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'Sex for Fish': the gender crisis blighting Malawi's fisheries

August 10, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#fishing industry, #Malawi, #sexual abuse, #women's rights
by:Leonard Masauli
Climate change has triggered a devastating chain of events on Malawi's lake shores, spawning stories of exploitation and resilience.

The fishing sector plays a crucial role in driving economic growth in various countries, including Malawi in Sub-Saharan Africa. There, more than 80 per cent of fish traders are women. While men primarily dominate the fishing activities and own fishing equipment, it is women who predominantly engage in trading and processing of fish.

Women play a significant role in various tasks at the landing sites, and are actively involved in crucial post-catch activities, including fish drying, sorting, transportation, and selling, at the country's major markets in Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Blantyre and Zomba. 

The fisheries industry in Malawi is a significant source of employment, with over 50,000 people working in the sector. Economically, the industry contributes up to four percent to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Notably, the profits generated from their involvement in the fisheries business have enabled women in Malawi to provide essential support to their families and cover expenses such as school fees for their children, constructing permanent dwelling houses, purchasing food for their household and acquiring clothing for their children.

But the fishing business has become increasingly challenging, especially due to the scarcity of fish species in Malawi's lakes. This scarcity has led to heightened competition and exploitation, particularly among women involved in the industry.

'sex for fish': a swelling crisis

The issue of "sex for fish" has been a pressing concern in several lakeshore districts of Malawi, including Salima, Nkhotakota, Karonga, Nkhatabay, Likoma, Mangochi and Zomba. This practice refers to instances where individuals, particularly women, engage in sexual relationships or transactions in exchange for fish or fishing-related resources.

Research has shown that the prevalence of "sex for fish" in these areas has had a significant impact on the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases and other STIs among the population residing in lakeshore communities.

Ellen Malamula,31, from Likoma Island in the northern part of Malawi, has been in the fish business for years. On a particularly fortunate day, she manages to secure more than 20 dozen fish from fishermen, which she will later sell to her customers.

However, Malamula shared that business has slowed down significantly since fish are no longer in abundance while the demand for the commodity is rising.

She added that in some instances women find themselves victimised by fishermen who demand sexual favours in exchange for access to the catch or other benefits that can help sustain their businesses.

Malamula attributes the current fish scarcity to the impacts of climate change as well as lack of adherence to fishing regulations by fishers, which in turn leads to overfishing.

She admitted to having declined a number of advances by fishermen who offered her priority access to first-rate fish in exchange for sex.

"Because I refused their demands, my business was heavily affected and I struggled to get fish - until I [finally] quit," Malamula told FairPlanet.   

Addressing 'sex for fish' as a gender issue

The Malawi Gender Equality Act of 2013 explicitly prohibits sexual harassment with a penalty of roughly USD 1,000 and a five-year jail term.

In 2017, the Malawi government approved a revised version of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy to help mitigate some of the gender related crises affecting the fishing sector. Among other stipulations, the updated policy proposed a slew of solutions including a national awareness campaign.

The policy also plays a significant role in creating an enabling activity for small-scale fishing communities. One of its key objectives is to mainstream gender considerations and ensure that disadvantaged groups, including women and youth, are provided with decent employment opportunities and protection within the fishing industry.

Furthermore, to help the government address the problem of sex-for-fish in the industry, several NGOs have also set out to tackle the crisis by, among other measures, ensuring that women are economically empowered and enforcing the proper and sustainable management of fish populations.

One such organisation is PACT Malawi, which runs a project titled Restoring Fisheries for Sustainable Livelihoods (REFRESH) to ensure that endemic fish populations, such as tilapia, are well-managed, self-sustaining and that Lake Malawi fisheries become fully sustainable by 2024. 

All the while, action has been registered on the governmental level as well. Lydia Pasani, the Deputy Director for Fisheries Development responsible for gender issues, has highlighted that the Department of Fisheries views "sex for fish" as a form of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). In response to this issue, the department is actively investing in gender sensitisation initiatives that aim to raise awareness about gender equality issues and challenge the existing behaviours and beliefs held by individuals within the fishing communities.

"We have also enhanced male engagement whereby we work with men and women who support and promote gender equity and women empowerment in the fisheries sector to discourage sex for fish practices," said Pasani.

Pasani further emphasized that while efforts are being made to address the issue of sex-for-fish, there are several challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is the economic vulnerability faced by women in their pursuit of securing fish for sustenance or livelihood.

Local efforts to empower women

Pasani added that the department has invested in programmes that support the empowerment of women in the fishing industry and launched interventions aimed at changing harmful gender norms, which can help reduce or prevent numerous forms of Gender Based Violence.

She further highlighted that economic empowerment programmes, such as Village Savings and Loan (VSL) groups, have played a significant role in supporting women's financial independence and reducing their dependence on men. These programmes provide women with opportunities to save money, access credit and effectively manage their businesses.

"We have linked hundreds of women across the country to cooperatives, and these organisations support small-scale fish workers to gain access to resources, services and markets to enhance their income and increase their capacity to diversify their livelihoods," she said.

"We also have initiatives to support women's voices in decision-making and in the management of fisheries resources can support addressing Gender Based Violence indirectly, because they build confidence and self-esteem that can help women to see or walk out of injustices related to GBV," she added. "Through this we are hoping to reach out to more women."

According to Pauline Kaude, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Gender, efforts have also been made to engage with over a hundred women's groups across the country through district gender offices. The goal of this engagement is to support women in starting small-scale businesses and joining VSL groups. These initiatives aim to enhance women's financial independence and empowerment, with the understanding that an empowered woman is less likely to be subjected to abuse.

Speaking to FairPlanet, Ruth Mchizi, a gender activist and law student at the University of Malawi, said that there is room for improvement in addressing the issue of sex-for-fish in Malawi. She emphasised the importance of enforcing locally made fisheries bylaws as as a potential solution.

Bylaws are locally enacted laws that establish regulations for fishing activities carried out on the lake. They include provisions that outline penalties for violations, such as the use of prohibited fishing gear or the employment of children under the age of 18. Offenders may incur fines starting from USD 200.

Mchizi stated that enforcing these laws through entities such asthe  Beach Village Committee could help eradicate sex-for-fish practices, seeing as the committees are mandated and elected by the community to investigate and penalise people found guilty of violating fishing laws. 

She added, however, that it is crucial to improve the participation of women in the formulation process of fisheries bylaws to ensure that their perspectives and experiences are represented. Women, being the primary victims of the sex-for-fish phenomenon, should have a voice in shaping the laws designed to address these issues.

"Their involvement," she said, "gives them a chance to offer [optimal] solutions to the problem."

Article written by:
Leonard Masauli
Embed from Getty Images
Women in Malawi are the ones predominantly engage in trading and processing of fish.
The issue of \'sex for fish\' has been a pressing concern in several lakeshore districts of Malawi,
© REFRESH Project
The issue of "sex for fish" has been a pressing concern in several lakeshore districts of Malawi,