TIME TO DECRIMINALIZE SEX WORK.
Sex workers, a majority of them women, are at a high risk of physical and sexual harassment, and violence. With policies that criminalize their profession still in effect, the big question remains, will we ever realize the end to gender-based violence when sex workers still face marginalization and victimization?
Since time immemorial Karumaindo, an old three-storey building has served as a brothel in Majengo—a renowned crowded neighborhood in Malindi known for always being lively. It has 27 rooms that were initially lodgings but have been converted to rentals for sex workers to live in and serve their clients. At the time of our visit, all these rooms are fully occupied. ‘This place has existed even before I was born,’ Riziki Bondora, a forty-year-old sex worker tells us.
She is currently advocating for safe spaces in the same industry. An influx of tourists to the coastal town serves as the bedrock for sex work, prompting a majority of sex workers to flood the town. Riziki takes us on a short tour of the major hotspots for sex workers in Malindi, a coastal resort town located in Kilifi County, Kenya. ‘I was born and bred in this neighborhood. My home is right there, with an extra room that I have rented out to a colleague,’ she says, pointing it out to us.
As the night unfolds bearing a reward of rest for those who toiled during the day, it also marks the beginning of a busy and daring shift for these women as they try to eke out a living. As we approach the building, we meet a lot of women loitering in strategic places and dressed skimpily. ‘These are sex workers. They position themselves strategically and wait to lure potential clients who are making their way to the bar.
‘Just like in any other business, it is a competition of how many clients you can win based on your negotiation skills.’ As she leads the way, almost all the women we meet say hello to her, while others make special requests. She is like a matriarch to them. ‘Please bring us condoms. We are suffering because they are now scarce so we are forced to buy,’ one of them pleads.
‘Occasionally I have had to fight with clients who after sleeping with them refuse to pay,’ *Sharon admits. She left her two children with her mother —after walking out of an abusive marriage to try and seek employment. Due to a lack of basic education and skills, sex work was probably the easiest means of survival.
‘This work is torture. Opening your legs to a stranger for one hundred or one hundred and fifty shillings (one dollar) per shot is more of slavery. With bills to pay, we need to have at least five to ten men a day,’ she laments. She tells us how some men become hostile, yet they have no one to turn to in case of an unfortunate event.
‘Some clients are rude and refuse to use protection, and proceed to forcefully sleep with you. This has happened to me but I’m grateful we have the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH) nearby. We always go there whenever we have such emergencies and require medical attention. The services are free,’ says another female sex worker.
Their stories are disheartening. They bear wounds, physical and mental, that might take time to heal or probably never will. It takes us around three to four hours to maneuver through the alleys of the Majengo area, where most of the hotspots are located. It dawns on us that all the women we interact with are single mothers, each one having been violated in one way or another, but most opt not to report.
Wake up Malindi
‘They fear going to the police because, at the station, they are mistreated more. I was victimized sometime back when I went to report. The police officer that I found on duty openly told me that there is nowhere in Kenyan law where ‘prostitution’ is recognized as work,’ Riziki confesses.
She works at *Amkeni Malindi (Wake up Malindi), an organization whose mission is to promote quality and healthy living for marginalized sexual minorities and groups through integrated health services empowerment, advocacy, and research. It is an organization for the LGBTQ+ community and male sex workers, but Riziki has managed to create space for female sex workers so they can also benefit from the services offered —free medical care, condoms, and psychosocial support, among others.
During a legal awareness session, where beneficiaries of *Amkeni Malindi get legal advice based on the various harassments they have experienced and how they can get help, Riziki invites a few female sex workers as well. Some of the cases we hear are saddening. ‘I met this man at the club I had gone to look for clients and when he realized I was a sex worker, he approached me. We had an unusual conversation as he showed no interest in having my services, but empathized with me for my line of work.
‘He sounded genuine and offered to give me what he called a ‘decent job,’ and asked me to accompany him to his house. When we arrived, all hell broke loose. He said he wanted me for a wife and forcefully caged me for three days as I struggled to find a way out. He forced me to have sex with him and when I became stubborn he released two huge dogs that attacked me.
‘When I managed to escape, I went to the police station and reported him. He bribed the officers and twisted the story, exposing me as a prostitute,’ *Rahma narrates as she breaks into tears. She shows us the scars she got from the dog attack. Six sex workers share their stories, five women and one man, and the feedback from the lawyer paints a grim picture.
‘In Kenya, some aspects of sex work are criminalized, such as ‘*Living on the proceeds of sex work.’ This has given it the perception of being illegal, therefore cases relating to the same are rarely heard,’ Mary Mulwa responds. Sharing her personal view, she confesses, ‘These minority groups go through a lot. Some cases are serious human violations and for those, we always represent them to ensure justice is served.
‘Threat to society’
‘However, there is nothing we can do for those that involve their line of work like a client not paying them unless the law is changed to recognize sex work as a profession. We can only empathize,’ she says dejectedly. Some of them have been trained as paralegals, and guide others on their fundamental rights. ‘I yearn for the day when sex workers will have a safe space, free of judgement or harassment, especially by the police. We suffer the most at their hands,’ Riziki states.
According to Nick Odongi, there were very few cases of gender-based violence reported by sex workers between 2020 – 2022. ‘From the few cases reported, not all were recorded because in most cases we wonder on what basis they will be taken to court.’ He argues that sex work poses a threat to society, especially to those on the streets.
‘When we find them loitering in the streets we are supposed to arrest them, but we let them be because we understand they are fending for their families. Sometime back, we conducted a survey and were able to track 329 sex workers located in Watamu, Malindi, Marereni, and Gogoni, and discovered that all of them were single mothers. The question is, where are the fathers?’ he asks rhetorically.
‘They all admitted to having at least three men in a day. So technically, we have more male ‘prostitutes’ than women, only that men come, take, and go. What these women get themselves into is very dangerous. They work at night in dark and excluded places. We had a case where one of them was killed around Alaskan Grounds. If things are to change then it should be from the law, because for now whatever they are doing is wrong and illegal,’ he emphasizes.
Caroline Njoroge is the Deputy National Coordinator at KESWA, Kenya Sex Workers Association, an umbrella body of sex workers-led groups and organizations. She proudly identifies as a sex worker and argues that there is no law penalizing the sale of sexual services in Kenya. ‘According to the penal code, what is illegal is living off the proceeds of sex work. If we go by this, then it is third parties who will be affected; the bar that I will go to drink as a sex worker, the school where I will pay fees for my children, or the shop where I will go and buy something,’ she explains.
She strongly believes that sex work is work just like any other, and should be respected. Through their organization, they advocate for sex workers’ rights as human rights, through awareness raising, capacity strengthening, organizational development, and national advocacy. ‘The only way we can have a safe space for sex workers is by decriminalizing sex work, which begins with the government amending the law.
‘For instance, for a long time, we believed that masks should only be worn by doctors during surgeries. But when Covid hit, governments sensitized their citizens on the importance of wearing masks, and all of a sudden the whole world was doing it. It is the same with sex work, if governments sanction it, then we shall no longer witness cases of harassment, victimization, or judgement. But until then, sex workers will continue having their human rights and dignity violated,’ she concludes.
*not their real names