For three consecutive days in October 2018, Catherine (real name withheld) went to a fishing camp in Luwuchi community on the shores of Lake Malawi to buy fish known locally as usipa.
On each occasion, the widowed mother of three returned empty-handed because the fishermen she approached all wanted sex in exchange, not money.
“I always refused but then life was becoming very hard for me and my children [and] I was in desperate need of making sales since the [fish-selling] business was my only source of income,” Catherine, now 44, told Al Jazeera. “The next day, I went back to the beach and when the first fisherman demanded sex in exchange for usipa, I had to comply.”
According to the Malawian government’s 2021 annual economic report, the fisheries sector, which employs more than 50,000 people, contributed at least 4 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In recent years, the fish population has been declining largely because of overfishing and climate change, experts say.
That decline has become a key driver for transactional sex across Malawi’s lakeshore districts – where fishing is a way of life and means of income – especially in markets where many buyers are impoverished women, said Fanuel Kapute, associate professor of fisheries and aquatic science at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi.
“The practice is worse during the lean season around November and December,” he said.
“This is when the catches of usipa are significantly low, and competition is high.”
Frank Nkhani, a fisherman since 2012, claims to have never engaged in transactional sex but admits that he knows many fishermen in Luwuchi who do. He alleged that some women also offer themselves to the fishermen. “Some do not have the money at all so they just say they will pay through sex to get the fish,” he said.
Due to the clandestine nature of the practice, it is challenging to determine the exact number of fishermen and fish vendors who engage in transactional sex because many cases go unreported.
But the sex-for-fish practice has put many of the participants at risk of HIV/AIDS, said Othaniel Duwe, a fisheries extension worker in the department of fisheries in Rumphi district.