Sex work can be lucrative for some in this commercial hub of Kenya, but the stigma and abuse facing workers can often seem insurmountable. KASH tries to help women involved in the sex trade stand up for their rights.

By Elizabeth Daube *
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artwork by Devin Shepherd

Aluna** looks like a mom. She enters the room with a warm smile, wearing a neat pink sweater and pressed slacks, carefully arranging the bangles on her wrists. She talks brightly of her five children, who range in age from 21 to 10. One wants to be an artist; another, an engineer. And, according to Aluna, 37, none of them knows what their mother does to make a living—what she started doing at 12 years old, after a man propositioned her on a matatu bus. Aluna sells sex.

She needs money, and sex work pays. Aluna estimates that if a sex worker can get five clients a day at a high price—400 Kenyan shillings per transaction—she can make up to $23 U.S. a day, or about $8,000 a year. It’s an amount that wildly exceeds the incomes of many people in Kenya. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that the average national income here is just $820 a year.

But there are no days off, no sick leave. Aluna works 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. And her basic rights—to access health care, to be protected from violence, police brutality and harassment—sometimes seem out of reach. The stigma of sex work is intense in Kenya. When Aluna was ill and went to a public hospital for treatment, she said the nurses discovered she was a sex worker and gathered a small crowd together. They stared at her, pointing and laughing.

Aluna became a peer educator for KASH, or Keeping Alive Societies’ Hope, hoping to help sex workers gain rights and respect. KASH started in 2003 as a non-profit organization focused on reducing HIV transmission among local sex workers, who might help stem the spread of the virus by insisting that clients wear condoms.

KASH is based in Kisumu, a port city perched on Lake Victoria. The lake connects Western Kenya to Uganda and Tanzania, creating a commercial hub for trading fish and other products across the region. It’s a place where many men travel alone, selling or transporting goods. Their willingness to buy sex during a stop in Kisumu has turned many local hotels into so-called “hot spots” for the sex trade.

At first, KASH focused solely on health education and HIV prevention for the estimated 5,000 sex workers living in the Kisumu area, according to Thomas Odhiambo, a KASH program manager. But this strategy alone didn’t create the kind of changes that sex workers needed.

“Over time, we realized that they had other problems,” Odhiambo said. “Police action was reversing what was necessary to stop HIV.”

Odhiambo said the types of “police action” experienced by sex workers included rape, demands for bribes, false arrest, and confinement within police officers’ homes. In Kenya, the act of selling one’s own body for sex is not illegal; the current law only penalizes a third party, such as a pimp or brothel owner, who profits from the sale of others’ bodies. But according to Odhiambo and Aluna, Kenyan police have often harassed sex workers anyway, threatening to charge them with other petty crimes, like public drunkenness.

Why do sex workers get such cruel treatment from police? The answer echoes why KASH reached out to sex workers in the first place: HIV. About 6 percent of Kenyan adults are already HIV positive. Women are nearly 4 times more likely to be infected than men are, and more than half of all HIV-positive people in Kenya live in Rift Valley or Nyanza province, where Kisumu is located. And it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that unprotected sex work contributes to the continued spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs).

In Kenya, the stigma of HIV has merged with the moral judgment cast upon sex workers, creating a particularly hostile environment. In a 2004 article for the journal Reproductive Health Matters, researchers Michael Elmore-Meegan, Ronan Conroy and Bernard Agala described Kenyan sex workers as “doubly disadvantaged,” bearing the brunt of even more violence and abuse since the public started to view prostitution as “the cause of disease rather than the consequence of economic marginalization.”

But punishing sex workers for the spread of HIV doesn’t help them negotiate condom use or find alternate ways to make money. And blaming them also shifts focus away from another key factor in spreading the disease: male clients willing to pay for sex and, in many cases, to pay extra for sex without condoms.

According to Odhiambo, the only way to reduce HIV and other STIs among sex workers is to give them realistic ways to advocate for their own health and protection.

“We feel you cannot intervene with health problems without addressing human rights,” Odhiambo said. “Once their rights are taken care of, sex workers have what it takes to take care of these issues.”

That’s the idea behind KASH’s peer outreach model. They rely on volunteers like Aluna to gather other sex workers, forming groups that can identify and, with KASH’s help, try to address rights abuses and health needs.

To get a sense of how it actually works, Aluna takes me and Algah, a Kenyan student helping with translation and interviewing, to a hotel “hot spot” where a meeting is about to begin. We walk through a pool hall and up the stairs, and Aluna directs us to a few plastic lawn chairs arranged in the hallway. Broken bed frames lie stacked in a nearby alcove, resting against the sky blue walls. As women start to file in, they sit on the floor and remove their shoes. When a slender, pregnant woman arrives late, one of the KASH facilitators gives up a coveted plastic chair. All told, about 18 sex workers show up.

After Algah and Aluna explain our presence in Luo, the microphone and recorder get passed around. The group starts off by sharing challenges, and there’s a sudden flurry of impassioned Luo, lots of big swooping gestures and making of points, peppered by English words: “uniform” and “Land Cruiser.” Algah whispers that they’re talking about police harassment.

They start discussing a soft-spoken young woman who’s sitting on the floor near my feet. She’s wearing a delicately flowered tank top over a modest black t-shirt and sporting an eye that looks painfully swollen underneath; faint shades of purple surface there, despite the darkness of her skin. A client did this to her.

