Kenyan sex workers: signs of progress

By Arjen Westra.

Yes, being in Kenya is great. But for me, it is not for the obvious reasons: not the safari’s, it’s not only the beautiful nature less than 30 minutes outside Nairobi. Europeans tend to think that when you live in Kenya, it’s a 24 hour safari-holiday. Nothing is less true.

It’s because in Kenya where I have a live view on social and political change in Africa. You can witness it on the spot: quite often, there is change for the better.

Recently, it was worldwide sex workers day. The 7000 or more known sex workers known in Kenya’s capital Nairobi took to the streets to say that they are ready to pay tax. Prostitution is still seen as a crime in Kenya. The funny thing: in a country where women are often seen as minor creatures, not the consumers of prostitution are wrong but the practicing girls are wrong.

Now for me, born and bred in one of the most liberal countries in the world, tax-paying prostitutes don’t make headlines anymore. In Holland the girls even have their own trade union. Prostitution has been recognized as a profession as long as I can remember. It has brought the ladies a lot of benefits: health care, hygiene, security status, safety and a voice in the public debate.

These ladies are doing their jobs under harsh circumstances and women have used the freedom to express  their needs in public, like what’s happening now in Kenya. That culture of debate brought us where we are now: we are in the Top 10 economies of the world, the Dutch are among the happiest people in the world and most of all men and have equal rights and even prostitutes are decent citizens.

With their message that they are ready to pay tax, the Kenyan women are implying legalization of the oldest profession in the world. With a reason: these ladies are taking a lot of risks each time they join a client. Here in Kenya, these ladies are often treated as second rang citizens, or even less than a street boy. Being a sex worker and female, makes you the lowest of the lowest in Kenyan society.

Yet, this sector is contributing a lot of money to Kenya’s economy, the money the girls are removing from the pockets of the seeking men, is being pumped back in the Kenyan economy through school fees, vegetables, tourism etc.

A lot of African girls have children at a very young age. In Kenya the situation is not different. A lot of guys seem to leave when babies arrive and as a consequence a lot of girls have to survive single handed as a single mom, being an outcast to the rest of the family. A relationship has a big practical component: the man has to bring in the money for the family. If that income disappears, the often not educated mother is on her own. The child she had on a very young age, forced her out of school.

Consequence: Quite some ladies ‘choose’ for the dangerous life as a sex worker. If the money is not there, I know stories of ladies that are prostituting themselves in sex for food relationships.

But the change I am seeing is, the attitude and the awareness of the people exposed. What I’ve seen over the last years is the growing awareness among Kenyans of their rights. They are ahead of the crowd. Kenya’s sex workers are coming up for their own rights: they are sick of the risk of being harassed, being raped, not being paid. No risk to be taken for a ride, not to talk about the risk of getting HIV-infected, because of the no-condom-is-better-and-i-am-the-man-so-you-just-listen-to-me-attitude that a lot of men have. And there is no right whatsoever once they report crime being done against them: in the end they are the ones being wrong being a women and being a prostitute gives you basically no rights.

Legalisation of prostitution is not solving the problem. Of course the high unemployment among Kenyans and the high percentage of people that live under the poverty level, is still way to high. Legalizing of prostitution is not the solution, but will for sure contribute to more human circumstances and professionalizing the profession.  But, Kenyans have a long road to go: what is in between change and the people who can really bring this change is lack of education, traditional views, narrow mindedness of society itself … and time.

PS: I am aware that this is not THE story. The are a lot of reasons why the girls won’t get their rights overnight. Political interest not being the last one. But the fact that these ladies are getting to the streets, is a sign of changing awareness.


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