Why sex workers won’t report gender violence

Commercial sex workers demonstrate in the streets of Kisii town in 2017. They demanded  answers after one of them was murdered in cold blood. Sex work is concentrated in large urban centres.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Sex work is a source of livelihood for many women.
  • A 2020 report indicates that 97 per cent of sex workers had experienced violence over the 12 months before the study.
  • Interestingly, arrested sex workers are hardly ever charged with the offence of prostitution, because it is difficult to prove.

The world is currently marking the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The theme Orange the world: End violence against women now! seeks to inspire hope that violence can be eradicated. Adjunct to this is to end GBV in the world of work based on Convention 190 of the International Labour Organisation, which Kenya is yet to ratify.

There is little literature about work place GBV in Kenya. Luckily, there is a 2020 publication on a sector not formally recognised as providing work. This is sex work, a source of livelihood for many women. Titled Sex work and violence in Kenya: a participatory research by Bridging the Gaps Programme (Aidsfonds), the report indicates that 97 per cent of sex workers had experienced violence over the 12 months before the study.

This manifested in physical (75 per cent), sexual (33 per cent), economic (86 per cent) and emotional (90 per cent) forms, indicating that this work place is a candidate for the on-going activism. The main perpetrators are clients (86 per cent), colleagues (72 per cent), police (63 per cent) and intimate partners (56 per cent).

Unprotected sex

The violence from clients stems from refusal to pay, underpayment and demand for services beyond the negotiated and forced unprotected sex. The workers are at times robbed of income made from other clients, kidnapped, dumped in secluded places or even murdered.

Police violence consists of raids (68 per cent), bribery (51 per cent) and humiliation (50 per cent). Demand for free and unprotected sex to secure release after arrest and surrender of earnings, also feature.

Interestingly, arrested sex workers are hardly ever charged with the offence of prostitution, because it is difficult to prove, but instead accused of loitering, being a public nuisance or disobeying lawful orders. Police raids emerge as a tactic to prospect for easy money, since majority of arrested sex workers never end up in court.

Keep it secret

Sex workers face stigma, discrimination and negative attitudes, which hamper access to health services, making them lead a double life – practicing the trade freely in their bases, but keeping it secret from family and friends. Majority of the sex workers dare not seek police help because their work is criminalised by the Penal Code (sections 153 to 156).

These provisions are domesticated in municipal law under public nuisance, indecent exposure, pornography, procuration and homosexuality. However, the Sexual Offences Act has provisions that can be used to prosecute violence against sex workers under sexual harassment, rape and exploitation.

There is, however, a silver lining in emergence of a sex worker rights movement, which provides social support, facilitates access to health, and empowers members and advocates.

The report recommends decriminalisation of sex work, a stop to arbitrary arrests, involvement of the workers in national HIV response activities and training of health staffers and police to end discrimination.

The recommendation arises from the finding that “the reasons study participants engage in sex work are often similar to why Kenyans in general, need to take on other forms of (informal) work”, namely: financial needs (98 per cent); better life (97 per cent); peer influence (87 per cent); freedom (70 per cent); care for own children (55 per cent); and substance abuse (21 per cent).

Urban centres

The study finds that the earnings compare favourably with those from other sources, at approximately Sh14,000, which means half of the workers’ monthly incomes are from sex work. A telling quotation from one respondent is that “selling tomatoes pays, but selling sex pays better.”

Notably, sex work is concentrated in large urban centres. Nairobi is reported to have more than 2,500 ‘hotspots’. Places of worship are listed among them by 10 per cent of the sex workers.

While sex work thrives in large urban centres, it is becoming prevalent in rural towns, due to unemployment and devolution. The latter has accelerated urbanisation and expanded the client base. Moreover, there is a large underground sex industry in which even school girls, married parties and formal workers dabble. Considering this trend, it is obvious that this industry is only bound to grow due to its ready market. If in doubt, read Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Malaya.

Dr Miruka is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected])v

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