“We went and had sex the first time,” she said. “The second time, he refused to wear a condom. He started beating me and I fell down. He stepped on my head with two legs.” Other sex workers heard her cries and entered the room. The man fled, and the young woman was left unconscious. Her friends took her to the hospital.

Now, they want to know how KASH can assist. “Help us with the men,” one woman says. “Help us so that they don’t beat us.”

That’s what KASH is trying to do. In response to all this – police harassment, client cruelty – the facilitator says, “KASH will be there to defend you.” KASH has a lawyer and paralegals on their 12-person staff, which is supported by about 40-50 volunteers. Odhiambo said most sex workers don’t want to end up in court; the legal team helps advocate and negotiate on their behalf with police.

KASH also started partnering with the Kisumu Police Training Center in 2006. Now, about two days of police training are dedicated to KASH presentations on sex worker rights and health risks. Staff try to emphasize that “both parties benefit” from increased trust and understanding, Odhiambo said. Sex workers get more protection and respect from police, and police can ask sex workers for information when investigating legitimately criminal activity. Hoping to cut tension and foster better relationships, KASH even organizes volleyball tournaments for sex workers and police.

But, as Odhiambo notes, getting every corrupt police officer to stop harassing and start supporting sex workers is an “ongoing process.” That’s probably an understatement. At the sex workers’ meeting, the KASH facilitator suggests that police should help deal with violent clients. But another woman says, “There is no trust … We know the policemen. They come as customers, ask for a price, then they start beating.”

The KASH facilitator offers something more practical: someone to call when the police come around. “When they pick you [up,] call us and we will come,” she says. Later, she snaps some digital photographs of the young victim’s swollen eye, the abrasions on her face and neck.

The conversation turns to another chronic problem for sex workers: competition. The women complain that some sex workers agree to a price of as little as 50 or 100 Kenyan shillings. That’s less than $1. “We need to be strict,” one woman says. “No sex for 100 shillings. We do not want to be cheap.”

This causes an uproar. Women gesture fervently, leaning forward to make themselves heard across the small hallway. One argues that women charge less because the client also buys them a room for the night. Some say sex workers entering Kisumu from villages and small towns around Lake Victoria are spoiling the prices; others blame it on girls new to the profession. Someone suggests orienting them, trying to get all the local sex workers to agree on set prices.

Sex trade talk sometimes reveals disturbing trends. When Aluna mentions the “dry season,” to me, I ask her to explain what that means. She says it happens when schools are closed. The sex workers’ typical clients disappear; they’re off buying sex sold by girls around 14 or 15 years old, who try to make extra money during the break.

I ask Aluna if KASH could help these girls, educating them about the risks of sex work or how to protect themselves from HIV and other hazards. But Aluna shakes her head and says they’re too difficult to reach, just as she was when she first started. “They will not want their parents to know,” she said. “They hide.”

When I ask Odhiambo for his take on this situation, he agrees that the girls are tough to access. It’s not legal for adults to purchase sex from children, but it happens anyway. He hasn’t heard about any sex trafficking—girls getting forced into selling sex—in this region. But in many cases, poverty gives them all the reason they need to start selling. “It’s easy for the girls to get involved,” Odhiambo said.

After sitting in the sex workers’ meeting for nearly an hour, often unable to understand the surrounding conversation, I start to notice details that somehow escaped me at first. There’s a black dildo, resting vertically on its rounded rubber testicles by the feet of a tall woman wearing a USAID t-shirt. A heavyset woman with blonde streaks in her hair has bent her legs in a position that, while probably comfortable, reveals to anyone seated across from her that she does not wear underwear beneath her skirt. She points to her crotch not long after I make this silent observation, and everyone laughs heartily. I turn to Algah for an explanation. She says, “Some men, they’re not paying them.” The joke doesn’t translate.

Eventually, the women wind up talking about ways out of sex work. Vocational training and adult education are available at a partner NGO; KASH tries to refer interested sex workers to alternative ways to make a living. The woman with the swollen eye asks in a hushed voice if she might be eligible for a particular program. It’s age limited, so they ask how old she is. She responds in English: “23.” Unlike many other women in the group, she’ll just barely qualify; Algah tells me that the program takes women up to age 24.

When we’re alone, I ask Aluna what kinds of foreign assistance would be most useful to her and other sex workers. KASH already gets support from funders like USAID and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. What else do they need that they’re not getting?

Her answer: another job or the money to start a small business, hopefully one that pays as well as sex work does. Aluna has already joined up with some other sex workers to form a small lending group, and KASH is connecting them to a microfinance lender. When they save enough to qualify for a larger loan, Aluna hopes to work with her peers on a poultry farming business. They would supply eggs and chickens to the hotels where they currently rent rooms and sell sex.

Chicken farming is hardly a glamorous job. But while she encourages her 12-year-old to dream of becoming a pilot, Aluna has five kids to feed. She has more realistic career goals in mind.

*Pamoja team members Algah Adhiambo Balla and Monica Onyango provided critical Luo-English translation and assistance, without which this article would not be possible.

**Name changed to help protect the identity of the interviewee, who wants to continue concealing the nature of her profession from her children.