HUMBLED BY CORONA

No political goodwill to uplift sex workers

Their fortunes have changed since the Covid-19 pandemic hit

In Summary

• Restricting of the usual avenues of flesh trade complicated an already risky business

• Group is lobbying government for bills and policies that do not criminalise sex work

NMS workers arrange cabros on the pavement of Parliament Road in preparation for the budget reading on June 10
NMS workers arrange cabros on the pavement of Parliament Road in preparation for the budget reading on June 10
Image: EZEKIEL AMING'A

The Covid pandemic has altered the sex work landscape in unimaginable ways. Most commercial sex workers (CSWs) have had to find alternative ways of earning a living. With virtually no marketable skills, a few found themselves in unfamiliar territory, competing with Mama Mbogas or Mama Fua for the few available opportunities for such casual work.

Nafula S is a single mother of a 10-year-old girl. “Before Covid, l used to make not less than Sh8,000 a week. Our hotspot was Parliament Road and along the InterContinental hotel in town. Now even the hotel closed,” she says.

I started selling boiled eggs and smokies. It is not as easy. I stand in the sun all day, have to peel the eggs for customers and run around borrowing change
Nafula S

Nafula had to look for alternative means of providing for her little girl. “I started selling boiled eggs and smokies. It is not as easy. I stand in the sun all day, have to peel the eggs for customers and run around borrowing for change in coins every time a customer gives me a note,” she says.

“Look at my nails. They used to be long and manicured. l can't do that anymore.”

Her income has drastically reduced and she is lucky if she makes Sh5,000 a week.

Boiled eggs and smokies
Boiled eggs and smokies
Image: VICTOR IMBOTO

A few CSWs who are tech-savvy have moved their services online. This is a good touch, but it leaves out a majority of sex workers who are illiterate or just not tech-savvy. 

Although most of them have taken to offering their services at home, this option is only applicable to a very select few. Eunice Nduta* (not her real name) is a sex worker under the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance. This new shift to technology has spelled doom to her as she is barely literate after dropping out of school when she was in Standard 8.

“I only reached Class 8 and got a baby, I never went to secondary school. Sex work is easy because even if you are not educated, you can always get a client. All you needed to know was how to snag and satisfy clients,” Nduta says.

“This digital thing is going to make it difficult for me to continue working. Many of us will be left out because we cannot use a computer. I am too old to go back to school to learn computers anyway. It's not easy for us.”

Peninah Mwangi, executive director of the Bar Hostesses’ Empowerment and Support Programme, believes the first step in making life a little bit easier for sex workers is political goodwill. “We are lobbying the government for bills and policies that do not criminalise sex work.”

Even though the digital platform has been fronted as the next frontier for business, it is discriminative to sex workers. A sex worker who spoke anonymously says going digital for sex workers has its risks.

“First, there’s the risk that you’re putting your data out there and have no idea whose hands it will land in,” she says.

“Most social media platforms will flag down or even suspend your account if you advertise your work there under the guise that it violates community guidelines. I also know a friend whose online account was shut down and they took the money she had in the account.”

Sex workers have received support in different forms since the pandemic began. Ranging from food baskets, psychosocial support from their umbrella organisation as well as legal support for those who find themselves in legal situations, all these interventions are meant to ease life for the thousands of sex workers whose livelihood is suddenly under threat. 

Most desired, however, are laws that do not discriminate against their work. It would give them the right to enjoy the protection of the law like their counterparts in other careers.

Edited by T Jalio

Eight commercial sex workers who allegedly administered overpowering drugs to a client before stealing Sh105,000 from him have been charged with stupefying in order to commit a felony.

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