KISUMU, Kenya — The blue waters of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s third-largest city stretch as far as the eyes can see. Fishing boats row in and out of the port, as buyers, especially women, line up to purchase the catch of the day — commonly tilapia and Nile perch.

Fish is the main currency in southwestern Kenyan cities on the lake. In early morning, women who sell fish in the market for a living wait on the shore to trade sex for fish.

When a woman is approached, she will accompany a fisherman to a nearby road leading from the shore to meet her part of the transaction in one of the shanties, then return to the shore to pick up her allotment.

If she is a regular customer, she may get the fish right away and return later to a man’s shanty. Failure to do so means she will be shut out from getting any fish in the future once the fisherman puts out the word to all.

This practice dates back decades and has become a tradition in the Lake Victoria economy, reports Global Sisters Report. It is called “jaboya” in the local Luo language of the people living around the lake and means “sex for fish.”

The practice has fueled HIV infections in the region, prompting the Catholic Church to intervene. Kisumu has an HIV rate of 16.3%, according to the country’s 2018 National Aids Control Council report.

Archbishop Philip Anyolo of Nairobi said jaboya was widespread around Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in Africa, bordered by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Archbishop Anyolo, who served as the archbishop of Kisumu before being transferred to Nairobi, told Global Sisters Report that most women living around the lake were being forced to sell sexual favors to fishermen to make a living for themselves and their families.

“Women should be respected, and this kind of practice goes against human dignity and respect for women,” the archbishop said.

Religious sisters serving in the region echoed his assessment.

“This vice, which has been in the region for years, has affected the fishing community in a way that most youth in this area grow up knowing this is the order of the day,” said Sister Josephine Musungu, a member of the Sisters of Mary of Kakamega.

Musungu said jaboya has recently increased due to the poverty among people along the lake. Southwestern Kenya is one of the country’s poorest regions. In Kisumu, for instance, 48% of the population lives on less than $1 a day compared with the national rate of 29%, according to 2019 Kisumu County data. Along Lake Victoria, mostly men own boats and go fishing, while women handle the sales at market.

Musungu said women who practice jaboya do so because they have no other option to earn a living. The practice has led families to lose their loved ones to AIDS, she said, explaining that the situation has yielded a high number of orphans within the region, with some children flooding the streets of Kisumu and other towns.

“Fishing in this region is like an illegal business. You have to give something, and you get something back,” she said. “So if I’m a fisherman, I can fish, get the fish, and since that’s the sole available thing around, I provide you with fish, then reciprocally we engage in sex as a type of payment.”

When there is a shortage of fish, fishermen prefer to sell fish to women who will agree to sex, said Dr. Kenneth Ochieng’ Ombogo, director of public health in Migori County. He also noted that men in the area rarely use condoms because they are seen as an indication of promiscuity.

Jackline Achieng, a 32-year-old mother who started selling fish in 2016, says poverty pushed her to engage in jaboya after her husband died, leaving her with three children she couldn’t feed and educate.

“I was very young and beautiful when I started a fishing business to take care of my children,” she told Global Sisters Report. “Every fisherman was interested in me, but when I refused to have sex with all of them, they denied me fish, and life became difficult. I was finally forced to give in, and now I have HIV.”

Achieng doesn’t know how many people she has infected with HIV/AIDS. “I don’t care when I infect people with HIV because I was also infected while trying to look for means of feeding and educating my children,” she said at her fish stall in Kisumu. “I am now used to this business. I sleep with three different men every week to boost my fish business.”

Some of the fishermen defended themselves, saying they were helping women continue their business.

“We help women who don’t have money,” said Geoffrey Otieno, one of the fishermen working at Dunga Beach. He noted that the majority of the women he sleeps with are either widowed or separated. “We simply sleep with them and give them fish. Those women who do not want to have sex with us don’t get fish.”

The Catholic Church and a group of local nongovernmental organizations are working to end the risky tradition and inspiring women to earn a livelihood in safer ways.

Religious sisters from various congregations, such as the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin, Tabaka, in Migori, have been instilling moral values to residents and empowering women financially.

Musungu, who has worked for years with beach communities to raise HIV awareness, said advocates hold sensitization meetings and workshops with those involved in the sex trade.

“As a church, we regularly offer counseling sessions every Sunday, especially to women and youth on the dangers of HIV and effects of engaging in sex for fish activities,” she said, adding that they also try to reach out to fishermen.

Musungu said the church, through various donations, has been able to empower a few women by buying them boats to run their own fishing businesses. More women now employ men fish, she said, noting that the move has prompted men to show respect to women and treat them as managers.

Other women have been provided with the skills and money to start alternative businesses such as tailoring, embroidery, computer services, catering and hospitality.

In Homa Bay County, Father James Omondi is leading congregants in the “No Sex for Fish” project to help women fishmongers abandon the jaboya practice. Congregants contribute money that is used to purchase boats for women so that they can run their fishing businesses.

With help from local nongovernmental organizations, the church has also helped some of the women to become fish farmers, using freshwater cage fish farming or floating cage aquaculture. The method ensures there’s enough fish despite stocks in Lake Victoria, and the women don’t need to beg men for fish in exchange for sex, Omondi said.

“We have been successful as a church to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS through sharing the word of God and empowering women,” he said, adding that the demand for help is high. “However, our parish is so poor. Women come to us with the hope of getting financial support, but we don’t have much to offer them. Sadly, some of them end up going back to trading sex for fish.”

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Ajiambo is the Africa/Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters