‘My net, my rules’: Struggle for women in fish trade

It “s a busy morning at Luwichi, a fishing camp on the shores of Lake Malawi in Rumphi District. Here, as we visit, fishermen are busy preparing their fishing nets, ready to go again for a catch of the tiny silvery fish commonly called Usipa. On this day Friday, Mercy Chiyali, 45, from Mphizi Chiyali Village in the district, came back home empty-handed.

By Feston Malekezo

It’s a busy morning at Luwichi, a fishing camp on the shores of Lake Malawi in Rumphi District.

Here, as we visit, fishermen are busy preparing their fishing nets, ready to go again for a catch of the tiny silvery fish commonly called Usipa.

Most of the fish sellers are women. They are busy with activities such as drying the fish they bought last evening for sale in the afternoon.

On this day Friday, Mercy Chiyali, 45, from Mphizi Chiyali Village in the district, came back home empty-handed.

She would have bought the fish. But the fishermen were demanding sex or sexual affair with her in exchange for fish.

“I have always said no. So, today I think they wanted to teach me some lessons [by denying me to buy the fish]. But for how long?” Wondered Chiyali, a single mother of four children.

At this camp, fish trade starts at 10pm. The female fish traders converge on the shores as early as 8pm.

Once the fish mongers buy from the fishermen, they spread the fish on racks to dry, an activity that sometimes takes them up to 3am the following day.

They then go back to sleep for few hours and come again at around 8am to check the fish.

By 12 midday the fish is ready for sale.

This is their routine.

From around 3pm, some few boats can be spotted coming towards the shore. These are fishermen with big fish such as Chambo, Mbuvu and butterfish.

A woman in her early 30s approaches one boat and declares that she has already bought the fish. The boat owner nods in affirmative.

We could not independently establish any affair between the two. But in an interview, another fisher monger, Kate Mwafulirwa from Mtoboloka Village Traditional Authority Mwalweni, said this is the common practice – of fisherman entering “secret deals” with women fish traders.

Mwafulirwa started the business in the 1980s. She said in recent times transactional sex has become the currency in the fish trade on this beach.

“If they have a small catch, priority is given to those they know personally or those they have a sexual affair with,” she said.

Another fisher monger, whose particulars we will not disclose, confirmed sleeping with several fishermen when she was starting her businesses in 2018.

It was the only way available for her to get into the business.

“I am just lucky I got out not infected with any diseases but most of these people like unprotected sex. They say they have nothing to lose. At least now I have man and I feel safe,” said the trader, in her late 20s.

Frank Nkhani started out as a fisherman in 2012. He has two boats with five helpers—co-fishermen.

He said sometimes some women come to the fishermen with no money but in need of fish.

“They will say once they sell the fish at the market, they will give us our money. Sometimes business fails. So, they repay the loan through sex. I cannot deny I have experienced a lot of those incidences,” he said.

Rosalio Dube is a fisheries extension worker for Rumphi District. His jurisdiction spans from Chitimba to Tchalo areas which has over 600 fishermen.

Dube said his department is working with the Ministry of Gender to enable the women fish sellers to own fishing gear for them to be independent of fishermen.

“We also formulated committees such as BVC (Beach Village Committee), Sub-fisheries Association (SFA) and Fisheries Associations (FA). When a woman encounters a challenge such as pressure for sex, she reports to these committees,” he said.

But Mauleni Ngwira, chairperson of Luwichi BVC, said handling such cases in not easy.

He said every month they receive about five of such cases, with many more not reported.

“It’s not easy because the fishing gear is for the fishermen and not for the government, so tell you ‘My fishing gear my rules’.

“Even if the woman reports the issue to us, it’s not easy to solve because the men always deny and we lack tangible evidence,” he said.

Viwemi Chavula of Centre for Civil Society Strengthening said this is a deplorable practice that should wake up for microfinance organisations to start giving out loans to women such as the female fish traders so that they can be independent.

“I would also want to point out that our vocation skills training colleges should have been more strategic. You find that a community college along the shoreline is having courses on hair dressing but nothing like net repairing, fish food making, fish preservation and fish breeding. These would easily give our women an alternative,” he said.

Luckson Madise, a technician under Restoring Fisheries for Sustainable Livelihoods in Lake Malawi, a project being implemented by at Find Your Feet, said the best way is to put the women in groups to enhance their bargaining power.

“No man would be courageous to advance this practice when the women come in groups to buy fish,” he said.

About 1 in 10 adults aged 15 to 64 is HIV-positive in Malawi, according to UNAids. Fishermen are sixth highest vulnerable group.

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