Mangochi District holds a special place in my heart. I came here aged one but now in my late 20s, I’m still working here.
Over the years, I have developed a special interest to understand the people, culture, religions and socioeconomic context in the district associated with Lake Malawi and Lake Malombe.
When I travel, people ask me stimulating questions about risky cultural practices happening in the district.
Some ask: Why is it that Mangochi tops the lists of statistics when it comes to population, illiteracy levels, teenage pregnancy, HIV prevalence and school drop-out rates? Others simply want to understand why the district with the highest number of circumcised males is presumably the worst hit by the pandemic?
However, I would like to share something not far different from the concerns expressed in these burning issues that some people raise for a laugh.
Call it sex for fish. The tendency of exchanging sex with fish or money derived from fishing is one of the risky tendencies silently spreading HIV in the district.
The practice is rampant in shoreline communities where many people depend on fishing as their major source of income and livelihood.
It is estimated that the fishing sector directly employees about 16 000 people in Mangochi and over 40 000 are benefiting from fishing activities.
This makes fishers, fish mongers and buyers vulnerable to sex-for-fish’ practice, whether directly or remotely.
The direct victims to this trend are women in beach villages, female fish traders and young girls.
Sex for fish takes different forms and is influenced by a number of factors, including dwindling of fish catches.
Most fishers I have interviewed describe modern fishing as a ‘game of survival’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ due to scrambles for falling catches.
Unlike in the past when fishing was profitable even to small-scale fishers, overfishing, use of inappropriate fishing gears, fishing during closed season and fishing in breeding areas has left them with low catches and limited alternative income generating activities.
This has made it difficult for fish to productively breed and reach full growth for reproduction, leading to high demand for low fish supplies.
This is where the problem begins.
Low supply has made access to fish difficult for buyers.
A study by Community Initiative for Self Reliance shows that due to intense competition among buyers, fishers sell the fish to the highest bidder as is the case in an auction. Customers with more money are more likely to buy.
But I have observed that fish buyers on the beach are mostly women fish traders.
So the real competition on the purchase is among these women who do not have more capital to outbid their male competitors when the auction begins.
Fishers capitalise on their desperation by luring them into sexual intercourse in exchange for easy access to fish.
In some cases, desperate female traders initiate transactional sex in search for a favour as prices soar.
Some women and girls from local communities indulge in the practice because they want fish for food. As a result of this form of transactional sex, some women and girls get pregnant—a sign of unprotected sex which exposes them to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
The problem is that though the risky sex deals are widely recognised, many people rarely discuss them openly.
Sadly, the problem receives low attention.
However, its impact on society cannot be underestimated.
At Ciser, we are determined to fight this practice through community awareness campaigns, advocacy and many other women empowerment interventions.
To maximise the impact, there is need for collective efforts from affected communities, the media, government and non-governmental organisations to deal with the problem.
The continued existence of the problem on the shores of the stunning shores of Lake Malawi pose more risks than just high spread of HIV. n