No Sex For Fish: How Women In A Fishing Village Are Fighting For Power

Dec 26, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2020 11:58 am

A tall woman with a strong gaze is standing by the shores of Lake Victoria. It's a busy morning. Boats are coming in full of fish: Nile perch, catfish, tiny silvery fish called omena — aka the Lake Victoria sardine.

She has her eye on one boat in particular. Like the others, it's made of wood. It's about 30 feet long. And it has a majestic white sail.

"That is the first boat which we started with for No Sex For Fish," she says.

The woman is Justine Adhiambo Obura. She's a big presence — full of energy and righteous indignation — in the village of Nduru Beach, population about 1,000. Wearing bold prints and colors, she strides along the beach as if she owns it.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Justine's life didn't turn out the way she'd hoped. She once dreamed of being a doctor but dropped out of high school after she became pregnant. She has nine children, one of whom has developmental disabilities, and nine grandchildren. She has been a paid community health worker, counseling people who are HIV-positive. She's on the board of the local hospital. She owns some cows, chickens and goats.

And since 2011, she has been the head of the women's cooperative No Sex For Fish.

It's a bold name. A revolutionary name. A name that tells you what Justine, now 61, and other women in the village have been fighting for years to change.

Along Lake Victoria, the fish business is divided by gender. Men own boats and go fishing. Women buy fish from them to sell at the market.

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.
Julia Gunther for NPR
A sample of fish caught in Lake Victoria. Since the 1970s, the fish stock has diminished because of overfishing and pollutants in the water.
Julia Gunther for NPR

The lake's fish population began dwindling in the 1970s because of overfishing and environmental problems — sewage and agricultural runoff in the lake, for example.

Fishermen weren't catching enough to supply all the women fishmongers.

So the fishermen started offering a quid pro quo: Give me sex, and I'll make sure you get fish to sell.

In the local language, Luo, the practice is called jaboya. Boya is the word for the plastic floater attached to the edge of a net. Ja means "mine." The term is also used as a nickname for the fisherman who is part of the exchange.

For many women, the survival of their family depends on getting fish to sell. So they felt there was no choice but to engage in jaboya.

"I give my jaboya a plastic bag. He goes to the lake; when he comes out with the fish, that fish is mine," says Milka Onyango, a 40-year-old mother of six who is very open about the practice.

Like many women in Nduru Beach, Milka Onyango earns money to support her family by cleaning and selling fish.
Julia Gunther for NPR

"I exchange sex; I get fish," she says. "I don't care about getting HIV. Me, I need fish. I need earning to sustain my family."

She points to a young fisherman: "He's my jaboya."

For the women and men who are part of the jaboya network, the risk of contracting HIV is high. Fishermen typically travel from village to village and may have different sex partners at each location. The men may or may not know their HIV status. They do not like to use condoms, the women say.

The result is that the fishing communities of Kenya have a high rate of HIV prevalence — 30% to 40%. That's an enormous public health problem that the government is wrestling with.

Fish traders arrive at Nduru Beach by bicycle and motorbike to buy fish that they'll sell to area restaurants and markets. They have the money to buy the larger fish that local women can't always afford.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Because of the lack of economic opportunities in small fishing villages, the women fish traders have been powerless to stop the practice. And so they find themselves in a situation familiar to women around the world.

"There's a spectrum of men having access to resources and power, and women doing what they need to do to get these resources, to move their careers, to feed their family," says Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who's on the staff of the school's Center on Gender Equity and Health. She does research on transactional sex and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

The spectrum is quite broad. In the U.S., she says, it may mean smiling at your boss and "putting up with more nonsense than we want."

But in many places far from the shores of Lake Victoria, it can also mean a sexual encounter.

No Sex For Fish is born

Justine has always been outspoken in her opposition to jaboya. She remembers when she first started selling fish and a young fisherman said to her, "I don't want your money. You are so cute. What I want is just your body. "

She was embarrassed — and infuriated: "I said, 'You are very stupid. How can you tell me that!' "

Justine was eager to see a change. But what kind of change? And how to make it happen?

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.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Then came a momentous conversation with Dominik Mucklow, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed near Nduru Beach back in 2010.

Working with a local nonprofit called VIRED, the Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development, Mucklow periodically visited Nduru Beach and met the women there. One day, they all began talking about jaboya — how it worked, how much they hated it, how they wanted to stop it.

