Solar helps women escape sex-for-fish trap
Mary Achieng is sifting through her catch of silver cyprinid fish before sorting them into sacks and then carrying them to the weighing stand on Kogwang Beach, on the Kenyan shore of Lake Victoria. The 500-kilo haul would earn her US$450 — enough to keep her family going until she next went out on the lake a week later. She’d caught the fish the night before, using a solar-powered light to lure them into her nets.
Achieng, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, got the solar light two years ago. Before that she had to stock her stall in Kendu Bay with whatever she could buy from local fishermen — many of whom would only sell to women offering their bodies for sex.
“The fishermen dictated who to sell the fish to. If you did not please them, you would have nothing to sell for the day,” the 34-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Local women’s rights advocates say such sex-for-fish deals are common in Lake Victoria’s fishing industry, which is controlled by men who can afford the tools needed to catch fish, including lights to attract the cyprinid.
But a renewable energy project launched under the Africa for SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) initiative is helping women feed their families and stay safe from abuse by arming them with solar lights that allow them to do their own fishing.
Since it began in 2018, more than 400 women in western Kenya who were previously involved in the sex-for-fish trade have received the lights, says Joe Bonga, chief executive officer of the Africa for SDGs.
Partnering with the non-profit International Christian Youthworks Africa and US-based charity Watts Of Love, the project hopes to reach 400 more women by the time it ends in 2023, Bonga notes. “The solar lights have not only revolutionised fishing in this region, but they have also increased the economic production around the lake region,” he says.
The lamps have other uses away from the lake, too. “The good thing is that as you are going onto the lake, you are charging the solar light while using it. With enough power, you use the light again at home,” Bonga adds.
The fishing industry supports about 90% of the people living around Lake Victoria. Using her light to run her fish stall, Achieng says she can stay open longer each day, and now earns 10 times more than she used to.
“With the solar lights, I can do my own fishing and more,” she adds. “I can decide to stay late in the market to sell my fish and I can also decide to be at home so my children can study using the solar light.”
Bonga explains that many Lake Victoria fishers go out at night so they can use artificial light to attract more fish. However, most use kerosene lamps placed in or on the side of boats, which limits the amount of light shining into the water. He says when women are given solar lights, they are advised to put them in polythene bags so they can lower them into the lake, casting more light and resulting in bigger catches. Also, unlike kerosene lamps, the solar lights don’t get blown out by strong winds, he adds.
With a battery stronger than that of an iPhone 8, the palm-sized light is shock-proof, can last 10 years and run for up to 120 hours on a single charge, says Watts of Love founder Nancy Economou. “We give women the tools, we give them the lights, we give them the education, and we give them the [assets] to become successful,” she notes.
Apart from an economic boost, the solar lights are bringing health benefits to communities around Lake Victoria. A 2020 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found the sex-for-fish trade is one reason rates of HIV in developing countries are four to 14 times higher in fishing communities than the national average.
Kisumu County’s chief health officer Gregory Ganda says the county’s rates of HIV and teen pregnancy are worryingly high compared to other counties, but they have been declining in recent years. Dan Otieno, secretary of a local fishing group, credits the solar lights with helping bring the numbers down. “The project has helped because now we are [seeing] reduced HIV transmission and reduced HIV orphans and teenage pregnancies,” he says.
The lights also help families light their homes without producing toxic smoke. The domestic use of dirty fuels such as kerosene and charcoal contributes to air pollution that causes an estimated 500,000 premature deaths in Africa each year, the World Health Organisation says.
For Achieng, the ability to fish for herself is a major step towards equality, giving her back control of her livelihood and her body. “I feel like part of me that had been taken away has been returned because of the solar lights,” she says.
ABOVE Kenyan women receiving their first Watts of Love lights in March
PHOTO WATTS OF LOVE