BY BHESP TEAM – 2nd JUNE 2021…….
International Sex Workers’ Day takes place annually on June 2nd. The day is celebratory, which remembers the discrimination of sex workers and their often exploitative living and working conditions. The starting point of the International Sex Workers’ Day as a memorial was June 2nd, 1975 in which more than 100 sex workers occupied the Church Saint-Nizier in Lyon in order to get attention to their situation.
In many places in Africa, sex for money is readily available, cheap, risky, and often illegal. For many sex workers, work is often dangerous.
The Kenyan coastal strip is normally a beehive of tourism activities. Local and international holidaymakers find their way to Mombasa, Malindi plus other towns in the area that shores the Indian ocean, popular for sandy beaches. Bars and nightclubs line up here; many European and American tourists stroll through the coastal metropolis in regular times. Sex workers also earn their money here.
One of them is Hawa (name changed). Like many other young women, she has been working as a sex worker for several years. “If I don’t engage in sex work, I will have no money to pay my bills, buy clothes and lead a good life,” Hawa told BHESP.
Since the Kenyan government ordered minimal operation hours of bars and nightclubs as part of measures to curb COVID-19, the sex workers’ situation has deteriorated a great deal.
Sex work is widespread in Kenya but illegal. Most of the sex workers in the country look for clients, in bars, nightclubs, brothels, and hotels — but they are now closed operating with strict opening and closing time.
Before the lockdown, Hawa earned at least Ksh 5000 per night. But now the single mother has difficulties paying her rent and providing for her children.
“Some customers take advantage of the situation to pay less,” Hawa said. “locals-only pay a maximum of Ksh 500 for a quickie, tourists who pay better are rarely seen since covid struck.”
“I have to stay at home and wait for the regular customer’s call. Either they come to me, or I find a place where I can close the deal,” she added.
The Global Network for Sex Work Projects (NSWP) wrote in August 2020 that sex workers continue to suffer “loss of income and increasing discrimination, harassment, and violence” due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Besides, government aid packages hardly include sex workers. According to the NSWP study, emergency funds, emergency deliveries, and rent relief exist in Kenya, but sex workers complain that the funds often do not reach them.
A survey of 884 sex workers carried out by the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) also revealed that more than 65% of surveyed do not have access to condoms and HIV medication because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) Executive Director Peninah Mwangi is demanding that the government supports sex workers. “COVID-19 and the state of emergency affect everyone,” Ms. Mwangi said. “Therefore, all those who are suffering from problems should receive a relief fund to help them get through it.”
Hawa has been in the sex business for over 15 years. She told BHESP that sex workers in Kenya could no longer work nights because of curfew and has to receive clients at their homes or go to the clients’ preferred venue where they are at their mercy. “We are no longer safe; in recent months, there have been repeated cases of girls being beaten and murdered by clients,” Hawa said.
A recent study done and published in Kenya also found that police harassment of sex workers is on the increase. In some cases, the security officers physically and sexually abuse the sex workers and threaten to arrest them as a way of blackmail and exploitation.
“A lot of harassment is coming from police officers who arrest sex workers and even force them into sexual activities before being released,” added Ms Mwangi.
“The police must understand that we are human beings, that we need money to make ends meet, that we are not criminals, that we do not steal from anyone and that it is work just like any other job,” said the BHESP Executive Director.
According to BHESP, raising awareness in society, the police, and the government, will also help shield sex workers from abuse. “We demand not only legalization but complete decriminalization in order to protect sex workers from police violence and violent clients.”
She said only then will sex workers take better care of their health, shape their lives, and provide economic support to their households.