Kenya: Sex Workers Ask for Violence, HIV-Free Work Environment

8 December 2019

With a mix of bitterness and bits of detachment, Chani* recalls one of the most demeaning moments she has ever faced as a sex worker.

It involved a white man, who she thought presented a chance to make good money.

"I was introduced to him by one of my colleagues at our favourite hotspots," narrates Chani, a sex worker in Ganze, Kilifi County.

The 34-year-old single mother of two was in for a nightmare. "As soon as we entered the room, he forced me to do some indecent sexual acts, threatening to hurt me if I did not obey," she adds.

So for hours, she had to stand this, and what's worse is that she ended up getting less money than what they had agreed on.

Coming from an extremely poor and broken family, Chani's situation is a case of survival by any means.

She couldn't go past Standard Eight, considering that she had a child to take care of.

NO PROTECTION

Her story mirrors that of Neema*. Even before she turned 18, she was already on the streets selling her body.

Now aged 28 and a single mother of two, she ran out of options when she was unable to proceed with her education, after sitting the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination.

So when she became pregnant with her first child, she was only 17 and with little education, no career and no income. These factors, she says, forced her to venture into prostitution.

Of course, like most sex workers, her safety -- physical or health-related -- is never guaranteed. She recounts a case that could have changed her life for the worst.

"As usual, I got a client who went ahead and booked a lodging. As I got on to work, things seemed usual, but after we were done, I realised that all this time, he was not wearing protection. I was distraught and the only thought that ran through my mind was that he might have infected me with HIV," she explains.

RISK OF VIOLENCE

For Jayne*, who is based in Mtwapa, she and her friends have had to get used to frequent physical and sexual attacks, not just from violent clients but also from rival sex workers.

Jayne, who is in her mid-forties, remembers how at one time her friend was beaten up for getting a client from a rival group's hotspot.

A 2015 study by GNP+ found that Kenyan sex workers face heightened risk of violence with little or no protection from law enforcement officers.

A 2016 report, "Aren't We Also Women?", presented to the United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva in October 2018 by the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa) and Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme said that 25 female sex workers were killed in Kenya.

Another study conducted by Keswa revealed that in 2017, about 100 sex workers died due to violence they faced while on the streets.

HIV INFECTIONS

On the other hand, the National AIDS and STIs Control Programme (Nascop) says sex workers are the population at the highest risk of HIV infection as they account for more than 30 per cent of new annual HIV infections in Kenya.

Nascop estimates that 1.6 million people are living with HIV in Kenya, which represents a prevalence rate of 5.6 per cent.

But on the other hand, 29.3 per cent of sex workers are living with HIV, quite an astounding figure considering that a 2016 Nascop report indicated that Kenya had 136,675 sex workers.

These statistics suggested that one in every three sex workers is infected with HIV, making it the highest reported prevalence in any group in Kenya.

It is for this reason that Grace Kamau, the African Sex Workers Alliance coordinator, says there is a need to highlight the plight of female sex workers in an effort to reduce HIV infections.

"We can no longer continue to bury our heads in the sand while studies have shown that by decriminalising sexual work, we are able to reduce HIV infections by 46 per cent," she said.

PREVENTION

Dr Patricia Owira, the project manager at the International Centre for Reproductive Health, says the rights of female sex workers should be safeguarded.

"If we ensure the safety of this group of people, then somehow there's a positive ripple effect to other players, like for instance, their clients," she says, adding that it is time the plight of sex workers is highlighted.

*Names changed to protect the identity of the speakers.

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