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Calls to decriminalise sex work will escalate rights abuses

COMMENTARY
By By Beverline Ongaro | June 5th 2012

By Beverline Ongaro

A Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report ‘Realising sexual and reproductive right; a reality or a myth’ had interesting findings and recommendations on sex workers that has unfortunately not generated debate it deserves; rather the focus especially, in the media has been on same-sex relations.

The report’s recommendations in relation to sex workers are a contradiction of some sort and will make eunuch the efforts to the safeguard of the dignity of sex workers. On one hand, the report recommends decriminalisation and regulation of voluntary sex work for men and women to make the practice safe for the sex workers and clients.

On the other hand, it calls for implementation of a counter-trafficking law to be implemented fully to eradicate instances of forced sex work.

The fact that these recommendations were made side by side demonstrates that there is no dialectical appreciation of how sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation are almost intrinsically linked. Human trafficking has become unfortunate social reality that is fuelled by sex work. This is on account it is not possible to fully regulate and ensure sex work is safe.

How feasible is it to differentiate forced and voluntary sex? Persons with licences to permit sex work within in their premises would just easily engage in human trafficking for sexual exploitation by stating that all women and men in their premises work there voluntary.

This leads to the question as to whether the booths should be installed with surveillance cameras including when sex workers are serving clients and hence raises the concern on right to privacy for both of them.

In other jurisdictions, notably Amsterdam with its ‘progressive’ laws have had to contend with these concerns especially after noting that sex work is purveyor to trafficking for sexual exploitation. Most of the workers had been trafficked and were abused even within booths with installed cameras.

And the demand side?

There were reported incidents of sex workers subjected to inhumane treatment. These forlorn states of affairs have been discussed by various stakeholders at international and regional levels. Notably culminating to a communiqué, “Global Efforts to Eradicate Violence and Discrimination against Women and Girls: A Discussion in Combating Sex Trafficking in Eastern Africa September 2009 in Nairobi” that was drawn by civil society organisations speared headed by Equality Nown.

The communiqué in line with singular observation and approach by human rights activists advocates for enactment and implementation of laws that criminalise the ‘customers’ to deal with the demand side of prostitution rather than simple blanket decriminalisation and regulation of prostitution. It would have been expected that Commission could have at least moved towards this direction. 

Its quest for safe practice of sex workers will remain a Chimera for it failed to address how discrimination and inhumane treatment of sex workers is fuelled by the nomenclature-prostitution: the prevailing perception is that prostitutes evoke inhumane treatment towards them.

This invariably determines whether sex workers have access to reproductive health services from a society that perceives them as ignoble persons.

The report classified sex workers as sex minorities without analysing the plight of sex workers that would classify them as such. This makes the quest for freedom from discrimination and equality of sex worker to be pseudo- equality.

There is need to re-examine the plight of sex workers in prevailing local, regional and international settings, otherwise human rights abuses and violations will continue.

Writer is an advocate of High Court of Kenya.


 

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