Mucklow asked if they had any solutions.

And then it came to them: What if they owned their own boats? And hired the fishermen to work for them?

It was a mind-bending proposition.

"You know, our culture does not allow women to have boats," Justine says. They can't even set foot in a boat.

And now the women of Nduru Beach had this brainstorm. "The seed just came from [us]," Justine remembers. "We were like sleeping, and Dominik waked us up!"

The women were excited — but uncertain how to proceed. Mucklow told them he'd come up with a plan to get funds to, as Justine puts it, "empower women to come out from this selling sex for fish."

He was true to his word. He secured a grant from the U.S. government's largest foreign HIV program, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

PEPFAR paid for the first round of six boats. A charity called World Connect issued three subsequent grants. All in all, nine villages got boats — around 30 in total. They got nets as well. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Geilhufe, helped provide business training.

The women also got turquoise T-shirts that state their cooperative's name (and raison d'être) in Luo and in English: "NO SEX FOR FISH."

For the women who got boats, the moment was transformational.

Naomy Akoth, a widowed mother of eight, used to practice jaboya to obtain fish to sell. She contracted AIDS from one of her sexual encounters. "I had some suicidal thoughts in my mind," she says. "I thought of taking rat poison and of taking my life away."

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.
Julia Gunther for NPR
Naomy Akoth with some of her children. 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."
Julia Gunther for NPR

Her oldest daughter helped her through this awful time. Then, through No Sex For Fish, Naomy got her own boat.

"I was very, very happy because my life changed," she says. "Even my children were happy because I was owning a boat." She and other members of the cooperative were making more money than before.

There was another benefit as well. Even some women who didn't own boats were freed from jaboya: They could buy fish from the boat-owning women.

Naomy Akoth prepares fish to sell at the market.
Julia Gunther for NPR

One might imagine that the men in the community — the men who own boats and who fish — would not welcome female competition. And there was opposition at first. "No, they didn't like it," Justine says.

But she insists that views have changed: "They are seeing you can put food on the table; you can pay 100 or 200 shillings to put their kids in school. Now they are saying it's good for women to get empowered."

And that's what a number of the men in the village told us.

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.
Julia Gunther for NPR

They said that they are glad the women own boats and that they don't like the idea of women engaging in transactional sex to secure fish. They said that they don't want their mothers, their sisters, their wives or their daughters caught up in this practice.

What's more, more boats mean more jobs for fishermen.

"Justine is a good boss," says one fisherman who works for her. "She encourages you." If a fishing expedition doesn't yield a lot of fish, he says, "she just tells you good luck next time."

But not every man is convinced. Brightone Otien, who's 19, says he worries that "the women will come and take the fish."

Brightone Otien (right) is 19 and a fellow fisherman at Nduru Beach. Brightone says he has been part of the jaboya practice — asking for sex before giving some of his catch to a woman fishmonger.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Meanwhile, he himself admits that he does jaboya — he'll find a quiet place by the beach to have sex with a woman before giving her a supply of fish.

When Justine hears Brightone talking about jaboya, she is not happy. She squares her shoulders and delivers a mini-lecture to the strapping teen: "By having so many sexual partners, he will endanger his life. He's just practicing sex, sex, sex. He will get an infection, and where will his life be?"

Brightone takes it all in and says, "I really congratulate her for the good advice." It is not clear, though, if her words had an impact.

The village of Kusa Beach is another member of the No Sex For Fish cooperative. The people there say that these three boats, funded by grants, were made from low-quality wood and eventually had to be grounded.
Julia Gunther for NPR

On the rocks

In 2019, the No Sex For Fish project has run into obstacles.

There weren't a lot of boats to start with. And over the years, some of them broke down. They sprang leaks. They had to be grounded.

By Justine's estimation, today about six boats are still able to go out on the lake — three of them at Nduru Beach and the remainder at neighboring villages.

Buying a new boat requires cash — the equivalent of about $1,000 for a sailboat and $1,500 for a boat with a motor that could go deeper into the lake, where fish are more plentiful (the motorboat idea came from the women in the cooperative).

Even for a longtime fisherman, that's a lot of money. One fisherman told us he recently had to sell a cow to buy a new boat.

