Sex workers’ rights must be upheld



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.

Nairobi mall attack unites Kenyans

Smoke seen coming out of the Westgate mallKenyans have called on their government to move quickly to resolve the current stalemate with terrorists at Westgate mall (pictured right), where more than 60 people have lost their lives. Over 100 more have been injured in the terror attack by Somali-based jihadist group al-Shabaab, which began on Saturday.

As the rescue operation, led by the Kenyan Defence Forces enters its third day, an explosion and several gunshots were heard at the mall, with the security forces appealing for calm and patience as they work to end the siege. On Monday morning, there were still a number of hostages being held inside the building.

Despite security forces promising that efforts are underway to end the siege, some frustrated residents are calling on the government to seek other means of ending the standoff.

Gibson Njoroge, 26, a mechanic, says the Kenyan state should seek help from other countries. Logistical support is thought to have been offered by Israel and the US.  

‘Time is lapsing and nothing is coming out from our security forces. The hostages are suffering,’ he said.

But others, like Eddy Agwa, a peer educator, says we cannot blame the security forces or government for what has happened. He believes it is a lapse in border security that has allowed terrorists in.

‘Corruption needs to be stopped because it allows foreigners to infiltrate our porous borders and get identity cards,’ he explains.

The attack began on Saturday 21 September, when more than 1,000 shoppers were inside what is arguably the city’s most upmarket mall. Radar reporter Richard Mbugua said the event ‘shook the nation’.

‘Many are paying their condolences to the families that have lost loved ones, and also sympathizing with those injured in hospitals across Nairobi. It is ironic that Saturday was World Peace Day, but it was taken over by a malicious attack in the heart of our capital,’ says Mbugua.

For his part, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost his nephew and his nephew’s fiancée in the attack, acknowledged the professional response of the various security agencies at the scene and the selflessness of countless Kenyans.   

‘I am aware that many have expressed impatience over the pace at which the situation is unfolding. Whilst I empathize with your anxiety at seeing the matter concluded as quickly as possible, I ask for your understanding as well,’ Kenyatta said.

With hundreds of casualties admitted to several hospitals across the city, there has been an urgent need for blood donations. Kenyans have responded positively, with the Kenya Red Cross Society reporting that 2,972 units have been collected countrywide.

‘After the Westgate incident and calls to donate blood to assist the victims, I decided to donate. The hospital needed blood type O negative, and that’s my blood group,’ said Sheila Bizo, who donated at Agha Khan Hospital, Buruburu.

Wanja Maina, a fellow reporter for Radar, said the response at the major KENCOM blood drive was ‘amazing’:

‘When Kenyans are hurt, we hardly go into the artificial canons of ethnicity. We are all united in donating money, blood and medical kits. The turnout is overwhelming; tribe notwithstanding.’

With al-Shabaab claiming responsibility, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) has condemned the attack, calling it a ‘cowardly’ act that ‘goes against Islamic teachings’.

‘We Muslim leaders gathered here today condemn in the strongest terms the attack on peaceloving Kenyans and our international guests who have chosen to live and work in Kenya,’ said SUPKEM Secretary General Adan Wachu.

Echoing SUPKEM’s sentiments and using the hashtag #TogetherAs1, renowned human rights activist Al-Amin Kimathi said: ‘Darkest day this, standing with all who have lost loved ones, have injured kin or friends held hostage, condemning the attacks.’

Musa Haron, Wanja Maina and Richard Mbugua were trained as a citizen journalist by Radar, a communication rights organization which trains reporters in excluded and isolated communities. For more information, visit

Photo: copyright Peter Omondi


Kenya Occupy protesters charged over live pig protest

pigs outside parliament
Protesters released pigs outside the Kenya parliament Samora Asere

A group of 17 Kenyan activists who took part in Occupy Parliament protests on Tuesday 14 May in central Nairobi are due to be charged with breach of the peace.

The protest, which included the release of live pigs outside the parliament gates, was sparked by a pay rise demand from members of parliament, who campaigners have dubbed ‘MPigs’. They have demanded a rise from $78,500 to around $126,000 a year – over 100 times the av-erage annual salary of Kenyan workers. Demonstrators are calling on them to accept their current salary or resign.

According to one of the organizers of the ‘Occupy Parliament’ protest, photo-activist Boni-face Mwangi, the pigs – which were labelled with names of MPs – symbolized the politi-cians’ insatiable greed.

Led by renowned human rights activist Reverend Timothy Njoya, campaigners donned white t-shirts labelled ‘Occupy Parliament’ and criss-crossed Nairobi’s streets with placards criticis-ing the MPs’ pay hike demands, while thousands of Kenyans remain in poverty. Kenyan MPs are some of the highest paid in the world.

Njoya, who has been very active in challenging state autocracy in Kenya, said he was not surpised by the request: ‘We changed the constitution and the government but the individuals in the government are still the same,’ he said. He added that while Kenya has given birth to a new constitution, Kenyans cannot ‘sleep and say it’s over.

‘To change a country is not an easy thing. It’s intergenerational and long term. That’s why we are here: to change this country from a market to a nation,’ said Njoya.

Activists have said the protests will go on until the MPs drop their demands. ‘Things will change because the poor will stop one day siding with their MPs and leaders and they will know these are their enemies,’ Njoya warned.

The protest remained entirely peaceful from the start. Beginning at Uhuru Park Freedom Corner, the demonstration took a novel twist when protesters stopped at the parliament gate, released a hog and dozens of piglets, which fed on 120 litres of cow blood spilled around them. Police turned water cannons on protesters and fired tear gas into crowds.

The presence of the protesters and the pigs at the parliament gates hindered MPs from accessing the main building, forcing anti-riot police to use water cannons and teargas to disperse the protesters.

In the confrontations, 17 activists were arrested and detained at the parliament police station, only to be released hours later on cash bail. They are due to be charged with breach of the peace next Monday 20 May.

Musa Haron is a reporter with Radar (@OnOurRadar).

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