Background: In Southern Malawi, the fishing industry is highly gendered, with men carrying out the fishing and women processing, drying and selling the fish. Research has shown that individuals living in fishing communities in low-income countries are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. One of the key drivers of HIV in fishing communities is transactional sex. In the fishing industry this takes the form of "fish-for-sex" networks where female fish traders exchange sex with fishermen for access to or more favourable prices of fish. By controlling the means of production, the power dynamics in these exchanges favour men and can make it more difficult for women to negotiate safe sex.
Methods: Qualitative methods were used to collect data on gendered drivers of transactional sex in the fishing community and how different groups perceive HIV risk in these transactions. Observation, focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews were undertaken with members of the fishing communities, including men and women directly and indirectly involved in fishing.
Results: In fishing communities transactional sex was prevalent across a spectrum ranging from gift giving within relationships, to sex for fish exchanges, to sex worker encounters. Power differences between couples in transactional sexual encounters shape individual's abilities to negotiate condom use (with women being at a particularly disadvantaged negotiating position). The context and motivations for transactional sex varied and was mediated by economic need and social position both of men and women. Female fish traders new to the industry and boat crew members who travelled for work and experienced difficult living conditions often engaged in transactional sex.
Conclusions: Transactional sex is common in Malawian fishing communities, with women particularly vulnerable in negotiations because of existing gendered power structures. Although knowledge and understanding of the HIV risk associated with transactional sex was common, this did not appear to result in the adoption of risk reduction strategies. This suggests that specially targeted strategies to increase women's economic empowerment and tackle the structural drivers of women's HIV risk could be important in fishing communities.