Lorine Abuto has one of the few No Sex For Fish boats that are still functioning in Nduru Beach.
Julia Gunther for NPR

The women whose boats are out of commission do not have the savings or resources to buy new boats. Many of them are widows.

The women who used to earn a living from the fish brought in on their boats now have to cobble together money through other means — selling vegetables they grow, cleaning fish on the beach, relying on a goat or a cow for milk or sending it to slaughter if need be.

When her boat was grounded, Naomy had this reaction: "I was very discouraged. Because the money I was getting from the boat I was using to pay for my firstborn's school fees. And when [the boat] fell apart, my heart was broken, and I felt low."

Rebbeccah Atieno, 35, is another boat owner whose boat was grounded. She's a widow, raising six children. Asked if she thinks she'll get another boat, she says quietly, "I have no hope."

Fishermen on Lake Victoria face many risks in their rudimentary boats, including rough weather, crocodiles and hippos.
Julia Gunther for NPR

What went awry?

How did this project, which held so much promise, come to falter?

There are lots of theories. The women say the initial boats they received were well made. They blame VIRED for the problems — that's the local nonprofit group that administered the money from the first several grants. The women say that VIRED commissioned inferior boats in subsequent years. "Yeah, the timber which was used to make those boats were not quality — in fact the lowest one," says Justine.

Dan Abuto at Nduru Beach. He is a field officer with the Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development, which administered the first several grants to build boats for the No Sex For Fish cooperative. Tensions arose between his group and the cooperative.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Dan Abuto, a field officer at VIRED, disagrees. He says the women helped select the wood. And he suspects that they used the boats in ways that put too much strain on their frames, like hauling sand.

But there is a bigger question to ponder: Perhaps giving boats to a small number of women is not the most effective way to stop jaboya and reduce HIV transmission.

The women optimistically claim that the boats did bring down the rates of jaboya. It is hard to imagine otherwise when some of the women boat owners interviewed by NPR said yes, they had done jaboya — but now they've stopped.

But there has been no careful collection of data by an objective source.

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.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Some Kenyan health officials wonder if the various beach councils could come up with a simple solution: Assign each woman fishmonger to a specific boat and require that the boat sell fish to her with no jaboya as part of the transaction, suggests Zachary Kwena of the Kenya Medical Research Institute. He does research on strategies to reduce the rate of HIV.

Such a municipal ruling might be hard to enforce, says Patrick Higdon of World Connect, which issued three of the grants for boats.

As for reducing HIV rates in Kenya's fishing communities, it's not clear how much of an impact a small number of boats can make. Public health programs might be more effective.

For example, just getting people to know their HIV status and take antiretroviral medications if they are HIV-positive could help control the spread of the virus, says Kwena. But there's a lot of stigma around testing. "Some men don't want to know their status," he says.

The Health Ministry is running programs to find ways to promote testing among men. Like offering a reward: "a coupon for something that will be helpful in fishing work," Kwena says. Or a competition where everyone who's tested is eligible to win a reward such as a bicycle, radio or phone. "So people come," he says.

And in some clinics, a patient who comes in for a health problem, like hypertension or malaria, is given an HIV test as a matter of routine.

Meanwhile, no one thinks it'll be easy to convince fishermen that HIV is a looming threat and that the combination of jaboya and unprotected sex puts them at risk. These men go out on a lake where storms swell up and crocodiles lurk and an angry hippo could snap you in two in its jaws. The potential danger of an invisible disease may not seem all that real, says Kwena.

Unafraid to hope

The women of No Sex For Fish are convinced that boats are their way to a better future.

Mark Adede of Nduru Beach keeps careful financial records of profits and expenses for No Sex For Fish.
Julia Gunther for NPR
The No Sex For Fish cooperative in Nduru Beach meets weekly. The group has just submitted a grant to World Connect for 10 more boats.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Justine and another villager, Mark Adede, who keeps all the financial records for the collective, have just submitted a grant asking for funds to buy 10 new boats and nets to keep No Sex For Fish going.

World Connect will consider the new grant application. The charity plans to do on-the-ground research to see what worked and what went wrong with the boats.

If the charity decides to offer another grant, the money will go directly to the No Sex For Fish cooperative, with no middleman like VIRED handling the money. That's the way its third grant was arranged, and it's the way World Connect prefers to work — directly with local people with no intermediaries.

