Sex workers trained as paralegals protect colleagues from police harassment

By LYDIA MATATA, @lydiamatata.

Esther served a three-month jail sentence when she began sex work aged 16.

Unable to produce any identification documents, she was arrested with other sex workers during a raid on a hot spot in Nairobi.

That was five years ago, but Esther says harassment from law enforcers still continues.

“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.

In Kenya, where prostitution is illegal, sex workers are vulnerable not only to arrests, but also to harassment and violence by law enforcers.

But Esther said after fellow sex workers trained as paralegals sensitised her on her rights, law enforcers are weary about arresting her because she is able to challenge them.

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.

Prostitution is outlawed under Kenya’s penal code, and in county by-laws.

A study on physical violence against female sex workers by Jerry Okal from the non-profit, Population Council, found that often, only sex workers and not their clients, are arrested and taken to court for loitering for the purpose of selling sex.

“Backed by these anti-prostitution laws, police harass, threaten, arrest, beat and sexually coerce sex workers,”the study states.

Peninah Mwangi, executive director of Bar Hostesses Empowerment Programs (BHESP) an organisation based in Nairobi, says that when sex workers do not know their rights it makes them vulnerable to violence and other rights violations.

“Sex workers are always at a disadvantage as young people and as women. They are disadvantaged people and it is hard for them to challenge the police, whether they believe they are right or wrong,” says Mwangi.

“They have seen people being violated because of it. So rather than lose a tooth or get a swollen eye they say I will just pay whatever he wants.”

Harassment increase risk of HIV prevalence

A 2011 study by the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) states that HIV prevalence is at 30 per cent among female sex workers and 40 percent among males.

Arrests and harassment put sex workers at a higher risk by presenting a barrier to accessing health services and further diminish sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use, a 2010 UN report states.

Angie, a field officer working at Keeping Alive Society’s Hope (KASH), an organization that works with male and female sex workers in Nyanza and Western regions, says when sex workers are arrested, the condoms they carried are sometimes used against them in court.

“As a result, they refrain from using condoms or do not ensure consistency during their sexual acts hence they are vulnerable to acquiring HIV and other STIs,” she says.

She adds that HIV positive sex workers cannot adhere to medication while in custody.

The fear of arrests and violence from police, also pushes sex workers to do business secretly which keeps them from accessing healthcare services.

Simon Omina, says the frequency with which he encounters homophobic verbal and physical attacks from police has normalized the violence. The most recent incident happened in February at a Nairobi pub.

“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 an advocacy officer and paralegal at Health Options for Young Men on HIV/AIDS/STI (HOYMAS). He says the organizations has trained 10 paralegals since the beginning of last year. Their hob is to assist colleagues in case any violence breaks out at hot spots.

He adds that both male sex workers and Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSMs) are usually arrested for petty crimes such as touting, loitering with the intent to sell sex or being drunk and disorderly.

“We are currently handling an incident that occurred in November 7. Some of our members were resting at a park in the city when they were arrested and charged for being drunk and disorderly,” he says.

Simon adds that paralegal work goes beyond the police harassment and includes aiding sex workers in other ways, in other instances of violence.

“Paralegals are trained on how to report and write a statement at the police station. If it is a rape case, we help the victim handle it, and take them to the hospital. We also sensitize sex workers on what to do if they are raped,” he says.

Beyond harassment, to sensitisation

Mary, an advocacy officer at BHESP, has been a paralegal for six years. She says part of her advocacy work is to sensitize sex workers against paying bribes to the police or city county officers. She adds that sex workers are sometimes forced to have sex with officers to avoid getting arrested.

“Most of the violations are by police officers and city council officers. When they take us to court they charge us with loitering with the intent of prostitution or hawking, because it is hard to prove a case of prostitution. Allegations based on our dress code, or standing at a bus stop at night cannot stick as Kenya has no dress-code or curfew,” she says.

BHESP has 12 trained paralegals with the ability to inform and seek justice on behalf of other sex workers at the community level.

“They are trained on the laws that pertain to them as sex workers. They are also trained on general laws that affect them as women and as citizens of Kenya,” says Mwangi, the organizations director.

“We take them through a lot of the daily challenges they face in terms of how the court system is concerned. I have seen several of them going to the police station to know why one of them was arrested. And if the offence is bailable, they provide bail and this makes the police careful for arresting sex workers.”

Realising that sex workers and MSMs were being harassed by police, the organizations are also sensitizing officers on how to handle sexual minority groups. KASH began training programmes for police officers in 2008. The trainings have been used as a platform for sex workers to talk to the officers about the violations.

“Sensitization of police officers, through advocacy sessions organized by KASH, has assisted them to understand the concerns surrounding sex workers. In return, the sex workers help police in curbing crime as some of their clients – who are criminals – can be reported to the police when they are in good relation,” says Angie.

Inspector Wilson Lomali, a police officer based in Nairobi began sensitizing colleagues on the rights of sex workers after receiving training from KASH in 2008, while in charge of the Police Department in Kisumu.

He is currently the Law Enforcement and HIV Network’s (LEAHN) country focal point in Kenya.

“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.” Lomali says

Lomali says the challenge in changing police attitudes is pre-existing views on morality, and the fact that making a living from sex is a crime.

“They stigmatize sex workers. When it comes to approaching issues, they tend to wear the moral cap, so they do not come as policemen, but with their own culture. But as a police officer, your responsibility is to serve and protect. You have not been told that you are supposed to serve one and not the other.” Lomali adds.

For the harassment to truly com to an end, the rights groups believe sex work in Kenya should be decriminalized while sensitization takes place.

But Mwangi from BHESP says this might be a difficult battle as no politician is yet to stand up for sex workers’ rights

“It would be very hard for a representative to champion the rights of sex workers, and it would be hard for such a law to pass. Perhaps what we would have to do is package it as part the removal of all petty offences,” says Mwangi.

Esther, who is supporting herself through a diploma in HIV Testing and Service Prevention through sex work, says the public should understand that the Kenyans in her profession are smart and educated people who should be respected.

“What I would like people to understand in Kenya is that sex workers are entitled to the same rights as other citizens. They need to stop harassing us because a sex worker is a mother, a brother or a sister just trying to make a living,” she says.


First Published by The Star


25 November, 2016

The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.


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