Since its inception back in 1998, Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP) biggest projects has been on HIV prevention among female sex workers in Kenya.
HIV prevention takes over 60% of BHESP’s annual budget. Despite the massive investment channeled towards HIV prevention, BHESP realized that it cannot respond to challenges facing sex workers by offering HIV preventions services alone.
Consequently, the idea of advocating for sex workers’ rights in Kenya was born.
At the heart of BHESP advocacy work is a dedicated team of paralegal officers headed by Advocacy Officer Mary Mwangi.
Mwangi narrates how she used her advocacy skills and manage to rescue dozen of sex workers arrested in Kisii County.
“On Thursday night, 19th November 2015, sixty-five female sex workers were arrested in the streets of Kisii and forcefully tested for sexually transmitted infections,” she explains.
Mwangi says 26 girls who tested positive were locked up for three days and charged with the offence of failure to subject themselves to medical treatment while suffering from venereal diseases.
“The court released them on bond but ordered they present themselves to the government hospital for a mandatory medical examination. The case attracted a lot of attention and during the hearing the court was full house,” adds Mwangi.
From her vast experience, Mwangi knew that the excitement including massive media coverage was short-lived and the difficult job of supporting twenty-six girls to attend court over the next year will be her responsibility.
“The next court date found me alone in court. After a while, I was joined by the lawyer and two of the 26 accused. I had to act fast. I got the two girls to take me to their base, where I found some of the accused enjoying their drinks and negotiating with clients, other girls were still at home nursing hangovers,” she says.
She narrates majority of the sex workers seemed really terrified at the thought of going back to court as they were still traumatized by their incarceration ordeal and did not seem to understand the implications of skipping court.
With her vast experience in handling sex workers cases, Mwangi managed to convince the girls and within two hours she presented all the 26 girls in court.
“Before I left for Nairobi, I took my new friends out for a celebratory drink after the High Court ruled against the orders for mandatory examinations. They all enjoyed cups of traditional brew and promised to make it early for the next court hearing,” she says.
The case has a long way to go and Mwangi admits that it won’t be a walk in the park but exhibits confidence that justice will be served.
“Only a handful of the girls have phones which they lose or sell all the time. I have to travel, keep in touch, solve their personal problem as part of my work of hand holding and support for court action,” she elaborates.
Mwangi concludes by emphasizing the urgent need to train Kisii sex workers on paralegal and leadership roles in order to reduce pressure from Nairobi and create a local response.