08.05.2024 Saara Manelius

“Nothing About Us Without Us” – The Rights of Sex Workers in Kenya

Reading time: 8 min

Kisiin maantie Keniassa

The human rights of sex workers are not realized in Kenya; instead, they face a lot of discrimination and violence. This is why the Vision Star Ladies organization, based in Kisii, Kenya, exists: to see sex work as work and people as people, ensuring that everyone’s rights are upheld. International Solidarity Foundation works with the organization as part of a project that supports grassroots organizations.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard worldwide. The impacts were dramatic in Kenya as well, where gatherings and leaving home were restricted, services were closed, and the areas most exposed to the virus were isolated from the rest of the country. A nighttime curfew was also declared in the country at the early stages of the pandemic.

One professional group that was severely affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns were sex workers. “During the pandemic, sex workers faced even more violence than usual,” says Emma Were, the organization’s leader.

During the lockdowns, Emma Were founded the Vision Star Ladies organization with other sex workers in Kisii. The core of the organization’s work is to address the human rights violations that sex workers experience.

“We work to prevent violence against sex workers and focus on ensuring that anyone who has experienced violence has the opportunity to seek justice.”

The Stigma of Sex Work and Same-Sex Relations

The job market in Kenya is largely informal, unregulated, or based on entrepreneurship, and sex work is part of this informal sector. A sex worker’s income typically comes from multiple sources, with sex work being one of them. Openly homosexual men face particular discrimination in Kenyan society, making access to formal employment particularly challenging for them. A significant portion of Kenya’s sex workers are men who sell sex to other men.

Both sex work and same-sex relations are criminalized in Kenya, with penalties such as 14 years of imprisonment for male same-sex relations. This criminalization perpetuates discrimination and stigma against female, male, and transgender sex workers. The strong presence of evangelical Christian movements in the country exacerbates the situation.

In 2020, the Aidsfonds organization studied the actions of Kenyan authorities and healthcare workers towards sex workers, finding them to be extremely discriminatory: sex workers are often denied justice as crime victims and are left without care when ill. Discrimination also occurs in more informal social contexts, where sex workers might be excluded from community decision-making and gatherings. Families may also discriminate against or abandon a family member engaged in sex work.

“We aim to address discrimination through close discussions with our communities,” says Beatrice Kerubo, who works with Vision Star Ladies. “In these discussions, we do not apologize. We are sex workers, and we are here to stay.”

“A sex worker is a human being, and this is a job, no different from any other. Someone sells, and someone buys,” Emma Were adds.

Severe Violence

Kenyan sex workers face physical, mental, sexual, and economic violence, including homicides. In a study by the Aidsfonds organization involving about 600 sex workers across Kenya, three-quarters had experienced physical violence in the previous year, and a third had been victims of sexual violence.

Male sex workers face significant violence stemming from homophobia. Sex between men is considered “abnormal” and “un-African,” but those who dress in a manner perceived as feminine are particularly at risk of violence.

Sex workers cannot always expect protection from the police, and crimes against them often go uninvestigated, with perpetrators shielded. More than a third of sex workers in the study had experienced physical violence from the police in the past year.

Police typically arrest sex workers either under public order regulations or on fabricated charges, releasing them in exchange for bribes or sex. Male sex workers experience violence more often than women, and police are more likely to rape men than female sex workers as a condition for release.

Support and Networks

A crucial part of Vision Star Ladies’ work involves close connections and networks. The small organization doesn’t provide all the services sex workers need, but there is comprehensive support and assistance from about ten other organizations in the Kisii area that support sex workers.

The small organization can’t transport people to training sessions and support groups, so events are held in so-called “hot spots,” where sex workers meet clients. Peer groups offer the opportunity to discuss with other sex workers. Training sessions significantly focus on increasing awareness of sex workers’ rights and encouraging and supporting the reporting of violence they face.

“Constant violence causes mental illness,” says Emma Were. “Through discussion groups and training, we aim to prevent a cycle where a person experiences violence, becomes mentally ill because of it, and thus becomes more susceptible to future violence.”

“Training the police is also a very important part of our work,” Were continues. “Trained police take human rights violations, violence, and discrimination against sex workers seriously. They understand that human rights apply to everyone and that no one should be excluded from these rights because of their profession.”

From Zero to a Hundred Volunteers

Vision Star Ladies currently has five paid employees. Alongside them works a group of over a hundred trained volunteers. Volunteers, for example, monitor the safety situation at places where sex workers meet clients.

“Four years ago, we started from zero,” says Beatrice Kerubo. “We had no money at all, and every single expense had to come out of our own pockets. Now our work involves over 850 sex workers.”

The guiding principle of Vision Star Ladies is “nothing about us without us,” and everyone involved in the organization is also a sex worker. “Each of us has experienced violence at some point. It drives us to act and helps us cope with the difficulties and challenges of the work. Sex workers have united – you understand that when something bad happens to one of us. If I am arrested, other sex workers rush to help.”

Only Rights Can Stop Wrongs

Emma Were and Beatrice Kerubo state that one of the most visible results of the organization’s three-year work in the Kisii area is that more and more sex workers dare to seek help when they face violence or discrimination. Awareness of sex workers’ equal rights is the only way to break the culture of impunity surrounding crimes against sex workers.

“Our focus is firmly on realizing the human rights of sex workers. The most important thing is that everyone has equal rights, both in this community and under the law.”

The Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) serves as the umbrella organization for sex workers’ organizations and advocates for changes not only in attitudes but also at the legislative level. Efforts are currently underway in Kenya to decriminalize sex work and homosexual acts. While the majority of religiously conservative Kenyans are not yet behind the change, a shift in attitudes is already visible.

Were and Kerubo’s vision for the future is clear. “We see more and more people being able to openly do sex work. We see that in the future, more sex workers and men who have sex with men will be treated equally.”

International Solidarity Foundation X Vision Star Ladies 

ISF has launched a new type of project working with grassroots organizations in Kisii, Kenya. The goal is to support their work by participating in the implementation of a small project defined by the organization itself.

“Supporting grassroots organizations is the best way to promote sustainable, internally-driven change. It’s not just about expanding the aid work of organizations but standing alongside them and recognizing their tremendous strength and resilience. Organizations like Vision Star Ladies are at the forefront of defending the rights of marginalized communities,” says Solidarity’s project manager, Gerishom Boiyo.

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