Why sex workers have retreated to working from home

sex work prostitution

Before she began seeing her clients in her flat, there had been rumours for years from people who knew her that she had been seen picking up clients on the streets of Nairobi CBD and on the big clubs along Thika Road.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • The pandemic came with a lot of challenges, one of which was to cut the livelihoods of sex workers.
  • Pushed by the need to survive they took their business home. Are the neighbourhoods ready for the new visitors?

The house is on the second floor of an apartment complex in Ngumba Estate, Nairobi. At a glance, it looks like any other house in the building. A bluish carpet is draped over the small balcony. Jerry cans piled on one corner of the balcony are evidence of the water shortage in the area. The balcony overlooks a car wash. Our source works at this car wash.

One might imagine that sex work in an estate like this will be accompanied by some type of nuisance or show of nudity but no.

“Ako fiti. (she’s okay) The only way you would know something is going on is if you spent a few days here and you saw the different men going in and out of the gate,” he shares. “And she’s nice. The first thing she does when you go in is to offer you tea or juice.”

“Hashebeenupthere?” I ask Jerry. He chuckles at the question and waves his hands dismissively.

Before she began seeing her clients in her flat, there had been rumours for years from people who knew her that she had been seen picking up clients on the streets of Nairobi CBD and on the big clubs along Thika Road. Now, it’s confirmed. He knows some of her clients.

He does not know how much she charges her clients but he reckons that business must be booming because she just bought a new Nissan Note which he cleans most Saturdays.

I call her from a number my source provides, the one he uses to reach her when she leaves her car at the car wash. She picks up and laughs hysterically in my ear when I tell her I want to speak with her about her job.

“Wewe…mind your business,” she says before hanging up. A dead end.

Covid-19 impact

sex work

The pandemic came with a lot of challenges, one of which was to cut the livelihoods of sex workers.

Reports say that there are an estimated 20,000 sex workers, most of them women, in Nairobi.  According to UNAID, the number rises to 134,00 when you look at the rest of the country.  While sex work is not directly criminalised, living on the earnings of sex work and solicitation for sex is illegal in Kenya and thus unregulated. This means that the statistics available on sex workers in the country and their welfare are scanty.

According to data released by the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and especially the closure of bars and the nighttime curfew that followed threw the lives of sex workers into disarray. They were left to either work the streets during the day or break curfew at night which saw many of them arrested and forcibly quarantined during the early days of the pandemic.

Coping with the new state

Like many people around the world, the sex workers too retreated to work from their homes. While the world has opened and people have gone back to working from their offices, sex workers seem to still be working from home. If you pay attention you will see evidence of this all around you.

Ms. Peninah Mwangi the executive director of Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support Program agrees that there is an influx of sex work in residential areas. She sees it as a coping mechanism from the effects of Covid-19.

“Sex work in residential areas comes with several risks to the sex worker. When they are working from home, these women are now exposed to the community. We’ve had instances where women working in the estates have had their naked photos taken and plastered on social media. Others have been kicked out of their homes by landlords who found out what they do for a living,” she says.

It takes about a week to find and get a face-to-face meeting with a working-from-home sex worker.

My second encounter begins with a phone number on a small placard fixed on a post in Thome Estate also on Thika road. The number is scrawled below a photo of a light-skinned woman in a barely-there red dress. Beside the photo is the word “Massage”.

The owner of this placard introduces herself as Cate. She will talk about anything I want to talk about, as long as I leave immediately after a client comes in. She invites me to her home/ business area in Sunton Kasarani. This time, I get someone to accompany me.

Cate is pleasant. She refuses to divulge her age but she appears to be in her late 20s or early 30s. Her house is a one-bedroomed apartment on the ground floor of an apartment complex with 20 houses. Hers is closest to the gate which is unmanned.

When she meets us at her door, she is wearing a pink sweatshirt with a matching hoodie. Her house is ordinary looking, like one would imagine any other building in this apartment complex looks. There’s a large flat-screen TV mounted on one wall, a dark green couch, and yellow curtains. There’s what looks like a stash of antibiotics on the TV console. She notices me eyeing them and explains that they are for work. For the special clients. She claims that ingesting an antibiotic raises the body temperature heightening the experience for her clients.

“When a client is happy, he pays more,” she says.

She hasn’t always worked from home. Before, she manned the counter in a small wines and spirits business in Ngara. Sex work was a side hustle where she catered to a handful of her regulars at the bar usually in nearby lodgings. Then Covid happened and pulled the rug from under her feet.

