Penzi, who is a paralegal with “Sisters of Majengo,” a community-based organisation that promotes health and human rights for female sex workers through advocacy, trainings on sexual reproductive health and rights, economic empowerment and community outreach in Majengo, lives in an urban settlement in Kenya and has been in the business for 24 years as an indoor sex worker.
Majengo is one of the most famous red-light districts in Nairobi.
“In Majengo, men know they get cheap sex as low as $USD 0.50 with a mixture of clients, some business men while majority are young men around the slum who have nothing to do, no job, they just hang around the local brew dens during the day and mug people at night. These clients will threaten me with knife until I give in to have sex with them for free,” said Penzi adding that sex workers in Majengo streets go through myriad challenges from police extortion, arbitrary arrests and criminals demanding sex at gunpoint.
Several raids are undertaken by the police in the streets of Majengo forcing sex workers to hide for fear of being arrested and charged without fair trial.
“We’ve continued to face numerous human rights violations especially in the hands of persons in authority, when accessing health services, particularly those services relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in public health centres. Limited access to equal protection by police against violations and degrading treatment while in police custody breach of privacy” says Miss Majengo, another sex worker who has been in the business for five years.
Being both a street-based sex worker and indoor worker is not easy, and the young sex workers are not safe either. Many sex workers complain of male clients who refuse to pay for their services. “Some men threaten us and others steal from us, others beat us after they have had sex. Others take advantage of us because we are young and refuse to pay,” said Jaber who shares a working space with Penzi.
“I got into sex work at the age of 14 after for the death of my parents, and I had to fend for my siblings. I never regret my decision. Sex work is the easiest way to earn a living no one asks for your papers, provided i take good care of my office (my body) I’ll always have a mobile ATM. All we ask for is our rights to be recognised and sex work to be legalised,” said Lady K who is in her mid-20s.
With rampant stigma in the slums against sex workers, the majority of them are unable to keep themselves safe as they seek to support themselves and their families. They are subject to police harassment, arrest, violence and abuse. The community views sex work as evil and immoral rather than viewing sex work as work.
Stigma significantly affects the lives of female sex workers by limiting their access to security, hence their vulnerability to gender-based violence. A direct outcome of this is denial of or exclusion from healthcare services.
On the 29 March 2016 a man was lynched for stabbing sex worker to death after refusing to pay.
This is just one of the very many cases depicts what most of sex workers in Majengo undergo in the hands of their clients.
There is need for continued efforts to amplify the voice of sex workers by speaking against laws that criminalise and discriminate against sex workers. “We are entrepreneurs, sex work is a business,” concluded Jaber.
Access to health is guaranteed in article 43 of Kenyan constitution. However, discrimination limits sex workers access to equal and quality health care and services.