“You think you can manage to feed your family, while you are selling your life by taking a loan:” Sex, fish and the complexity of microfinance

In this blog post Eleanor MacPherson discusses the complex relationship between microfinance, fishing communities, and sex.

Eleanor MacPherson

11 September 2015

Providing microfinance (MF) loans to some of the poorest women in the world has often provoked strong reactions. For its supporters, MF is a vital tool that can improve the social and economic lives of women and their families. Pictures of smiling happy women working together to pull themselves out of poverty frequently adorn the webpages of global microfinance organisations. Conversely, for its detractors, MF can be a dangerous way of trapping some of the poorest and most marginalized into a cycle of debt and misery. Despite this controversy, microfinance has been one of the best-funded development tools over the past ten years. Moreover, there has been an increasing focus in the field of public health on how MF could improve health, including preventing HIV.

People living and working in fishing communities in the Global South are particularly vulnerable to HIV. We conducted research on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, where we interviewed a range of men and women living in fishing communities and connected to the fishing industry. The overall aim of the research was to understand how working in the fishing industry impacted HIV vulnerability. Fishing in Malawi is highly gendered. Women have to access fish through male fishermen that can often leave them in a disadvantaged position.

Our main finding was surprising. Unexpectedly, women participating in the study reported that MF complicated their lives and increased their vulnerability to HIV. These female fish traders worked incredibly hard in a challenging environment that was fraught with uncertainty and risks. They were highly reliant on men to access fish and often had to have sexual relationships with men to ensure access to stocks. The women therefore took the MF loans (often in groups) hoping to increase their profits by accessing larger amounts of fish and selling more when they eventually made it to the market. Yet, the ways in which the loans were administered placed even greater pressure on women, including:

  • Very short and fixed repayment schedules (e.g. requiring repayments within 4 weeks of receiving the loan) that typically required women to start repaying their loan before they had been able to buy, process and sell the fish
  • Constant threats of property confiscation by the microfinance lending group if they were unable to make their repayments

These threats, coupled with the gendered power-dynamics and the unreliability of fish catches, led some female fish traders to sell sex for fish or money with men working in the fishing industry increasing their vulnerability to HIV.

Overall the research provides important evidence that the practice and processes involved with microfinance needs to be reformed to ensure they promote rather than undermine women’s well-being.

To find out further information about this work, the paper is published in a Special issue on the Political Economy of HIV for Review of African Political Economy.


Eleanor MacPherson is a post-doctorate researcher at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK.