Caught in the nets – Capital Radio Malawi
29 May, 2024

Fishermen on lake Malawi (Picture taken from internet)

In the serene waters of Lake Malawi, a delicate dance between nature and humanity is unraveling. As fish populations dwindle due to among others, persistent use of illegal fishing gear and climate change, a silent strife brews.

Caught in the crosscurrents are the resilient fishing communities, particularly women, who bear the brunt of both environmental depletion and the hidden toll of social injustices.

While men dominate the act of fishing and ownership of equipment, women shoulder significant responsibilities at landing sites.

Engaged in crucial post-catch activities such as sorting, drying, transportation and vending, their involvement surpasses 50 percent compared to their mere two percent participation in equipment ownership or crew roles, as noted by fisheries officials.

It is here, where a darker reality lurks. Many women fall prey to exploitation by fishermen who monopolize fish distribution, coercing them into clandestine sexual exchanges in return for fish for the sustenance of their businesses.

A silent cry for protection

Nestled in the northern region’s district of Nkhatabay, Kawanga Beach in the area of TA Fukamalaza stands as a microcosm of the challenges plaguing Lake Malawi’s fishing communities. Once bustling with activity, its shores now bear witness to dwindling fish stocks, a consequence of illegal fishing methods and soaring demand.

During a visit to the beach on the sidelines of a four-day media training organized through the USAID-funded Restoring Fisheries for Sustainable Livelihoods (REFRESH) Project, amidst the desolate fish drying racks, remnants of prosperity echoed a bygone era.

Yet, hope flickers in the efforts of communities rallying against the tide. Led by the Kawanga Beach Village Committee (BVC) and traditional leaders, they have enacted by-laws aimed at replenishing fish stocks and combating illegal fishing practices. Their efforts have already started bearing fruits.

However, beneath this veneer of resilience, lies a pervasive issue, the insidious ‘sex for fish.’ This is a clandestine trade, which has been well-documented nationally and internationally. It refers to instances where individuals, particularly women, engage in sexual relationships in exchange for fish.

Despite its corrosive impact on the social fabric, at Kawanga Beach, this clandestine practice is silently continuing owing to the silence of victims, due to the lack of capacity and empowerment.

Maluwa: There is lack of condoms amidst the sex for fish practice

“The matter of sex for fish does happen here, but the problem is identifying the culprits as the activity happens in secret,” Susan Maluwa, a member of the Kawanga BVC said. “We have a forum where these issues are discussed but still women facing this kind of abuse choose to remain quiet.”

She added; “As a committee, we are failing to do anything because we do not have the capacity. We have never attended trainings that would empower us to carry on sensitization campaigns as well as inform victims where to report. As such as a committee our focus only dwells on protecting fish but on the social ills happening, we do nothing.”

In the face of this practice, there is an escalating risk including contraction of HIV and AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and other sexually transmitted diseases for those involved. But, despite the risk, communities here do not have access to condoms, perpetuating a cycle of exploitation and despair.

“The condom shortage is a serious concern. The only option that we have is to rely on authorities who are often unavailable. Hospitals restrict access, offering only a limited amount per person. I would urge health authorities and organizations to collaborate with us to supply condoms so that we can deal with the effects of sex for fish,” Maluwa complained.

Call for collaborative action

A 2020 study titled ‘Sex, power, marginalization, and HIV among Young Fishermen in Malawi: Exploring Intersecting Inequalities,’ highlighted that while HIV incidence rates are falling across Southern and Eastern Africa, key population groups, including people living in fishing communities, continue to face an elevated risk of infection and have high rates of undiagnosed disease.

Without adequate protection, women engaging in transactional sex at Kawanga Beach face dual threats: the heightened risk of contracting HIV and the potential for unwanted pregnancies. These pregnancies not only pose health risks but also exacerbate concerns about population growth, placing additional strain on the already diminishing fish stocks in the lake.

Salimu M’balaka, the Principal Fisheries Officer, responsible for Research in the Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change acknowledges the intricate challenges including ‘sex for fish’ confronting the fishing sector.

M’balaka: There is need for collaborative efforts

M’balaka points out that the responsibility extends beyond the fisheries department, particularly in tackling the shortage of condoms in fishing communities, hence the need for collaborative action to tackle these pressing concerns.

“These issues are undeniably present in our sector. We recognize that addressing them requires collaborative efforts with various partners and responsible institutions. We initiate awareness campaigns and sensitization messages to enlighten communities about the perils of this practice,” M’balaka states.

“The implications of this extend to human capacity. The fisheries department along with the fishing sector, regards fishermen and fish vendors as vital partners. If they fall ill, it disrupts fishing activities and undermines the nutritional and economic contributions of the sector. Thus, it is imperative to ensure the well-being of fishing communities,” he adds.

