Democratic Republic of the Congo: When fish cost more than money (Syfia Grands Lacs)

| October 31, 2011

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It is six in the morning when the fishing canoes approach Kavinvira beach, near the town of Uvira in DR Congo. Men and women rush to buy fresh fish. They will sell it in Uvira market. But for some, this transaction has a hidden cost. One Congolese woman explains, “Before the fishermen agree to sell the fish to us, we have to sleep with them.”

This happens at other beaches too. A woman at Kabimba beach says, “Sometimes we offer the fishermen money. Even so, most of them ask us to have sex with them, or they will not sell us the fish.” She says that some comply because they feel they have no alternative.

Most women who sell fish at the market have no other way to earn money. Their husbands earn little, averaging between 20,000 and 35,000 Congolese francs per month (US$22-40). Nabintu sells fish in the market. She says, “This job  … allows me to cover household expenses, clothing, and school fees for children. So if I give up, who will take care of me and my family?”

Some vendors purchase fish on credit. They agree to pay by a certain date. A fisherman who prefers to remain anonymous comments, “It’s when they cannot pay their debts that we offer them sexual activity so that the debt is not left unpaid.”

There are more fish vendors than fishers. Therefore, the demand for fish is higher than the supply and fishermen can decide to whom they will sell their fish. One tries to make light of the situation, saying, “We only sell to those who agree.”

Also, it is difficult for male vendors to buy fresh fish. Mangaiko is a father of seven. He has been to the beach but has not been able to buy any fish.

Only a few female vendors refuse to sell their bodies. They acknowledge this fact when they talk among themselves. But some women do turn away. A woman from Kasenga named Vicky abandoned the work. She found it dishonourable to trade sex for the right to buy fish. Since then, she has been farming on the Ruzizi plain. She asks her friends not to give in to the fishermen. She says, “[My friends] must be prepared to abandon the business … because life is not just selling fish.”

The fishermen’s demands have consequences for women. In August, a woman in Songo district became pregnant and her husband left her. In neighbourhoods such as Kilibula and Kalundu, other couples have separated.

Dr. Claude works in a local hospital. He warns, “Women and men who engage in [this practice] are at risk of catching [the] pandemic of the century.” He is referring to HIV and AIDS. When a woman vendor agrees to a fisherman’s demands for sex, condoms are rarely used.

For two months, the media and other organizations in Uvira have been trying to combat this practice. Jean-Bosco Lubatu is a human rights journalist. He advises women on other ways to earn a living, such as making soap or baking. A local NGO has been raising awareness among men and women fish traders, fishers, and fishing team leaders.

Some women promise not to give in to the fishermen any longer. But others say that if they have no other way to earn money, they cannot refuse. And the vendors’ husbands feel powerless to act.