Kenyan fisherwomen empowered to fight HIV

This year, International Women’s Day (8 March) is celebrating women who ‘Make it Happen’, highlighting the achievements of women while calling for greater equality.

This year, International Women’s Day (8 March) is celebrating women who ‘Make it Happen’, highlighting the achievements of women while calling for greater equality.

In Kenya, a group of women who sell fish have taken control of their livelihoods, giving them the power to refuse risky sexual relationships. This initiative, in Mombasa County, is the brainchild of Violet, a fish vendor who has been living with HIV for six years.

The Indian Ocean is the main source of livelihood for communities along the shoreline in the coastal region of Kenya. Like other fishing communities, fishermen and women who sell the fish are at high risk of HIV infection because of issues associated with the trade.

Fish is a perishable commodity that needs to be sold immediately and the high ratio of fishermen to female vendors creates competition among women for the right to buy fish to sell in the market. This gives the fishermen leverage to make sexual demands on these women for the right to buy fish from them.

The women have husbands and partners, which automatically places them at risk of HIV from having multiple partners. The fishermen also have wives and partners at home.

Fish in exchange for sex

“I got HIV on this beach,” says Violet. “In the past we dealt directly with the fishermen and when we didn’t have enough money they would give us the fish to sell in exchange for a ‘little sex’. Sometimes they would still ask for sex instead of money, even when we had money to pay for the fish.”

According to the National HIV and AIDS Estimates Working Group 2013, HIV prevalence has declined among Kenya’s adult population. Nationally, prevalence remains higher among women at 7.6 per cent, compared to men at 5.6 per cent.

The disparity is even bigger in Mombasa County, where prevalence is 10.5 per cent among women and 4.5 per cent among men, showing that women in the county are more vulnerable to HIV infection. Though data showed that HIV among fishing communities was relatively high in the country, there is limited knowledge on HIV incidences among these communities in Mombasa County.

Collective power of welfare group

Violet and some of the other women in Mombasa have decided to take a different approach in dealing with matters associated with sex and HIV. In the small fishing community in Marina, the fish vendors and fisherwomen have come with a solution to ensure that no vendor is favoured in the buying of fish, but rather fish are sold on a first come first served basis. They have formed a common welfare group to ensure that this is followed to the letter. Fish are weighed and sold to members and vendors do not interact directly with the fishermen when it comes to selling and buying.

Violet has been living with the HIV virus since 2009. “It was difficult for me when I realised I was infected especially since all my sexual partners were fishermen. As the sole provider for my two children, and with no skills or hopes of getting another job, I decided to mobilise my peers to establish this group to help us reduce HIV in this fishing community.

“We were all affected, everyone was sleeping with everyone,” she says. “People had or have partners at home. With HIV counselling I realised where I went wrong and I thought I could share what I was learning at the centre with my peers. We now have weekly sessions when we all sit together to talk on our health issues and this is what gave birth to the welfare group.”

Hopes for the future

The welfare group, which is still in its teething stages, has several gaps to fill – especially when it comes to HIV awareness and capacity building. “We are hoping that those organisations that deal with AIDS will come and teach us on HIV and how to take care of ourselves,” says Hamisi, a fisherman in the area. He, too, is living with HIV and he lost his wife due to AIDS-related complications.

Violet’s group has so far been successful in distributing condoms for safer sex and in educating members on the risks associated with having unprotected sex with multiple partners and how HIV spreads.

Violet says: “We don’t talk much on the care of HIV because most of us still don’t know our status. Those that do [know their status] don’t share freely with others.”

Now it is established, the group needs to address this issue as knowing your status is vital in tackling HIV. Violet and her colleagues are eager to learn. She says: “We hope that we will get help from the government or organisations to help us understand more about HIV so as to reduce HIV in our beaches altogether.”

This story was first published on Thomson Reuters Foundation

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