NAIROBI, Kenya Jun 3 – Caroline (not her real name) has been a sex worker in central Nairobi for 20 years.
At 36, Caroline says she has tried several menial and office jobs but nothing worked for her due to her poor educational background. “I have no academic papers that can get me a nice job. So this is what I do for a living and it is what feeds me and my three children,” she said in this interview this week.
Having dropped out of school at Form Two, Caroline says she was first hired as a housemaid when she came to Nairobi when she was just 16. “I just couldn’t handle it because I was too tiny and the work was too much, so I quit and landed a job as an office assistant at a small company in Industrial Area but that too did not last.”
As the world celebrates International Sex Workers’ Day, we reflect on the life of Caroline and how she got into this trade which she considers a profession.
Sex Workers’ Day is celebrated on June 3 to honour sex work as well as acknowledge the struggles and challenges sex workers face in their daily work.
This day was first celebrated in 1976.
“I’d say I was introduced to this business by poverty and influence,” she says, “I had a friend who took me to a brothel but lied to me it was just a massage kind of business but when I got there and realised you can make Sh2,000 and sometimes even Sh5,000 a day from tips alone I never looked back. That was in 2001.”
Caroline admits this ‘job’ has a lot of risks “because I have lost so many friends. Some to HIV/Aids, and some to brutality or disappearance.”
“You just have to be careful, but for sure I can tell you it is not a good thing to do,” she said, “I wouldn’t advise any girl to do this for a living even though this is what has educated my first born son who is in High School. I also have two other children in primary school but please don’t ask me who their father is.”
The soft-spoken Caroline, who would easily pass as a High School student, says lately “business is bad.”
COVID-19 effects on Sex work
“We rely on sex work which ordinarily is done at night in most cases but with the curfew, things have changed,” she said.
With the closure of bars for more than a year in 2020 and new restrictions this year that require them to close by 7pm, Caroline says “business has never been the same again.”
“We go to the streets even at 2pm, and just stroll up and down looking for clients, it is never easy sometimes you go home without anything for even three days,” she says, accusing police and county government askaris of arbitrary arrests.
“We are hunted down like wild animals,” she says, “and when we are arrested, police demand money from you to be set free. Sometimes you have nothing to offer but your body. it is a tough life.”
Caroline’s appeal to the government, “just legalise sex work or prostitution like they call it.”
Sammy Muraya, the Programs Director at Voice for Women and Girls’ Rights-Kenya (VWGR-K) a project under Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), says commercial sex workers are humiliated and harassed due to lack of policies and regulations governing their trade.
“It is unfortunate because you realise only the women or girls are arrested during police crackdowns yet they have clients who seek their services,” he said, “that in itself is discrimination and if we had policies in place to govern them we will not be seeing that.”
Citing jurisdictions like The Netherlands where Red Districts are recognised and managed by the state, Muraya says with proper policies the “trade” will be regulated by the government complete with designating specific areas for them.
“Most commercial sex workers are pushed by challenges is society which includes unemployment, broken marriages among others, let us not condemn them unheard,” he said.
Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, but only women are penalised whenever they are arrested.
The capital Nairobi banned prostitution in December 2017 but women and girls still line up on the streets often engaging police in a cat and mouse chase.
So rampant is the illegal trade that it is practised even in the estates.
In some instances, which are common lately, women hire apartments or hotel rooms and disguise themselves as offering massage services which they advertise on billboards or through online sites where they display themselves with their contacts.
“The more the government becomes strict on us, the more we keep re-inventing the trade because there are customers who want our service. So just legalise it,” Caroline says.