Reflecting on the project's short history, Higdon of World Connect says, "The ups and downs are not at all surprising." Things can seem "very messy" with programs at the local level, he says.

"Whatever happens, we really believe in these women and the work they're doing to help control HIV — and to help women fishmongers be more economically independent," says Higdon. "They've got a really impressive commitment to a difficult problem. It's an uphill climb. And that inspires me — that they felt courageous enough to take that on."

A sample of Mark Adede's No Sex For Fish ledger, tallying sales of fish as well as expenses.
Julia Gunther for NPR

Fielding-Miller, of the Center on Gender Equity and Health, agrees with his assessment. "Ten boats seems minuscule in the short run," she says. But in the long run, the boats are part of a campaign to attack the root causes of the HIV epidemic along Lake Victoria, where the most marginalized women — poor women, single moms, widows — are at the highest risk of infection.

If one woman, as a result of owning a boat, is earning more income and not doing jaboya and has a better life — then "Done! Success! Worth it!" she says.

There are, she says, other potential benefits of No Sex For Fish.

"There are little girls looking at Justine and saying, 'I can do it that way,' " says Fielding-Miller. "That's incredibly important — to have a role model doing something a totally different way. It resonates across generations."

As for Justine, she believes that the project will keep going.

But she was taken aback when we told her that Rebbeccah, whose boat was grounded, says she has "no hope" of getting a new boat.

With a look of frustration and determination, Justine stands tall in the living room of her home. Its mud walls are decorated with lace hangings, photos of family members and a framed certificate declaring her the "Inspirational Woman of the Year 2014" in Kisumu County.

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."
Julia Gunther for NPR

Rebbeccah "must have hope," Justine declares. "When you have hope, you can get."

The proof, to her, is the simple wooden boat she owns with the words "No Sex For Fish" painted on the bow.

Viola Kosome and Maxwel Otieno Kaudo contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Midmorning is the busiest, loudest time of the day on the shores of Lake Victoria. That's when local women show up to buy fish from the boats just arriving after a night on the lake.

(CROSSTALK)

CHANG: This scene plays out every day in Kenya's fishing communities. But there's another kind of trade that happens here as well.

JUSTINE ADHIAMBO OBURA: Have sex, get fish.

CHANG: The exchange of sex for fish. It's no secret. It's been going on for years, but now some women are saying enough. NPR's Rebecca Davis takes us to the village of Nduru Beach, home to a cooperative called No Sex for Fish.

REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: Naomy Akoth stands at the door to her home. She's a tall, thoughtful-looking woman wearing a red-and-white checked apron. It's typical of the women who work in the fish trade. Naomy says she became a fishmonger simply because she had no other choice.

NAOMY AKOTH: (Through interpreter) My husband, Dave (ph), he left me with six children.

DAVIS: For a while, Naomy tried gathering up bundles of sticks to sell for firewood.

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) After the death of my husband, life was very difficult. It was unbearable.

DAVIS: She says she and her children were eating only once a day, porridge that they got from her neighbors. And at one point, she was so hungry she just gave up and went to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. A friend came by and said, what's going on?

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) So she decided to give me 500 shillings to buy food. After giving me the 500 shillings, I thought it was wise for me to start some business.

DAVIS: She took most of the 500 shillings and bought fish. She hoped to sell it at the market and start a business that could support her family. But it wasn't that easy to get the fish. And then she noticed something - fishermen would sell to people they seemed to know. So she started hanging around the water where the fishermen gathered. She was a little unsure. She stood away from the group, and then one day, a fisherman called her over, and he handed her a bundle of fish.

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) After giving me fish, I asked him, how much? And the fisherman told me that this one is for free.

DAVIS: The next day, he offered her fish again. But this time, he said...

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) How could we meet? And I told him that I have a free time in the afternoon. After that, we met in the afternoon, and that's where we started engaging in sex. I was disparaged. I just had to.

DAVIS: It was the beginning of an arrangement that people around here call jaboya. Sometimes it's sex for fish, and sometimes it's just to guarantee that the fish will be sold to you.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVIS: Naomy's neighbor, Justine Adhiambo Obura, knows all about jaboya. When she first got into the fish business, a fisherman much, much younger than she was said, let's meet in the evening.

