Women boat owners in Siaya gaining economic independence

Members of Rid Pachi Women Group at one of their boats at Nyenye Misori Beach in Bondo, Siaya County. [Kevine Omollo, Standard]

From the wooded vessels operated manually, to speed boats using powerful engines, a group of women in Siaya County has made a breakthrough in the business initially dominated by men.

They have ventured into the business by owning several boats, even as they continue to practise the culture that bars women on their menses from accessing the vessels.

Pamela Akinyi got married in 1998 to a fisherman who owned a boat in Nyenye Misori village in Siaya County.

She was quickly introduced to the fish trade, focusing much on omena (dagaa).

A few years later, technology drove the family boat out of business. “Our boat was hand-paddled, so the use of engine boats got us out of business,” she said.

She would later join other women in scrambling for fish from fishermen, a situation that exposed them to various forms of exploitation.

Those days, no woman owned a boat, except through their husbands. 

Today, out of the 60 fishing boats at Misori Beach, 15 are owned by women. This, thanks to deliberate efforts by the beach management to untangle women from cultural enslavement.

According to Daniel Odero, the Chairman of the Beach Management Unit (BMU) , the efforts are a result of a joint initiative from fisher forks in the area.

“Previously, women had no role in the management of the beaches, but we had to make deliberate efforts to bring them to the decision-making table,” said Odero.

This was preceded by tightening of laws governing operations at the beach, such as the protection of vulnerable groups’ interests.

The laws also have strict punishment for men who exploit women traders. It also protects boats owned by women. “Generally, it is men who venture into fishing, and some may take advantage and steal fish from the boats owned by women and sell in other beaches before docking here,” said Odero.

To curb this, Odero said a strong link had been created between the management of the neighbouring beaches, in which boats only dock and sell fish in beaches where they are registered as members.

Antonina Apiyo, 41, is one of the women fish traders who have acquired the boats.

She claimed that men had cultural advantages that enabled them to acquire financial independence and own boats.

“About five years ago, someone put his old boat for sale, and I placed a bid and got it. I renovated it, and it is now fully in operation. I do not have to beg for fish from other boats, but sell my catch,” she said, adding that she has had to expand her market to areas outside Siaya County.

Apiyo is now the treasurer of the 27-member Rid Pachi Women’s Group formed at the beach to promote the economic independence of the female fish traders.

Akinyi, the Vice-Chair of the group, has two boats and has been instrumental in the financial independence campaign.

Thirty-six-year-old Hellen Auma, the newest member of the group, began the fish trade just two years ago.

“I also have a mission to own my boat through the table banking project and be able to take care of my four children,” she said.

The group has since acquired two boats, courtesy of funding from Open Society Foundation’s Economic Justice Programme.

The programme implemented by Kenya Female Advisory Organisation (Kefeado) is targeting to empower women along the Lake Victoria Basin as a means of fighting gender-based violence.

“Economic instability escalate gender issues. And when women get their sustainable source of income, they supplement what the men get, and this reduces dependency, which is a conduit for gender-based violence,” said Easter Achieng’, the Kefeado Executive Director.

According to Ms Achieng’, the Economic Justice Programme has seen women diversify their sources of income and reduced the over-reliance on the lake. “When we first approached the BMU managements to discuss this project, some male leaders were skeptical and thought it was to stage competition between them and the women. But they have now realised that this initiative has reduced cases of conflict at the beaches,” said Achieng’.

Mr Odero said through the collaboration, they openly discussed cultural issues around fishing, which would previously create unnecessary conflict.

For example, women getting close to the fishing boats during their menses was considered bad omen. But due to the initiative, Odero said women openly inform their colleagues, who they send to pick fish from the boats.

“Previously, the women would hide this and intentionally access the boats in that condition. But now, with them also owning the boat, they have to protect the trade as they cannot engage in cultural actions that would deny them their daily income,” he added.

Currently, Rid Pachi Women Group is managing their boats, and the women are engaging in table banking to raise money to buy each member a fishing boat.