The bar closed down the same week she had a bad fall and broke her hand in two places. Stranded, she went back to her rural home in Kiambu for four months. When she came back to the city in October 2020, she found that her peers had moved their sex work business online. She was added to a WhatsApp group from where she picked up the idea of placing placards in busy estates as a way to meet clients. She will not reveal how much she makes in a month but she admits that she is doing better than some of her colleagues working on the streets who have resorted to baiting clients even in broad daylight.

From her living room, you can hear children outside laughing and playing. Doesn’t it worry her that there are young, impressionable children sharing an apartment block with her? She is visibly miffed by this question.

“What is the problem? I don’t care what people do in their houses. I don’t bother anyone,” she says.

The way she sees it, the sex worker is a part of the social ecosystem just like there are teachers and doctors.

Is it all flowers and rainbows?

Is this be-your-own-boss-sex-worker-working-from-home all flowers and rainbows like it seems?

I pose this question to Tasha a 25-year-old sex worker who has been operating from her home in Fedha, Nairobi Eastlands for slightly over a year now. Tasha refuses to meet agreeing to only a phone interview.

She has been a sex worker for five years. She comes from a low income family in Kitui. She stumbled into sex work while looking for an avenue to make money to survive on while at the University. For about three years, she worked in a brothel with a bunch of other girls across town. The owner of the brothel made the advertisements and an older woman living at the house who they called matron managed the clients. Then business suddenly slowed down in 2020 and early last year, she lost the gig.

She took to advertising her services on social media and meeting her clients in her one-bedroomed apartment. So far, so good.

Is her landlord aware of her line of business?

“Of course not. He would kick me out. But he doesn’t need to know. No one but my clients need to know,” she says.

Other than the fact that she is now exposed to the possibility of eviction and embarrassment, she is afraid of attacks from the other women in her clients’ lives.

“Some of my clients are married men and there is always that risk that someone will want to harm me. There was a level of protection and anonymity at the brothel. Now I’m out here hustling alone,” she says.

What is the way forward?

What do people feel about the fact that there is sex work happening in homes in residential areas? We posed this question to the public online and while most seemed to agree that these are tough economic times, the consensus seemed to be that this shouldn’t be happening.

An Instagram user going by the name Tabz said, “No way. These things shouldn’t be happening in the same places we are raising our children. The sex workers should remain on Koinange street.”

“If I found out this was happening in my apartment building I would move. What are we teaching our youngsters? And where is law enforcement? Isn’t it illegal?” posed Susan Makori, another Instagram user.

Some neighbourhoods are done talking about it and are taking action to make sure that the ladies of the night do not take over their neighbourhoods. The Kilimani project Foundation is one such enterprise created to advocate for safe, clean, and quiet neighbourhoods in the upmarket area.

“The Issue of sex work in our neighbourhoods has come up in our work. There streets that are notorious for this,” says Ms Wanjiru Kanyiha the Executive Director of the Kilimani Project Foundation.

The way she sees it, allowing the ladies of the night to display their wares on the streets in residential areas or meet clients in apartment blocks in the same areas is chipping away at the moral fabric of the community.

“This is where we raise our children. We will not accept this as a community,” she says.

The organisation which is a blend of a community foundation and a residents’ association focuses on lobbying state agents so that laws criminalising soliciting for as well as living off sex work can be enforced.

“The laws are there. One could even say we are over legislated as a country. What we need is for these laws to be enforced,” she says.

Maybe if such organisations existed in every corner of the country, the working from home sex business wouldn’t be booming.

Now that sex workers are working from home, what now?

“The only way forward from this is for the government to empower the Kenyan woman. An empowered woman will not have to make these choices to have unsafe sex,” says Ms. Peninah Mwangi the Executive Director of Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support Program, an organisation that seeks to ensure that bar hostesses and sex workers are empowered and safe.

According to her, if education was truly free, if NHIF was available to everyone and if the economy was doing better, we wouldn’t have sex workers in our neighbourhoods.

“Furthermore, it happens between two willing adults and there is no reason for it to be criminalised. If it was made legal, then it would be regulated and safe areas would be set aside for sex workers to work and we wouldn’t be having all these problems,” she says.

No matter how unsettling it may be, the truth is that sex work has crept into the residential areas and that neighbour who keeps to herself in your leafy, safe neighborhood could very well be a sex worker working under her roof.

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