By Jeckonia Otieno
Disgusting. That is what many people think about commercial sex workers. Historically, the men who have kept these women’s business thriving over time are not condemned.
Although it takes two to tango, for the sex workers’ haters, the man has no problem.
The man is like a shadow; always there but no one remembers him.
So when two sex workers, let’s call them Catherine and Agnes, were beaten up and abused by a man who solicited their services, the two women suffered silently.
They knew no one could listen to them, let alone believe their explanation.
Catherine was in the commercial sex work for ten years. Despite the danger involved such as being infected with HIV/Aids and the ultimate stigmatisation associated with it, she hang on – for the money.
Catherine, who is now a peer educator of commercial sex workers in Kilifi County’s Mtwapa area, says the trade was anything but dignifying; the workers were always unsure of what the next man posing as a customer would turn out to be.
“The danger of contracting the HIV virus was ever real because I would sometimes get customers who never wanted to use condoms,” says Catherine.
She notes that in the trade, one would receive many clients some of whom she had never seen before yet many others well known to her.
Some of these men, she says, often turned violent. “He beats you up claiming that you have stolen money from him or just refuses to pay. And if you argue, the public sides with the man because of the suspicion with which commercial sex workers are viewed,” she states. With this kind of attitude, the man makes a twilight woman his property and uses her as he wishes because “he has paid”.
Nowhere to turn
She says there is nowhere commercial sex workers can voice their concerns because even the police are never too keen to hear their stories.
Agnes, also a former commercial sex worker, says prostitution is a murky business. But her greatest worry was how her children – who saw her as the perfect mother – could think of her if they found out what she did for a living.
The single mother of three’s next priority worry was contracting HIV/Aids. But the need for money to take care of herself and the children always made her go back to the activity.
Agnes recounts how on three different occasions she was raped by clients, respectable people in the society but whose HIV status she did not know. The violence meted on her is a typical example of what sex workers experience in the hands of men.
“In one instance, I was raped in a guest house in Ganjoni, Mombasa, by a man who then left me inside the room without any money even though he had a car. I had to have sex with the watchman there so I could get the fare back to Mtwapa,” confesses Agnes, her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
Then she has had near-death experiences. For example, one day a client raped her in his car and demanded to have anal sex. She refused and started screaming, forcing him to speed away.
Fearing for her life, Agnes jumped out of the moving car and sustained injuries. She spent the night in the bush until the following day when she got help.
In all these instances, she says, she would go for post-exposure prophylaxis just to rid her of any sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
At long last when these two women could not take any more from their ‘respectable’ clients, they quit through the help of a programme run by Solidarity with Women in Distress (Solwodi) Coast.
Solwodi targets areas with high sex work activities like Mtwapa, Ukunda and Mombasa town and works with the sex workers as well as male partners who get intimate with these women.
According to the chief executive, Maureen Karisa, this enables them to get to those at higher risk of contracting HIV.
Karisa says men who engage commercial sex workers have been left out in the fight against HIV/Aids as focus is more on the women. To reach the men, the organisation has many services such as moonlight VCTs and provision of condoms in areas frequented by this group.
Some of these areas are brothels, mnazi dens and strip clubs.
Says Karisa: “Members hold group therapy sessions where they talk with each other in a language they understand. In the process, they also discuss other ideas such as how to access microfinance services.”
Such sessions helped Catherine and Agnes choose new paths to walk. Catherine now sells green groceries in Mtwapa while Agnes runs a local pub in the same locality.
Agnes can now pay her children’s school fees without a worry and is proud to tell them what she does for a living, she says. Both women say they now have steady partners as opposed to before when they would go for any man as long as there was money.
Baghazal Anisa, the Coast Provincial assistant director of medical services, says many people look down upon sex workers yet those who demand the services are normal people in the society.
Says Anisa: “Gender-based violence recovery centres are open to offer help to every Kenyan regardless of who they are.”