On a typical night in downtown Nairobi, skimpily-clad women lean on building walls or stand at street corners.
They whistle and catcall, promising to take men to heaven and back in the quickest time — at a fee. Most are battle-scarred veterans, with sob stories and the scars that come with the job.
Some clients don’t pay. Others are violent. And then there are the boys in blue who swoop out of the darkness to keep the peace, only to end up getting rid of their piss, at the sex workers’ cost.
Some sex workers who spoke to The Nairobian revealed that some of them are forced to bribe crooked officers with a quickie whenever they get arrested. The police however say they are not aware of such cases.
We met Grace, a bubbly mother of one, at a clinic that caters for sex workers in Kimathi estate.
“They (authorities) always ask for sexual favours when they arrest us. Sometimes, we give in because we do not have the money to bribe them," Grace says. “Also when we are assaulted by clients and when we report the cases, police officers say that it is part of our job so there is nothing to report.”
She describes one incident where she met a man in a bar and agreed on payment.
“When we were done, he refused to pay me. We fought and he hit me with a bottle. It was a very scary moment,” she says.
And then there are others like Magdalene who don’t bother to report assault cases to the police.
“I have never reported when assaulted by a client. I am just a sex worker. Who would listen to me?” she says.
Gladys, 43, a veteran of the trade who has served clients in Nairobi from when she was 14, wishes this was the case.
“If the police arrest you and you do not have money to get yourself released, sex is the only way out,” she says.
Police Spokesperson Bruno Shioso says this should not be the case.
“When sex workers report such cases, they should be processed by duty officers like any other member of the public. The Police Service exists to serve all Kenyans,” Shioso says.
The police spokesman also says he is not aware of claims that officers demand for sex from sex workers who are under arrest.
“I have not received such reports. But if it happens it is wrong. If someone breaks the law, the police should arrest them and follow the legal process but not ask for other forms of payment,” Shioso said.
Defending sex work
Elijah Kandie, a Human Rights Officer with the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, says every Kenyan worker’s rights are protected by the law.
“Most of the sex workers are arrested and charged with being idle and disorderly or loitering with an intention to commit an offence,” Kandie says.
This year alone, the Commission has handled 12 cases from sex workers. Kandie says the biggest challenge in helping sex workers access justice is gathering of evidence for prosecution. Many victims also shy off and suffer in silence.
Ruth Kiniaru, a legal officer with the Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme (BHESP), argues that the law does not illegalize sex work; it only illegalizes living under the proceeds of prostitution.
“It is quite hard to prove that someone is living under the proceeds of prostitution and we use that (as a defence),” she explains.
She adds that most of these cases involving sex work never reach police stations and that when they do, her organisation bails the women out. Kiniaru, however laments that most sex workers who are raped give up on justice even after her organisation helps them to file cases in court.
“Most of the girls are after financial compensation, not knowing that with criminal cases there is no compensation. So most of the time I end up alone (in court) because the girls give up,” the lawyer said.
Human rights violations
Five years ago, the Federation of Women Lawyers, Kenya (FIDA) published a report titled Human Rights Violations of Sex Workers in Kenya that said Kenyan law only criminalises the involvement of third parties in sex work.
Further, the report argued that criminalizing sex work is a breach of Kenyan law.
“The current legal framework allows police to arrest women on the basis of how they dress, for being out on the street ‘too late’ and for walking in certain areas
“Women are arrested not for anything they may have done but on the basis of their appearance and where they chose to walk,” the report stated.
Sex workers who were interviewed in the study said police falsely arrested sex workers purely for the purpose of extorting money from them.
“Police officers beat and humiliate sex workers in their custody. Sex workers held in booking cells were given insufficient food, slept on the bare floor, were forced to perform demeaning chores.
“Police officers rape and sexually assault sex workers in their custody. Police also extort sex from women with the promise that they will be released from custody,” the report stated.
In some instances, authorities were said to be illegally detaining sex workers for days and weeks at a time in order to force them to provide sexual and domestic services in police officers’ residences.
The researchers also blamed the government for failing to ensure that sex workers have access to health services.
They also don’t provide them with the most basic forms of peer education and support for HIV prevention so as to address the serious problem of client demand for unsafe sex.