Elin Torell was researching small fisheries in East Africa when she first heard about women in Tanzania exchanging their bodies for a supply of fish.
“Women would go to the boats to buy fish, and the fishermen would demand sex before selling any fish,” she said. “It’s a kind of blackmail. That was a real eye-opener for me.” More often than not, the women complied because they had no choice: Cleaning the fish and then selling them in the market was their only source of income.
Torell is determined to stop that abusive practice and other behaviors that demean women working in fisheries in East and West Africa, and the world is taking notice. She recently received a Woman of Achievement Award from the YWCA of Rhode Island for her groundbreaking work.
As director of international programs, Torell leads Coastal Resource Center teams in implementing long-term field programs around the world. In the last two decades, she has visited Africa at least 100 times, working with governments and nonprofit organizations to better the economic and social lives of women and their families. In Tanzania and Ghana, for instance, she improved women’s access to savings and credit. At public events in Tanzania, she talked about how to protect girls from early and forced marriages, rape, domestic violence, early pregnancy, and even sex-for-fish encounters. She also worked to prevent HIV/AIDS by encouraging condom use, and she recruited residents to provide better access to family planning.
In Tanzania, Ghana, and The Gambia, Torell inspired more women to get involved in fisheries management by helping them gain access rights to fishing regions ignored by fishery managers. She also trained women how to increase their income by improving the value of the oysters they collected.
“It’s hard to make changes, but when it happens it’s incredibly rewarding,” she said. “And that’s why I do the work. I’m always moved when I see women gain more self-esteem through good work and become leaders in their communities. Those women, in turn, inspire and reveal to other women that there are options in life.”