Sex work is work: Lessons from my 24 years in the trade

Twilight girls

Commercial sex workers waiting for potential clients along Wood Avenue in Kilimani, Nairobi last January. Kiambu County government says it has launched a clean-up exercise to rid Thika town of commercial sex workers.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Caroline lived in a brothel  run by a woman, Fatuma, a caregiver to young women and girls working in Nairobi as sex workers in the late 1990s.
  • She says the state should provide psychosocial support to girls on the streets.

Caroline Njoroge, 37, has been a sex worker for the last 24 years. Popularly referred to as Esther in her profession, she started her career at the age of14 after her mother, who also worked as a sex worker, was allegedly killed by a client.

Today, she is the deputy coordinator of Kenya Sex Workers Alliance. She tells Nation.Africa how she joined the trade and what she wished she knew when she started.

“When my mother died, I had no one to turn to. I could not live with relatives, so I ran away from my rural home after my mother’s burial and came back to the streets,’’ she explains.

Caroline lived in a brothel that was run by a woman she identifies as Fatuma.

“Fatuma was a caregiver to a number of young women and girls working in Nairobi as sex workers in the late 1990s. She offered us a place to sleep and food to eat. However, for you to earn your keep, you had to work.’’


She says she was particularly vulnerable because of her age.

“I was not able to advocate the use of condom during intercourse. When I was new, I could also not negotiate competitive prices. I would be paid between Sh200 and Sh500 per client. This meant I had to ‘service’ a lot of clients to make good money for the day.’’

However, with time, she realised that most men preferred young sex workers.

“This is because teenage sex workers are easily exploited because of their naivety. I thought I was privileged because I got a lot of clients, but this only caused me to contract a lot of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that kept recurring because I could not afford reproductive healthcare and did not stop working.’’

Caroline says at some point, she thought she was lucky because she was living an adult life as a child.

“People get into sex work for different reasons, but at that young age, I could not assess what I needed. It reached a point where I think I was doing it for fun and not money."

As years went by, however, she started to learn that she was actually being violated.

“I experienced a lot of physical and sexual violence. Some clients would slap and beat me and nobody would hold them to account. This is because many people see sex work as demeaning. I also missed out on my childhood because when you are a sex worker, everybody assumes you are immoral."


She was often arrested by Nairobi council askaris because of loitering with intent of soliciting for sex.

“Sometimes, when business was bad, I would even prefer being arrested so that I could get a place to sleep and a meal, which was not guaranteed on the streets.’’

In early 2010, she met a not-for-profit organisation that taught her about her reproductive health rights and provided her with free healthcare and condoms.

“I was very popular with the girls, so I was recruited as a peer educator. I would ensure any violence that occurred was reported. I was also mandated to ensure all girls were getting free condoms, education and treatment."

Looking back, she wishes the government saw her for what she was: a young girl.

Psychosocial support

“I wish the government implemented social welfare programmes for all girls - those in the safety of their homes and schools, and those in the streets."

She explains that the state should provide psychosocial support for girls on the streets.

“People assume that since you are engaging in sex, you already know about contraceptives, but that is a wrong notion. I did not know that condoms or other contraceptives were important in my line of work.’’

As to why she is still a sex worker, Caroline simply says: “Sex work is work. I am not doing it because I am being exploited. It is a choice I have made. There are so many other things I would have done, but this is the line of work I have chosen.’’