“While it is crucial to raise awareness nationally, we continually engage the Ministry of Health to seek their support. Media platforms play a pivotal role in disseminating these messages and prompting swift action from relevant authorities. Therefore, we entrust the media with this message. They need to highlight the plight of fishing communities and mobilize support,” M’balaka emphasizes.

Tackling the shadows

While acknowledging the uphill battle to deal with the insidious sex for fish due to the secret nature of the practice, Nkhatabay District Council Gender Officer Wyson Bonongwe emphasizes their steadfast commitment to addressing it due to its long-term impacts.

Top of Form; “We have been sensitizing the community on issues to do with GBV. Apart from that, we have deliberately trained fishermen as male champions to educate them on how best they can support females or women rather than exploiting them,” Bonongwe says.

Bonongwe adds that; “We have also done some training together with the fisheries department where we deliberately touched base on issues to do with sex for fish where their angle was to enlighten these fishermen on the role they are playing in increasing or worsening the situation of vulnerable women in the communities.

“Apart from that, together with JONEHA we also touched base on focusing on reducing the prevalence of HIV and AIDS so we also touched base with these fishermen because we knew if they are sleeping with two or three women that are seeking fish that would also lead to the spread of the virus,” he says.

However, as efforts to combat sex for fish gain momentum, urgent action is required to address the pressing issue of condom shortages. Christopher Singini, Nkhatabay District Health Office Spokesperson says there are various initiatives both old and new to address the problem.

“We have two modalities to make fishing hubs have access to condoms for their HIV prevention. The first access is through the Community-Based Distribution Agents (CBDAs) and the second is the use of Health Surveillance Assistants (HAS) present in fishing communities,” Singini says.

“However, these days we have few CBDAs and HSAs across the fishing hubs. In such instances, we are open for communities to come and identify a volunteer that we need to orient on the reporting tool so that when he gets the condoms, he finishes the distribution, he reports, then we replenish another pile of condoms,” he explains.

“Additionally, we have plans through the Department of HIV to have what we call the Last-Mile Condom Distribution, which awaits orientation of the fishing hubs. This is an orientation that will target some members of the fishing hubs and condoms will be given right to these fishing hubs from our nearest health facilities,” Singini says.

Bridging the gap between populations and environmental management

Matthews Malata, President of the Association of Environmental Journalists, draws attention to the intricate interplay between the issues of sex for fish, population growth, and environmental management. He stresses for a comprehensive strategy, aligning actions with the broader 2063 agenda to ensure sustainable development.

“This is a very important issue for us to talk about, likely because we have a very strong nexus between population and environmental management in this country,” Malata emphasizes. “Now, we are experiencing a lot of pressure on our natural resources, and one of the things that we need to do as a country is to manage our population.”

Malata notes; “Studies have shown that in areas with high fishing activities, the prevalence of risky sexual behaviors is also heightened. You have seen that some organizations have been going to such areas with different interventions just to make sure that people are not engaged in unprotected sex.”

Regarding the distribution of condoms, Malata raises concerns about their inaccessibility and societal perception towards those willing to buy for themselves. He calls upon authorities to intensify efforts in sensitizing the populace about the necessity of population management. He warns of the looming crisis if proactive measures are not taken promptly.

“When it comes to managing our resources like Lake Malawi and its fisheries, community engagement is paramount,” Malata asserts.

He emphasizes the need for sustainable fishing practices and proactive measures to address sexual health risks, such as promoting protective sex to curb sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies to safeguard both livelihoods and ecosystems.

Fish stocks struggle amidst social challenges

Andrew Kamanga from Senior Group Village Headman Thuli in the area of TA Fukamalaza is a 47-year-old veteran in the fishing business having been in this industry for over two decades. He owns fishing gear and plies his trade at Kawanga Beach.

For many years, the profits earned from his fishing business have enabled him to provide vital support to his family. This includes covering expenses such as school fees for his children, building a decent home, purchasing food for his household, and buying clothes for both himself and his dependents.

For over two decades, fishing has been his main and trusted source of income but he is now not sure of the future due to dwindling fish stocks. He blames the rising demand for fish, social challenges, and unpredictable weather due to climate change for the current situation.

 “As you can see, the drying racks are empty because there is no fish. Social issues such as wanton cutting of trees in the upland have had an impact on the weather here. In addition, due to population growth, there has been rising demand for fish something that has contributed to overfishing resulting in dwindling fish stocks,” Kamanga said.

To secure his future, Kamanga is collaborating with the Beach Village Committee in advocating for sustainable fish management including taking part in reforestation efforts of uplands.

“We also tell fellow fishermen to preserve small fish. This is because if they continue catching small fish, in the end, we will deplete all the fish stocks such that our children will not find anything, and for them, this lake will just remain for swimming,” Kamanga says.

The stakes are high, and as the nation grapples with these intertwined challenges, the future of Lake Malawi hangs in the balance. The call reverberates, urging swift and collective action to preserve both the delicate ecosystem and the livelihood of those dependent on its waters.

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