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Sex in Exchange for Fish. How Kenyan Women Get Sexually Exploited

Kingson Chingakham



Kenya is the 7th most populated country in Africa. Only 27.3% of the population of Kenya is urban. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), agriculture is key to Kenya’s economy, contributing 26% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, there are plenty of issues in the agricultural sector. We can now see a massive shift towards other non-agricultural practices.

There is a huge demand for fish in Kenya. Kenya’s requirement of fish is around 500,000 tonnes. Unable to catch up with the demand from the local supply, the country has to rely on importing fish from other countries to meet the demands.

Kenya gets its fish from both sea and inland sources. Lake Victoria was the biggest inland source in 2014, 2015  and 2016. In 2016, the lake produced 90.7% of the local harvest, a rise from 81.9% in 2012. This Lake is the epicenter of the JABOYA SYSTEM.

The further discussion below is based on women fishmongers of Lake Victoria, Kenya.

What’s the Jaboya System?

Jaboya system, as know in the local Kenyan language, is also referred to as sex-for-fish. It is a phenomenon in which female traders engage in sexual relationships with fishermen to secure their supply of fish. According to the traditional gender roles in the Sub-Saharan region — men catch the fish and women are the sellers and marketers of the fish.

Most women who venture into buying and selling fish start by securing their source of fish by establishing a relationship with a fisherman (or fishermen), which involves accepting a sexual engagement with him in order to secure the rights to buy fish to sell onwards (Kwena, Z. A., 2012).

Majority of the men do not belong to the same community as that of the women. Most of the men come from neighbouring communities. Due to this nature of anonymity, they practise such transactional sex which their community could have reprimanded.

A study by Z.A Kwena, E. Bukusi, E.Omondi, M.Ng’ayo and K.K Holmes in 2012 showed that most of the women, who are involved in this practice are widows. Due to lack of financial support, they have to rely on such practices to feed their children. However, this is not limited only to widows. Married and unmarried women are also largely a part of such transactional sex. One common problem among these women is the prevalent of low literacy rate.

In Lake Victoria, those who do not follow this norm of transactional sex do not tend to benefit much in the fish trade. The fishermen sell the fish at a much higher price if sexual favours are not accepted. Therefore, if a heterosexual man wants to buy from the fishermen, he does not tend to benefit much. There is also a rise in the transactional sex among homosexuals. For some married men, they do not mind sending their wives to the fishermen to get cheaper deals.

The association of transactional sex between the fishermen and the women fishmongers will last as long as the fishermen supply fish. When a fisherman fails to give adequate supply, women will go to another fisherman who can provide better supply and profits. Therefore, in the transactional sex, the fishermen initiate but women ultimately have the power to shun and leave.

What has aggravated in the last few years?

Environmental changes and uncontrolled fishing since the early 1990s have led to dwindling fish populations and low catches alongside ever-increasing demand. World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, has tried to counteract this form of sexual exploitation by giving the women over there the opportunity to breed fish in ponds. Diversifying the source of income is one way to get out these women from sexual exploitation. Though the international bodies are taking active interest in preventing these women from sexual exploitation, the Kenyan government has not been very active in this area.

This ‘sex-for-fish’ scenario is elevated during the seasons of low fish-catches resulting from seasonal fish migration. The other reason is the ban imposed by the government on fishing. Since there is a huge demand, the desperation of women fishmongers to acquire fish to trade makes them vulnerable to the sexual demands of fishermen. Women over there have plainly said that even if there are mechanisms to diversify the source of income, it can not be more profitable than fish trade. Therefore, there is a tendency that women will continue to follow this practise until the alternative source of income becomes more beneficial to them.

Effects on Health

Since sex-for-fish has become so normalized in Lake Victoria, no woman reports any case of rape or forced sexual abuse. Still, this amounts to sexual exploitation. This transactional sex happens unprotected. Whenever there is a trade, sex happens there and then. Nothing is pre-planned. Some men frown upon using condoms. There have been rumours going on in Kenya for years that condoms contain poisonous chemicals.

A fisherman does not have only one sexual partner. A fisherman has different sexual partners and women also have to deal with different fishermen to get the cheapest deals and in order to get the fish during scarcity (during scarcity competition among women is the highest and fishermen gets the maximum sexual favours).

Due to unprotected sex, the cases of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) have increased. The number of HIV positive cases are also on the rise. Late diagnosis of infected men and women leads to the passing of the diseases quickly.

Corrective Measures

Help the women to acquire fishing boats. The gender segregation in fishing has harmed both men and women in Lake Victoria. There needs to be an overhaul in the traditional role of men as the fish catchers and women as the ultimate marketers. If women are provided with boats and other equipment to fetch their fish supplies, they would not have to depend on men from other communities. They won’t be required to have sex in exchange for fish.

With support from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding, two peace corps assisted a group of women fish traders to acquire their own fishing boats in 2010 (World Connect, 2013). The women own the boats, as the women work they repay the cost of building the boat, then the boat repayment money is pooled to construct more boats; increasing the number of women involved (The New Humanitarian, 2011 ).

Shows and theatrics have emerged as one way to pass on information to the women and men in Lake Victoria. Through various shows, discussions on sex-for-trade take place. Health awareness campaigns are organized by community groups to reduce STDs and HIV cases. Misconception about the use of condoms has been reduced and condom distribution by many community bodies are done frequently. Nevertheless, the use of condoms remains to be looked with suspicion. And women in poverty have made this a way of their livelihoods.

The Beach Authorities in Lake Victoria is of no use. The authorities have not taken any actions to prevent such sexual exploitation of women. They are bribed by both fishermen and women fishmongers. They are sometimes provided with the same sexual favours as the fishermen. Stricter regulation of the beach authorities is needed. There is also a requirement of intervention in the whole process of selling and buying fish. If government officials are involved as middlemen to facilitate such trade, we can hope for a change. However, the officials need to be transparent and should not be enticed to take bribes or sexual favours.

It remains to be seen how the Kenyan Government takes some corrective measures to diversify the source of income for women. Most of the women continue to be in the informal sector, where the working environment is poor. The government in partnership with different regional and international organizations need to play an important role to prevent such sexual exploitation by improving the standard of living. The literacy rate among rural women is very low. If a change has to begin from somewhere — it should begin from educating girls and women.

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