“In Kenya, where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are vulnerable not only to arrests, but also to harassment and violence by law enforcers. (...) Organisations representing sex workers are providing legal training to their members in the hope that knowledge of the law will act as protection from violence on the streets”.
Esther served 3 months in jail when she was arrested 5 years ago, aged 16, as she begun her time in sex work. “The police disturb us because sex work is illegal in Kenya, so when you are at the hot spots they try to get money or sex from you in exchange for not getting arrested,” she says. According to Esther, as sex workers trained as paralegals are informing her and others of their rights, police are increasingly hesitant of arresting her or harassing her. Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, yet according to a study of violence toward female sex workers by Jerry Okal, from Population Centre, it is the sex workers rather than their clients who face being taken to court. “Backed by these anti-prostitution laws, police harass, threaten, arrest, beat and sexually coerce sex workers,” the study states. Peninah Mwangi from Bar Hostesses Empowerment Programs (BHESP) claims that workers not knowing their rights results in generally young, female, disadvantaged persons cowing to the perceived power of the police - whether the police operate within the law or not. Research from Sex Workers Outreach Program in 2011 showed HIV rates of 30% in female sex workers and 40% in males. A field officer from Keeping Alive Society’s Hope (KASH) claims these high rates stem from workers’ fear of approaching health professionals and fear of carrying condoms, in case these reveal them as sex workers. Simon Omina reports how the police normalise homophobic violence: “They approached me while I was drinking with a group of friends, dragged me out and tore off my clothes. They beat me up before they let me go,” he says. Simon is a paralegal for Health Options for Young Men on HIV/AIDS/STI (HOYMAS) and says the trained paralegals help sex workers when they have been victims of violence or sexual attacks, providing emotional support alongside legal. Mary, another paralegal, claims: “Most of the violations are by police officers and city council officers”. In response to this, the paralegals must understand how to help workers navigate the courts systems. Organisations like KASH are also working against the other side of the problem by providing training programs to police officers regarding prostitution --attempting to educate and sensitise. Inspector Wilson Lomali acts as the Law Enforcement and HIV Network’s focal point in Kenya describes: “In the course of the training, I realized that sex workers were facing a lot of harassment from the public and my peers. I came to realize that some of these people have ventured into sex work, not by choice but based on difficult circumstances”. To end harassment, the rights groups claim prostitution needs to be decriminalised. However, they lament that until a politician is brave enough to stand up for the rights of sex workers, the situation is unlikely to change.