Where women trade their bodies for fish

PHOTO | TOM OTIENO Agnes Auma now owns a boat, and employs eight men. She is a beneficiary of the No Sex For Fish project.

What you need to know:

  • Where women trade their bodies for fish. Agnes Auma and Rose Okal’s stories should alarm you
  • In late 2000, Rose was diagnosed with HIV. She took the news badly. At some point her health was so poor, she almost died. By then, the fishermen who had been supplying her with fish wanted nothing to do with her, and she had to rely on well-wishers to survive.
  • Professor Owuor explains that initially, they considered giving out condoms to the young men, but realised they would do little good, if any.

For six years, 40-year-old Agnes Auma, a mother of five, traded her body for fish.

She, like many women living on the shores of Lake Victoria, relies on this popular source of protein for a livelihood. The demand for fish is quite high, and the fishermen here take advantage of this. They not only take the women’s money, but also demand for sex to do business with them.

“I come from a fishing community. Therefore, since childhood, fishing was the only economic activity we were exposed to. When I got married, it was only natural that I traded in fish to support my family,” she explains.

The first day she turned up at Nyamware beach, Auma returned home empty-handed. For some reason, the fishermen would not sell her their catch, even though she had the money.

The following day, the fishermen rejected her money yet again, and the next after that. Initially, she assumed that it was because she was a newcomer, which made sense because the fishermen must have had their regular customers, who they felt obligated to serve first.

After a few days of frustration, however, she approached one of the many women who flocked the beach to buy fish, and told her about her predicament, hoping that she would help her buy from her supplier.

“What she told me shocked me; that the fishermen only agreed to sell them fish if they slept with them,” says Auma.

The woman then told Auma that if she badly wanted the fish, she would introduce her to a Jaboya (owner, or operator of fishnets), who would faithfully supply her with fish if she agreed to offer him sexual favours once in a while.

Auma was repelled by the idea, and told her as much, explaining that she was a married woman, and would not even consider sleeping with another man.

But the woman merely laughed her off, and informed her that if she wanted to get into the business of selling fish, she had to lose her pride and use her body to get it.


Auma was distressed because selling fish was the only thing she knew how to do, and to her, the only business that promised somewhat decent returns. To consider was also the fact that her husband, who repaired watches for a living, did not make enough to sustain the many needs of their growing family.

After weighing her options, she returned to her adviser and asked her to introduce her to one of the fishermen.

“Initially, I was nervous and scared, wondering how I would keep the affair from my husband and those who knew me…but the women told me how to go about it, and assured me that if I was careful, my husband would never know.”

The following day, Auma was introduced to her Jaboya, who turned out to be a man much younger than her.

Their deal was sealed later that evening at an out-of-the way guest house, and afterwards, the young man assured her that as long as she kept her end of the bargain, she would always be the first person to buy his catch once he got to the shore.

Throughout their six-year relationship, Auma and her Jaboya engaged in unprotected sex. She explains that her Jaboya, like many other fishermen who sought sexual favours from the women, refused to use condoms.

Past reports indicate that this high risk behaviour is fuelling the spread of HIV-infection in Nyanza region, which has the highest prevalence of HIV and Aids infections in the country.

According to the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey 2012, Nyanza has the highest HIV prevalence in Kenya among those between 15 and 64 years.

Unlike Auma, who befriended one, quite a number of female fishmongers trading along these beaches befriend more than one fisherman, grossly increasing the chances of getting infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

“Many of the women have more than two Jaboya, and the same Jaboya has other women as well,” says Auma.

Her fisherman was no different, and would sleep with other women when Auma failed to turn up at their rendezvous. That day, she would go home empty handed.

Didn’t she worry about getting infected with a sexually transmitted disease?

“I worried, but what could I do? I had to provide for my family…I consoled myself that I was not alone.”


In 1992, Auma’s husband fell ill and passed away, leaving her to take care of their children on her own. But her fish business was doing well and she could still manage.

Two years later, however, her fisherman friend passed away.

There were rumours that he had died from HIV-related complications. Alarmed, Auma, decided to get tested for the virus. She tested positive.

“I was surprised. We human beings think such things happen to other people, never to us,” she says, when asked how she took the news.

This positive test forced her to rethink her life, and though too late a decision, she decided that she would no longer use her body to get fish. Instead, she started buying fish from the other women, which she would then resell.

The returns were not as attractive as before, but she still managed.


Rose Okal is 41, and got into the sex-for-fish business after the death of her husband 14 years ago, in 2000.

Her husband was a fisherman. Therefore, unlike other women, she did not have to give sexual favours to get fish. But when her husband died, her source of livelihood was abruptly cut off.

“It was not an easy decision to make, especially because the fishermen were mostly young men, old enough to be our children,” says Okal, a mother of three.

“I had two Jaboya. On Sunday to Wednesday, I visited one, while I would visit the other from Thursday to Saturday.”

Even though she made an effort to keep the relationships secret, her in-laws and friends found out.

“They were not happy…. but I had no other option. If anything, my business took off once more, and I was able to provide for my children’s needs and take them to school.”

In late 2000, Rose was diagnosed with HIV. She took the news badly. At some point her health was so poor, she almost died. By then, the fishermen who had been supplying her with fish wanted nothing to do with her, and she had to rely on well-wishers to survive.

“I kept the news to myself for some time, afraid of what would happen once people knew. Eventually, I shared my status with the other fish mongers, only to learn that most of them were infected with the virus too,” she says.

She has since accepted the diagnosis and is focused on taking care of herself and living a positive life.

Today, Rose and Auma, and 14 other women who once traded their bodies for fish, are still selling it, but this time round, they call the shots.

“We are boat owners now, and we employ the men who might have exploited us in the past,” says Auma. She employs eight men to fish for her, and pays them according to the day’s catch.


In a day, she makes about Sh3000, quite a leap from the Sh500 profit she would make when she relied on a Jaboya.

Auma and the other women owe their dramatically changed lives to an organisation known as Victoria Institute for Research on Environment and Development (VIRED). The organisation, through the help of donors, provides the women with boats, whose cost they are expected to repay within a certain period. This money is then used to construct more boats, which are distributed to other women in the project.

The VIRED-run project – No Sex for Fish – hopes to bring an end to the sex-for-fish menace at three beaches in this area, namely Nyamware, Ogenya and Nduru, by 2015.

The director of the organisation, Professor Okeyo Owuor, says that they plan to extend the project to all the beaches along Lake Victoria should the funds be available.

“It was distressing to know that scores of young men with so much potential to succeed in life were engaging in unprotected intercourse with multiple women in spite of the risks involved,” he says.

Professor Owuor explains that initially, they considered giving out condoms to the young men, but realised they would do little good, if any.

“After more debate, we realised that we could only do away with this practice by empowering the women, who were at the mercy of these men, who for whatever reason, would not use condoms.”

Another way to do away with this risky behaviour, he reckons, is to support women living along the lake region with grants that will enable them to start income generating activities other than fish trade.

“If these women had other options of making money, they would not engage in risky sexual behaviour to earn a living,” he says.

So far, 16 of the 20 women in the pilot project own boats. Owuor says the results have been encouraging, with many women showing an interest in the project.