Working with sex workers in Nairobi

The University of Leicester in its 2018 round of International Development Research Fund resources funded a pilot project facilitated by Professor Teela Sanders (Department of Criminology) with the NGO Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support project (BHESP). The project is pre-work for a much larger research programme which has been sent to the GCRF for consideration which will create a skills programme for young women working in the sex industry.

The pilot project has taken just 5 months from inception to analysis and presentation, assisted by an excellent project manager in Nairobi, Raham Hassan and a team of five co-researchers from the sex work community. These women were hired and trained as researchers in May to conduct a face to face survey with sex workers.

The rationale for the research was simply to establish some baseline data of the service users that use the BHESP health care programme. With over 12,000 sex workers engaged in health programmes (mainly HIV prevention, PREP programmes and sexual health) the NGO has little information about the people who engage with the project. A survey was designed to establish some basic demographics of the population, information about the use of the health programmes and questions around their sex work practice. Above these questions the survey was a vehicle for finding out about the ways in which young women could be supported to return to education and training, the central focus of the GCRF proposed programme. We were keen to know the barriers and challenges to returning to school, the types of vocational programmes that were of interest and use to the women and the importance given to computer literacy and digital skills.

With 502 surveys completed within a period of 4 weeks, the data that has been returned has been excellent. It will be used by BHESP to evaluate and develop elements of their health programme as well as give them ideas for branching out into different types of funding streams to provide services for its 20,000 service users. Using the findings from the survey three focus groups were conducted by Professor Sanders in August 2018 to explore further some of the statistical information. Focus groups were held in the BHESP offices and details were gathered about the exact types of vocational skills programmes that would be beneficial including ways to overcome the barriers to joining skills programmes and maintaining engagement. It was clear that when priorities for sex workers are earning a living to pay rent, their own children’s school fees and food, there was little space or time to consider their own future career paths or additional ways of earning money alongside sex work.

The pilot project has produced some excellent data in a short amount of time and has introduced the methods of participatory action research to BHESP and the sex work community there. It is clear that any development that is created needs to be through the sex work community, creating ownership and integrity to the programme and avoiding top down interventions which have little meaning or place in women’s lives. The research has done much much more than establishes the first part of the research findings on which larger projects can be designed and integrated into future applications. The research project has firmed up some initial relationships between University of Leicester and BHESP, cementing the research team as a unit across continents, cultures and class boundaries. The internal funds have enabled a strategic international research partnership. The outcome of the GCRF application will be known in the autumn.

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