Kenya must legalise sex work for the sake of human rights and public healthPublished on Thursday, 17 December 2015 09:18
By Phelister Wamboi Abdalla International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers offers politicians a chance to ponder the manifold benefits of decriminalising Kenya’s sex industry Kenyan sex workers and human rights activists took to the streets of the small town of Nakuru on 12 October to protest against the killing of seven female sex workers in 10 days. They called for proper investigations and better security by police.
The demonstration was organised by the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa) and included family members of the women who had been killed. Keswa estimates that at least 40 sex workers are killed each month in Kenya, and claims police neglect in the cases. The Nakuru rally was part of a larger effort to fight for safety and justice for sex workers. The need for this battle was illustrated last month when 300 sex workers in Kisii, a rural town, were arrested and forcefully tested for HIV.
In recent years, sex worker-led organisations have become increasingly visible. They are being recognised by government agencies as partners in the fight against new HIV infections. Yet violence against sex workers by clients and police, and continued human rights violations, continue to hinder access to healthcare. Creating a safer environment for sex workers is urgently needed – from a human rights perspective as well as a public health one.
Decriminalisation of sex work in Kenya would help significantly to lower incidences of violence. There is ample evidence that the criminalisation of sex workers perpetuates the violence against them. It provides a pretext for police harassment, and bribes often have to be paid to avoid arrest. In some cases, sex workers have to pay police up to 50% of their daily income in bribes. If they can’t pay, they are often forced to have sex with police officers. This is rape. When sex workers report cases of abuse to the police, they are ignored.
Police attitudes have to be seen in the context of a popular belief that sex workers bring violence on themselves because of their choice of work.
We can’t overlook the entrenched corruption within police culture, which is part of a larger, male-dominated political structure. The criminalisation of sex work continues to legitimise the everyday exploitation of sex workers.
A growing number of Kenyans are in favour of decriminalisation. But for some people, the issue of decriminalisation sparks moral panic. This division in society is clearly visible within the government. One arm distributes condoms to sex workers to curb HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, while another takes the same condoms as evidence of a crime having been committed and arrests the worker.
Keswa is engaged in a reform process that involves different government stakeholders bringing the penal code in line with the new constitution’s bill of rights. But legal reform must go hand-in-hand with training police officers to treat sex workers as people who have rights, and compel forces to investigate crimes committed against them. • Phelister Wamboi Abdalla is the national coordinator of Keswa Source: The Guardian