Sex workers in Nairobi, between secrecy and stigma

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Rushing upwards the stairs of Fameland, she makes a gap between the scores of boys who flirt among sex workers. A regular customer is waiting for her at the pub reception. For 120 Kenyan Shillings (about 1.20 €), Mary rents a room and disappears from the scene for fifteen minutes. "This is a good customer. Sometimes they don't want to pay you and you have to call the security staff ", she says leaving the two square meters room. "The first time I did it I felt a little bad about myself, but just had a baby with no husband and no job, so there were few options", says the young mother of a girl of fifteen years old bordered at a nun's school outside Nairobi.

Mary Mwangi sekswerker Nairobi

Prostitution to survive

In Kenya, a country where 34 to 42% of the population is poor, according to the World Bank, prostitution becomes a rampant survival strategy, although illegal. Across the country, more than 200,000 workers operate in the sex business. Nairobi alone, have more than 40,000 sex workers. However, the lack of regulation in the sector leads to systematic violations of women's rights. Social stigma. Violence by customers or police. Unjustified arrests. And the situation can drive to serious physical and mental consequences.

Mary doesn't like to say she is a prostitute, she prefers to call herself a sex worker. Since two years ago, when she began working with the organization Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP), she acquired confidence and learned to advocate for her rights and those of her partners. "My daughter and my mother, they know that I work for the rights of sex workers. What they don't know is that I am also working as such, because this business gives a lot of money and at the end, you can't stop", admits the young lady.

Like Mary, hundreds of young girls parade through clubs, brothels and streets of downtown Nairobi. It's Saturday night and Relaxing Inn or the Eureka Club are full to bursting. "We charge only 300 Kenyan Shillings (about 3 €) for a blowjob", says one of the girls to a group of guys who stroll through River Road in search of casual sex. But she has been unlucky, and the boys pass by. "Today I am not on a roll, but on a good night I can make up to 4,000 Kenyan Shillings (about 40 €)", she complaints.

At first glance they seem strong girls, but most of them have suffered episodes of gender violence while serving as sex workers. From drunken customers or ruthless machoes, a broad amalgam of abusers hide in the crowd of regulars in the brothels of Nairobi. And it is to defend their rights that BHESP borned in 1998.

"We decided to organize collectively as battered women, both sex workers and bar workers, who received abuse by both customers and the police," says Peninah Mwangi, director of BHESP, graduated in Sociology and Master in Enterpreneur Leadership.

Nairobi Red Light district sekswerkers prostitutie

Downtown Nairobi. Foto: Gemma Solés i Coll

Between two epidemics: HIV and gender violence

"At the moment BHESP started, there was a huge HIV epidemic in Nairobi. So it was necessary to push the government forward and raise awareness about the need to invest in health. Although, seen in perspective, the epidemic of violence against women has always been much higher than that of sexually-transmitted diseases", says Peninah, affectionately nicknamed by the girls of the organization as Peni. 

In 1995, 65% of the sex workers in Nairobi have given positive on the tests for HIV. A 2015 study shows how, twenty years later, HIV prevalence has fallen by more than half.  “BHESP tested around 3,000 prostitutes from down-town Nairobi earlier this year and only 18 of them were found positive," says Mary while showing me different hot spots of prostitution in the city center. "But it is true that HIV rates depend on the area of Nairobi, which in turn depends on the level of poverty",  she admits while hailing all and sundry across the length and breadth of Tom Mboya Street.

Some guys want anal sex and force you to do it

Despite the improvement in cases of HIV infection, gender-based violence continues to grow in the country. 38% of women report having been victims of male violence. Meanwhile, sex workers take the brunt, being victims of endemic violence. "Sometimes customers refuse to pay you after the service or refuse to use a condom. Then they hit you and abuse you. There have been cases of rapes committed by groups of men or violent practices of all kinds. Some guys, some of them Muslims, want anal sex and force you to do it", says Mary. "Therefore, among several sex workers we decided to paid a person to protects us".

His name is Mustapha and, as usual, he is sitting in front of Relaxing Inn. From the street he watches out the brothel windows, checking that no cries for help. He refuses to talk to me arguing to be very busy. Next to him, two young Kenyans about eighteen don't take their eyes off the customers who stop looking for cheap sex. "I payed him 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (€ 50) when I started working on this street. It's like an entry fee to belong to a club. Mustapha looks after us and together, we take care about each other, " states proudly Mary.

According to the WHO, the relationship between sexual violence and infection with sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially HIV, is clear. The data shows that about 25% of infections could be avoided by reducing the physical and sexual violence.

Criminalizing Condoms

Although condom use has substantially improved in Kenya through private initiatives that promote it, the government has been accused on several occasions of threatening sex workers health. In the study Criminalizing Condoms, it is explained how the police destroys prostitutes condoms, considering them as encouraging an illegal practice.

