Peninah mwangi is the executive director of the Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support Programme
I studied sociology and literature at university. After graduation, as I was job searching, I managed a pub for a relative. It was here that I came face to face with the violence that women who work in bars endure. I saw women being grabbed by customers, male customers refusing to pay bills or taking a lot of drinks and declaring that they would only pay if the woman agrees to go home with him.The day that I resolved to do something, a policeman had come in to drink and when the waitress asked him to pay, he dragged her out, bundled her into the boot of a car and went and locked her up in a cell. I knew that had to do something. I gathered the hostesses and we stormed the police station. We took the matter up with the station OCS and the officer was reprimanded. That was when I knew that together, we had the power. That was 19 years ago. Today I work with bar hostesses, sex workers and young women. They are most vulnerable to acts of violence and HIV infection. The numbers are disturbing. For instance, every three out of four people infected with HIV are young women. How can we ignore that?
On a normal day at work, you will find me either setting up HIV testing stations in bars and rallying woman to get tested, or distributing condoms. We can turn our backs and say that the sex trade is not thriving but it is, and young women are exposed every day. So I empower them to speak out against violence, to ask a man to use a condom. I also lobby to change policies that are discriminatory against women. In cases for soliciting for sex, for instance, while women are thrown behind bars, the men walk. The laws are faulty. We need a situation where gender fairness is respected. Just yesterday, I was handling a case of a policeman who has been harassing sex workers and forcing them to have unprotected sex with him. I am happy when we are able to take cases to court.
I have met many people who do not understand that ours is a human rights organization fight for sexual and reproductive health rights for everyone. I have met people who think that I am promoting prostitution. But the truth is that sex work is there and we can’t change everyone. The ultimate dream for me is to live in a society where all women are respected, including sex workers.
My work can be emotionally taxing so when am not working, I like to spend some time alone. Going to most social places usually feels like work to me, so I will stay home and bod with my son and my partner.