NAIROBI, KENYA – Esther Mwende, 32, was 14 when her aunt introduced her to sex work.
Mwende lived with her aunt in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, because her mom was struggling to support her and her siblings. As soon as she got home from school every day, she and her aunt boarded a bus to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. They worked all night and returned early in the morning, just in time for her to prepare for school.
Mwende quickly got hooked on the trade as she made enough money to meet her needs and even support her mother, who washed people’s clothes to feed and educate her five other children.
Mwende says hard drugs kept her awake during her first year of high school, although she didn't give her studies much attention.
“I was in form one then, and on good nights, I could make up to 30,000 [shillings],” she says, which is the equivalent of $350.
The slightly built woman says life in the city’s red-light district was a risky affair, especially for girls her age.
“We would face harassment from all corners, from police officers to city council officers and street boys,” she says. “At times, I would go home empty-handed despite making thousands of shillings, as I had to pay for my freedom whenever I got into trouble.”
When Mwende couldn’t give them money, she says they demanded sexual favors.
Mwende dropped out of high school just as she was about to graduate because she became pregnant. As soon as the baby was born, she went back to sex work. Eventually, she became pregnant with her second child.
She says during the 10 years she was on the streets, one of her most harrowing experiences as a sex worker was when a client threw her out of a moving car. She was trying to persuade him to pay her the full amount after he paid her less than they had agreed when he became violent.
“He sent me rolling on the road, and the next thing I saw was a hospital room’s ceiling,” she says. “A good Samaritan had found me lying on the road unconscious and took me to the hospital. I swore that I would never go back to the streets.”
But as soon as she got well, Mwende returned to her work, her determination to escape poverty urging her on. This was despite losing many of her colleagues to violent clients and to HIV and AIDS.
It was not until her family learned about her trade that she finally left the streets.
“They did not condemn me as I had expected,” she says. “They gave me the support I needed, and I thank God I left the streets alive and healthy.”
Mwende now sells jewelry for a living.
Recent homicides of sex workers have prompted their colleagues to protest for increased rights and security. Living off the proceeds of prostitution is illegal in Kenya, but efforts to enforce this law have led to clashes between sex workers and local authorities. Sex workers in Nairobi promote safety precautions while they advocate for the decriminalization of sex work and recognition as Kenyan citizens with equal rights.
There are 200,000 sex workers in Kenya, according to a 2012 survey spearheaded by the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections Control Programme. The majority are women – 185,000 – with men accounting for 15,000.
Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, a project that engages the community to end human rights violations against sex workers, doesn’t have a database of members because they don’t want to be registered as such, says Daughtie Ogutu, 28, who founded the Kenyan chapter of the Africa Sex Workers Alliance in 2009.
Violence against sex workers has prompted various groups like the alliance to advocate for more rights.
A cleaner found the body of Catherine Njeri, a 32-year-old sex worker, in September at a lodge in Thika, a town 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Nairobi. She was the fourth sex worker found dead in the town in less than three months, Ogutu says.
Worried about their safety, more than 500 male and female sex workers responded with a march through the town to demand security. They carried a casket to the district commissioner’s office to present their grievances, but administrative police officers stopped them. They later went to the scene where Njeri’s body had been found and held prayers before boarding a fleet of buses to Igikiro village to attend her funeral.
Paul Leting, Thika police chief, declined to comment on the death of Njeri or respond to allegations by sex workers of police harassment.
Ogutu says several other sex workers have been killed, but the crimes go unreported because police often arrest the colleagues who report the crime. Before the Thika cases, two female sex workers were found dead in Changamwe, a suburb of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city.
“Sex workers in the town even had a suspect, but they couldn’t go to the police,” says Ogutu, who describes herself as an inactive sex worker.
Council officers and the police carry out random sweeps and arrest the sex workers, she says. But since the police can’t prove that the men and women were actually involved in sex work, they invent charges such as loitering. At times, the officers harass the sex workers and demand bribes or sexual favors.
In February, Kenya Sex Workers Alliance officials met with Nairobi Mayor George Aladwa to decry harassment of members by the city council officials. The mayor promised that the council would harmonize its bylaws with the new constitution, promulgated in August 2010. Both criminalize living off the proceeds of prostitution in Nairobi and Kenya, but Ogutu says this is difficult to verify.
“How do you prove in court that someone lives off the proceeds of prostitution?” she asks. “That's why when they arrest the girls, they charge them with made-up charges such as loitering.”
Moreover, the new constitution upholds the right to equality and freedom from discrimination for all citizens – which includes sex workers – she says.
But Aladwa retracted his statement after receiving harsh criticism from religious leaders and a section of the public, Ogutu says.
The city council bylaws are clear that prostitution is a criminal offense, and it will stay this way, says Christin Caleb, the deputy director of the City Council of Nairobi. He says that council members do not abuse sex workers, but rather arrest them for breaking the law.
“They are arrested because when they are found in the streets half-naked, it is obvious that their intention is to engage in prostitution,” he says.
Aladwa formed a task force to look into the sex workers’ grievances. The task force recommended that female council officers accompany male officers when arresting sex workers.
Ogutu, who is also the regional coordinator of Africa Sex Workers Alliance, says efforts to decriminalize sex work fail because of its close link to homosexuality.
“You cannot separate the two,” she says. “Every time we do a proposal seeking to have sex work decriminalized, it gets entangled with homosexuality and becomes too controversial.”
Joseph Mwanzia, a sex worker in Nairobi, says he wonders why it is criminal to sell something he can give out for free.
“What I do with my body is my own business,” he says.
Kenya Sex Workers Alliance organized a procession in the capital in March 2012 to demand the decriminalization of sex work. Sex workers wore masks to protest harassment and insisted that they were ready to pay taxes if they were allowed to work in peace. Ogutu and a few other Kenya Sex Workers Alliance officials were the only ones who did not wear masks and participated in a TV interview.
“I couldn’t go back to my house after that, as I kept receiving death threats,” Ogutu says. “I stayed in a safe house for three weeks and later moved my family to another place. It was very traumatizing.”
For now, Kenya Sex Workers Alliance encourages sex workers to take initiative to ensure their safety. Ogutu says women should walk in groups despite competing for clients to avoid being easy targets at night for violence.
“We also advise the girls to notify each other of their movements when they are with clients,” she says. “And on condoms, we advise them to think about the future. Personally, I used to ask clients who wanted to pay more to have unprotected sex whether they were sure I wasn’t infected.”
The Kenya Sex Workers Alliance also brings together several formal and informal groups that advocate for rights for sex workers in various parts of the country, such as the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme and counseling groups formed by sex workers who have been tested for HIV.
But Ogutu says it’s hard to engage politicians at the moment, as they are all involved in campaigns ahead of the March 2013 elections.