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Sex workers’ rights must be upheld

Sexual Politics
Human Rights


In Kenya, many people are turning to sex work in order to earn a living: according to research released by the Population Council in 2014, there are an estimated 29,495 females engaging in sex work in Nairobi alone.

In the eyes of religious leaders in Kenya, sex workers are immoral people, in need of spiritual healing. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) is opposed to prostitution as well as same-sex relationships, arguing that both go against African beliefs and Christian principles.

In 1998, sex workers who had been victims of police harassment decided enough was enough. They marched to Kasarani police station in Nairobi to protest against rampant police abuses. At this point, they realized the power in their numbers; their voices were heard and the Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP) was formed.

Fast-forward 16 years and I’m speaking to BHESP Executive Director, Peninah Mwangi, to find out about the organization’s achievements and challenges in their quest for championing the rights of sex workers.

I seek to find out from Mwangi how her organization empowers sex workers. She reveals that over the years, BHESP has partnered with like-minded organizations in order to inform sex workers and bar hostesses of their rights.

‘We teach them that it’s wrong for someone to molest you or even touch your private parts [without consent]. Before, women just thought it was part of their work. We have been able to take some molesters to court,’ Mwangi says.

She tells me that they have managed to bail out sex workers who have been arrested and charged with loitering, stating that loitering charges often fail in a court of law.

‘When sex workers are arrested and charged with loitering, we go to court and ask [the prosecutor] to prove [it]. So far we have defeated eight loitering charges. These victories show that they cannot prove that a woman was loitering with the intention of prostitution,’ she explains. BHESP has also won several cases involving the rape of sex workers.

Philemon Rotich, a police officer based at Capitol Hill Police Station, calls upon the Kenyan Government to either put laws in place to protect sex workers from abuse of their rights, including police harassment, or to ensure prostitution is completely eradicated.

He says: ‘There is a friction between the police and sex workers because while the police are seeking to curb the vice, sex workers are just trying to survive. This is  where the conflict arises.’

‘In the Kenyan penal code there is only one offence: living on the proceeds of prostitution,’ Rotich goes on to explain. ‘In most cases, the offence cannot be proven. So we liaise with the city bylaws, which are used to arrest and take sex workers to court.’

Despite the progress made in advocating for the rights of sex workers, BHESP still faces an uphill task in convincing Kenya’s religiously-inclined society to approve its work.

Mwangi commented: ‘There is a lot of resistance; they say that BHESP should work on getting the women out of sex work, but not work in teaching people their rights. They say [prostitution] is a bad occupation and BHESP should be concerned with getting the women out.’

Nevertheless, she has been assertive in her demands that the rights of sex workers be respected, arguing that Kenya will always have sex workers and hers is a human rights organization which doesn’t discriminate between people.

‘We are concerned that HIV prevention should be for everybody, no matter their occupation. Consenting adults have a right to have sex and they should not be molested, beaten up or arrested for doing that.’

She calls upon the state and society to support BHESP’s work.

‘We need leadership from above; we are doing our part, but we are a small organization and we have no say. If senior police officers and ministry officials can support what we are doing, then such abuses will stop. There is more work they can do by arresting criminals and keeping Kenya safe, instead of just arresting sex workers.’

She admits that drugging of clients has become an increasingly common occurrence associated with sex workers in Kenya, but is quick to point out that any women involved in this are committing a criminal act.

‘They are not interested in sex work but rather getting money or a phone from the client. We are against that. We do have our code of conduct and women who are part of our organization are told that they must not drug the customers as it ruins our reputation.’

Until their rights are fully upheld, including the right to state-provided HIV prevention services, sex workers still face an uphill struggle, Mwangi concludes.

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