Facing the difficulties imposed by the state apparatus and the reluctance of many Kenyans to condom use, there's a widespread public health problem. In Kenya, where it is estimated that about 1.6 million people are living with HIV, it seems that the repeated use of post-exposure prophylaxis is widespread. Hilda, who works as a nurse at the Kenyatta National Hospital, corroborates it. "Many young girls come to the hospital at night and say they have been raped or attacked in order to receive emergency antri-retrovirals. In most cases, however, We know that they are sex workers who had had unprotected sex in order to get more money from their customers”, says the health technical assistant. 

In Nairobi, a group of clinics called SWOP (Sex Work Outreach Program), are specialized in dealing with Female Sex Workers. However, the welfare of sex workers should consider the psychological comfort of the girls. In the Kenyan capital, few centres such as the Gender Violence Recovery Center, trust of the Nairobi Women's Hospital, can give precise attention to the group. 

"Overall, by engaging in an illegal activity, they have no protection by the State. They may be abusing, arrested or raped and the law will always rest against them", Peninah, whose work to defend the rights of sex workers is essential in Nairobi, laments. 

Double standards and double life of workers and customers:

Jackie says she's twenty-one, but she looks younger. She weighs about forty kilos and has the face of an angel. She arrived in Nairobi from Nakuru to visit her twin sister two years ago and, after much searching work, decided to engage in prostitution for lack of other opportunities. "My family believes that my sister and I are waitresses in a hotel, but the two of us are sex workers", she says shyly looking away. According other sex workers in down town Nairobi, this is the story of most of the girls engaged in sex business.

Double standards seems to be rooted in Kenya. Earlier this year, Ipsos published a study which showed that 25% of married men in Nairobi have unprotected sex with their misstresses. Most guys going endlessly up and down stairs of the Massage Palace in Eastlands, a wealthier neighbourhood of Nairobi, are also married. "Some arrive at six in the morning, before going to the office, as an everyday ritual," says Esther, a twenty-three years old sex worker operating in the area for three years now. "I prefer to work in Westlands 'cause men tend to have more money here and pay me better. I can charge a single client here, same as being with ten clients in other parts of Nairobi. I know most of my clients are married, but infidelity is the order of the day in this city", says this young woman who migrated from Meru to study accountancy but ended up working as a prostitute.

Sex work is a viable option to pull ahead your life and your family

Surveys show that 40% of sex workers in Nairobi are either married or in stable relationships. "Many of my friends are married women whose husbands don't help them parenting. They work on the streets few hours a day and go home to sleep. When you have no studies and the few jobs you can access are underpaid, sex work is a viable option to pull ahead your life and your family", expresses Mary. But this can lead to awful consequences for couples who, without being aware of the sexual practices of their spouses, are exposed to sexually-transmitted diseases of all kinds.

Despite the fact that promiscuity and adultery are widespread among the Kenyan society, sex workers are often blamed for the situation. "We must advocate for the Swedish model, and criminalize the customers instead of the sex workers", soundly sentences Peni. "The persecution of sex workers, just as the persecution of homosexuals, is a smokescreen for the government of Kenya. It is used to cover cases of corruption. There is also a strong Christian morality flying over our laws, which is really pure hypocrisy”, says the activist.

"Our laws are a legacy of the British colonialism. They just recognize women, not men, as sex workers and they manipulate the society just to get money. If we do not regulate sex work, we lose the opportunity to collect taxes from this business, but endemic corruption among Kenyan police shows that, for them, it is better to criminalize prostitutes. It is more lucrative at the end", Peni expresses. "BHESP has prosecuted more than fifty cases of arrests of sex workers and We have gained the 90% of them", she recognizes with pride.

Some girls pay bribes to the police or give them free sex

To keep sex work in the shadows of the legislative and constitutional spheres, not only feeds corruption but encourages the violation of human rights. "How can the government isolate the sexual exploitation of children, when they criminalize the global of sex work?", the activist complains. "How can We dismantle the Mafia if sex work is not regulated?", she laments. Mary, in her turn, reaffirms that most of the time, the arrests of the sex workers have the only goal of collecting money illegally. "When the police stops you in one of their regular raids, fines can range from 500-2000 Kenyan Shillings (5 to 20 euros). So to avoid this, some girls, assuming that sex work is wrong, pay bribes to the police or give them free sex", states the activist and sex worker.

While law is light years ahead of representing the reality of the country, the capital, Nairobi, is beating to the path of whistles and leering. The city centre is, at night, a crowd of beings in search of fast-food hedonism. While 76% of Kenyans are positive for the legalization of prostitution, there are very many steps still to be taken for the sex workers to freely exercise their profession, that as some say, is the oldest of all.

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