look small but many such initiatives can make an impact in ending the sex-for-fish trade if replicated over time. It is important to start from somewhere," he added.
Many of the women trading in fish across Lake Victoria's landing sites have formed groups to help them save money to buy their own fishing equipment.
"We want to help ourselves by putting some of our savings aside so that when we have enough, we can buy our own boats and nets and help each other. So we will have nearly all women who are at the beaches own a boat either individually, or as a group," said Lillian Rajula, the leader of one such group.
According to Nyanza AIDS coordinator Okal, economic programmes must go hand in hand with other HIV prevention methods like the promotion of voluntary medical male circumcision, condom use and behaviour change communication.
"Apart from the need to empower the women, behaviour change communication targeting men is important so that they look at the women as business partners and not sex partners; these kind of efforts are ongoing and are being embraced, albeit slowly," he said.
*Not her real name