Violet is a fish vendor who has been living with HIV for six years. She says, “I got HIV on this beach.”
The beach she is referring to borders the Indian Ocean in Mombasa County, Kenya. The ocean is the main source of livelihood for local communities. But fishermen and the women who sell the fish are at high risk of being infected with HIV.
HIV infections have declined among Kenya’s adult population, according to a 2013 report from the National HIV and AIDS Estimates Working Group. But one woman in ten lives with HIV in Mombasa County.
There are many more female vendors than fishermen on the beach. So women compete for the right to buy fish which they then sell in the market. Fishermen often take advantage of this competition to make sexual demands on the women in exchange for selling their fish.
Violet explains: “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 … ask for sex instead of money, even when we had money to pay for the fish.”
Violet is the sole provider for her two children, and has no skills or hope of getting another job. Nevertheless, she decided to mobilize the other vendors. The women established a group to help reduce HIV in the fishing community and take control of their livelihoods.
In the small fishing community of Marina, the women’s group now has an agreement with women fishers to sell their catches to women vendors. Thus, the vendors no longer have to do business directly with the male fishers.
Violet says: “We were all affected; everyone was sleeping with everyone … With HIV counselling I realized where I went wrong and I thought I could share what I was learning at the centre … 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.”
Violet’s group has been successful at distributing condoms for safer sex. It also educates members on the risks of having unprotected sex with multiple partners. But the group is still in its infancy and needs to address issues such as HIV awareness and capacity building.
Hamisi is a local fisherman who lives with HIV. He lost his wife due to AIDS-related complications. Hamisi says, “We are hoping that those organizations that deal with AIDS will come and teach us on HIV and how to take care of ourselves.”
Violet and her colleagues are eager to learn. She says: “We hope that we will get help from the government or organizations to help us understand more about HIV … to reduce HIV in our beaches altogether.”
To read the article on which this story was based, Kenyan fisherwomen empowered to fight HIV, go to: http://www.trust.org/item/20150306104146-60oa5/
Photo credit: Deborah Benbrook