Kenya: Don’t Arrest Us, We’re the Sex Workers of Africa
Nairobi — Imagine a client walking up to a sex worker in Nairobi or Kampala and asking for their tax records — in addition to other “work” history — and when entirely satisfied, proceeds to work out a contract.
Outlandish in East Africa? Perhaps, but this could soon be on the radar if a push for legalisation of prostitution in the region gains traction.
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If it gets sufficient backers, legalisation could also do its bit towards denting the continent’s runaway unemployment rate, say observers.
Many though will need to be convinced, as one Cabinet minister in Namibia recently found out, after he came in for relentless roasting over a similar proposal in that country.
To be fair, Youth and Sports Minister Kazenambo Kazenambo may have had good intentions for a country whose unemployment rate stands at 51.2 per cent.
And this was not the first time such calls were being made in the country.
In 2005, the country’s former health minister Libertina Amathila made the same suggestion only to be shot down by her Cabinet colleagues.
And as the world on December 17 marked the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, East Africa may also have to contend with such strong opposition.
Proponents of legalising the trade accuse their opponents of conservatism and politicising the issue.
This is a claim rebuffed on the grounds that such a move would be a setback in the fight against HIV/Aids, besides being out of touch with “African culture.”
Sex workers are forming organisations to fight for their rights. The groups organise conferences to shed light on the issues revolving around sex work, HIV/Aids and gender based violence.
One was organised by Kenyan bar maids in 2006 while another, the first ever African Sex Workers Conference, was held in Johannesburg last year.
Why the surge?
What is driving the strong upsurge in sex worker activism on the continent?
An African Sex Workers Conference release outlines several: Stigma, discrimination, criminalisation and structural violence, abuse and exploitation, health risks and access to heath care services and facilities.
A downplayed fact has been that while more women are engaged in this activity, there are also some men in the business.
According to John Mathenge, a peer educator at Sex Workers Outreach Project, a clinic that provides health services to enrolled sex workers in Nairobi, “Out of the 7,000 people seeking the services, at least 300 are men.”
Dorothy Akoth Ogutu, a sex worker and co-ordinator of Aswa Kenyan chapter, says these men and women experience routine violence including rape and physical assault at the hands of their clients and law enforcers.
“Sex workers are often afraid to seek legal redress and medical attention courtesy of the illegal status of their job, thus they suffer or even die in silence.”
She points out, “The issue of violence against sex workers has not been taken seriously by society thus giving leeway to their clients to beat them up with impunity.”
Ms Ogutu adds that some sex workers have managed to educate their children from their earnings and as such their issues should be addressed.
“If sex work could be recognised as meaningful career, then the workers would have a right to demand for safe working conditions and even seek medical attention without fear if need be,” she said.
A challenge has been that data on sex workers is deficient as many are afraid of coming out for fear of societal discrimination.
Ms Ogutu says that in Kenya, the figures vary with the Coastal area estimated to have at least 43,000 sex workers.
Some studies have pegged the number of prostitutes in the world at 40 million, with few numbers on Africa available.
In Malaysia for instance, of the total 142,000 prostitutes, between 8,000 to 10,000 reside in the capital Kuala Lumpur. Most are concentrated in urban centres.
Eric Harper, director of Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, an NGO based in Cape Town in South Africa rooting for decriminalisation of sex work agrees.
“Most African governments are hypocritical when it comes to sex workers’ issues.”
“The illegal status of sex work in various countries affects the ability of those involved to demand for their rights,” Mr Harper said.
Asked about statistics for sex workers in Africa, he stated that there were none since sex work is still a taboo subject in most quarters, with restrictive policies a key topic in many countries.
Sex work is also criminalised in several other African countries like Algeria, Angola, Chad, Comoros, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
Others have no laws on prostitution, including Lesotho and Guinea Bissau. This has meant that many countries often turn a blind eye to the activities of the sex workers.
In Senegal, where the practice has been legalised, prostitutes go about their businesses after registration with the government.
They undergo regular health examinations in specific hospitals and carry health cards to ensure they are medically fit for the job.
Senegal currently has very low HIV infection rates. The infection rate is said to be below 3 per cent and is the lowest in sub-Sahara Africa.
But Senegalese health authorities do not expressly equate this low infection rate to the legalisation of prostitution.
Those with dissenting views say this state of affairs ignores that rape and other forms of sexual violence against women still occur in this regulated trade.
African proponents argue that legalising the trade would put women and men out of danger by paving the way for mandatory tests for sexually transmitted infections, providing jobs. Governments could also make some cash through taxing the workers.
They will need to convince a strong anti-legalisation brigade who argue that addressing the factors that push women to this industry is a more viable campaign. It is a debate that has only begun.