OBURA: No, ma'am, I don't want your money. You are so cute. What I want is just your body.

DAVIS: Justine is a big presence in this village. Everyone knows her.

OBURA: I know, you are embarrassed. First of all, you are embarrassed. And I said, you are very stupid. How can you tell me that?

DAVIS: She used to be a health worker counselling people on HIV, a board member of the local hospital. She was not going to let that fisherman get away without a lecture. She tracked him down.

OBURA: I said, you know, if this is the way you are going, you are going to the lake, coming out and asking women for sex, you will be infected.

DAVIS: You will get AIDS, like Naomy did, like so many in this community. The place, Justine says, is full of widows and orphans. About a thousand people live in Nduru Beach, and according to Kenya's Ministry of Health, as many as 40% may be HIV-positive. Justine and the other women have done what they can to make things better. They run a savings club...

OBURA: Thank you very much for coming early.

DAVIS: ...To help each other pay for food and transportation to the hospital for HIV treatment. But more than that,

OBURA: Have sex, get fish.

DAVIS: That's just the way it is. And then about eight years ago, Justine and a group of women were standing together on the beach when this guy walked up, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in the area. They'd met him before. But that day, Justine says, they just opened up to him, telling him all about jaboya. Justine remembers that he asked them...

OBURA: What would you think can at least reduce this thing of sex for fish?

DAVIS: Justine describes the asking of this question as the moment that woke them all up. It was as if, for the first time, she and the other women could imagine a world without sex for fish. And here's what they told him.

OBURA: If the women can be empowered, they get boats; they do their own business.

DAVIS: This was a bold, even revolutionary idea. Traditionally, only men owned boats. But true to his word, the Peace Corps volunteer applied for a grant, and they got it.

OBURA: When I got that we can do something, we can stop sex for fish, I catched it with my two hands.

DAVIS: The women formed a cooperative, and they called it No Sex for Fish. And they became the owners of five beautiful new boats, strong wooden boats with sails. And then another grant paid for more boats for more members of No Sex for Fish. They were business ladies, bosses hiring men to fish for them, including Naomy.

OBURA: One of our members of the society? (Laughter).

AKOTH: Yes, yes, I'm a member.

DAVIS: And once Naomy had her own boat, she said she could give up jaboya for good.

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) I was very, very happy because my life changed. Even my children were very, very happy that I was owning a boat.

DAVIS: But then the second round of boats weren't made very well.

OBURA: Yeah, the timber which was used to make those boats were not quality - in fact, the lowest one.

DAVIS: The women made repairs, but then the cooperative ran out of money for more repairs. Several boats were grounded.

AKOTH: (Non-English language spoken).

DAVIS: Naomi's boat, too.

AKOTH: (Through interpreter) I was very discouraged because the money that I was getting from the boat, the one that I was using to pay for my firstborn's school fee, and when it fell apart, my heart was broken, and I felt low.

DAVIS: Over the next several years, three more grants helped the cooperative squeak by. But now out of 10 boats, only about a third are up and running. Justine says, don't give up hope. The cooperative has submitted a grant for another 10 boats and nets. Patrick Higdon is with World Connect, one of the groups that's been funding the No Sex for Fish project. He says even though the project is fragile, it has made a difference in the women's lives.

PATRICK HIGDON: A lot of women have earned income over going on seven, eight years now that this has been going on. With that income, they've paid their kids' school fees, they've paid for medical insurance, they've purchased livestock to diversify their income.

DAVIS: Eight other villages besides Nduru Beach now belong to the cooperative. By owning boats, he says, many of the women in these fishing villages have broken free of customs that had made their lives so difficult.

(CROSSTALK)

DAVIS: Justine looks out over the choppy waters of Lake Victoria and points.

OBURA: That one there, you can see. Can you see that one there? That is the first boat which we started with as No Sex for Fish.

DAVIS: The one with the...

OBURA: The one in the water...

DAVIS: With the big sail?

OBURA: Exactly.

DAVIS: I don't know. It looks kind of majestic.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: People here in Nduru Beach say sex for fish, yeah, it still happens, but not nearly as much as it did before, before the women had their boats, before No Sex for Fish.

Rebecca Davis, NPR News, Nduru Beach, Kenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "NEVERGREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.