The country’s movement made its voice heard for the first time at the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva
When they count their milestones in 2017, the Kenya sex worker movement will cite drawing global attention to their plight as a historic achievement.
This was achieved through a Shadow Report to the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva in October 2017.
The Kenya Sex Workers Alliance and Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) made history at the 68th session by presenting the report that highlighted years of marginalisation, violence and discrimination that sex workers face in Kenya, contrasting years of a rosy image on rights that Kenyan Government has consistently painted during its periodic reporting the committee.
Phelister Abdallah, Josephine Mtende, Lucy Maina and Peninah Mwangi. Phelister is the National Co-ordinator of KESWA and Peninah is the Executive Director, Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme. The two have been a key voice of the Kenyan sex worker movement on local and international platforms.
Titled: “Aren’t We Also Women’, the report put to shame the government’s assertion during its report at the same session that all women in Kenya including sex workers and other minorities enjoy unrestricted rights.
A strong voice of 70 member and affiliate organisations in Kenya, the report gave a frightening account of the gross violations that in some instances lead to horrific pre-conceived murders in a country that prides itself as having one of the most progressive Bill of Rights in Africa.
Reportedly, 20-25 sex workers had been murdered by the time of compiling the data and few of the cases, if any, were ever conclusively investigated because of the casual nature law enforcers and the Judiciary handled the killings.
Due to the fact that sex work is criminalised – and often referred to as prostitution that is prosecuted under vague by-laws and the Penal Code – some cases could have been unreported.
According to the report, law enforcers were cavalier in the way they handled the cases often blaming the victims for the violence meted against them. This is worsened by the fact that prosecutions and judgements are often based on the biased cultural and religious views of officers involved.
“Sex workers report being arrested under public nuisance law or under provisions of the Penal Code. Most sex workers choose not to contest their arrest since they find it easier to plead guilty after being produced before court and pay fines for their release,” says the report. Others are forced to endure sexual and physical abuse for fear of facing trampled up charges such as robbery with violence punishable with lifetime imprisonment.
The Kenyan Government cites peer education as one of the key strategies in HIV programing. However, peer educators are often arbitrarily arrested on false claims of recruiting young girls into sex work.
“I am a sex worker activist and I have been arrested twice on allegations of recruiting young girls into sex work and contribution to the moral decay and the community. These allegations were unfounded as my task is to sensitise sex workers on their human right,” Cecilia, Sex Worker Activist in Thika County is quoted as saying.
As evidence of clampdown in sex work, in December 2017, the Nairobi County Assembly passed law ‘banning prostitution’ in the capital to curb ‘moral decay and spread of disease’.
A section of the members also proposed rehabilitation to get sex workers to ‘normal life in the society’.
The law mostly targeting women adds to by-laws that give police power to arrest those walking in the City beyond ‘unauthorised hours’ for loitering with intent to ‘sell sex’.
As a consequence of the law, on December 17 sex workers in Nairobi were denied a permit the hold a peaceful procession in the City mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Instead, they were confined to a park under police watch.
The report raises concerns lack of comprehensive care and treatment by sex workers living positively due to stigma and discrimination.
Statistics show that 1.6 million people living with HIV in Kenya. Sex workers are the most at risk of infection with a prevalent rate of 29.3% compared to 5.6 % among the general population.
Adding to the gross violations sex workers face is the criminalising transmission of HIV. The Sexual Offences Act criminalises deliberate transmission of HIV and STIS. Due to this provision, sex workers are routinely arrested, forcefully tested for HIV and STIs and prosecuted if results are positive.
For example, in 2011, at the High Court of Kenya in Mombasa, several sex workers were tested and charged with intentional transmission of HIV. Exorbitant legal fees and the fact that few lawyers handle matters deemed to be taboo makes sex workers vulnerable to unfair trials and prosecutions.
A sex worker says a client beat her and refused to pay. When she reported, the police ridiculed her asked and demanded a Ksh2,000 bribe to handle the case.
Further adding to the gross injustices is the conflation of trafficking and sex work. While acknowledging human trafficking is illegal BHESP and KESWA say there should be a distinction between forced and voluntary sex work.
“The conflation of trafficking and voluntary adult sex work has led to further violations of the rights of sex workers which severely undermines the rights of sex workers by failing to distinguish sex workers who are trafficked: by confusing voluntary sex work with exploitation and by misdirecting resources into policing and punishing consensual sex work rather than identifying people who are trafficked into sex work and providing them appropriate and necessary support,” says the report.
The report also cites forceful ‘rescue and rehabilitation’ of adult women engaged in voluntary and consensual sex as the case in one of the Kenyan counties. In this case, authorities did a ‘survey’. Those identified and did not get out of voluntary sex work were publicly named and shamed, subjecting them and their families to stigma and discrimination.
Violations also extend to the labour market and elective politics where history in sex work is used as reason to deny especially women opportunities.
“Sex workers vying for positions as representatives have been told that their sex work history disqualifies them from contesting for positions,” says an interviewee.
By representing the Shadow Report, the Kenyan sex workers movement hopes the Kenyan Government will stop paying lip service to the CEDAW Convention and implement it to the letter. They also hope the report will ignite a national debate on decriminalisation of sex work.
“We, Kenyan women sex workers face a lot of discrimination from our community, health care providers, judicial officers and the government at large. We are unable to access comprehensive health care services, particularly sexual and reproductive health services for fear of discrimination against us from health care providers. Kenya has failed to establish a tribunal to hear and determine matters relating to discrimination against women as mandated by the CEDAW convention under Article 2(c). This Failure has left us without any course of action against those who discriminate against us,” say sex workers.
In conclusion, the report reiterates call to decriminalise sex work: “We, as sex worker, believe that sex work is work. We have a right to choose our occupation and profession and we have chosen sex work. We should be allowed to engage in our work because it does not harm anyone. This work supports us in tending to and caring for our family’s needs.”
Read Report Here: Aren’t We Also Women