A Nascent Movement: Sex Worker Organising In East Africa
FRIDAY FILE: An interview with Zawadi Nyong’o, an independent feminist social justice consultant, who has done research on sex worker organising in East Africa, and is the author of When I Dare to Be Powerful, a book that tells the herstories of women engaged in sex work.
By Kathambi Kinoti
AWID: There is a lot of women's rights work going on in East Africa, but there isn't generally a lot of documentation of it coming out of the region. How did the idea for When I Dare to be Powerful come about?
ZAWADI NYONG’O: The need to document stories coming out of Africa has long been recognised by feminists in the region. One of the priorities of the African Feminist Forum is to facilitate the documentation of women’s experiences and feminist work. We see storytelling as a powerful tool to enable this. So when Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) hosted the first African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) for East African sex worker activists, they took this as an opportunity to contribute to African feminist knowledge and particularly to women’s narratives on sexual rights in Africa. When I Dare to be Powerful is a collection of the remarkable stories shared by some of the women who attended the AWLI which took place in June 2009 in Mombasa, Kenya. During the Institute, we invited participants to contribute their stories and eight of them were interviewed. Early this year AMwA decided to compile some of the interviews into a book. We asked the women we’d interviewed if they were still willing to have their stories published, did some follow up interviews with those who agreed, and eventually ended up with five powerful stories which made it into the book.
We wanted to demystify sex work, provide diverse and alternative narratives, and share these stories in an accessible, creative, and easy-to-read format. In development and women’s right work, the tendency is to share information through reports which are usually oriented towards donors and development partners, but are not easily accessible to the general public or even the constituency that these reports are supposed to represent. We saw the 4th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights as a good space to share the stories and this was the first public regional forum for the book.
AWID: What reactions has the book garnered?
ZAWADI: Reactions have been unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive. There is a growing sex worker movement in the world and the book speaks to the need to create more forums for sex workers, who are often forced to operate underground, to speak for themselves, define their agenda for change, and defend their human rights. It has also been extremely encouraging to see how the general population in East Africa has responded to the book and engaged in discussions around sex work and sex worker rights. When the book was launched at the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi on International Women’s Day, 2010 it attracted a lot of interest from quite a diverse group of people. In fact, the event was so well attended that they had to turn people away because the room was at full capacity. About a week later, Peninah Mwangi, the Executive Director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) Kenya’s first sex worker rights organization, a bold sex worker who was willing to take the risk of appearing on national television, and I were interviewed on a popular call-in live television talk show that is broadcasted on stations in the region and in several countries across the continent. We expected a lot of negative reactions, but we were actually positively surprised when the majority of callers were sympathetic and supportive of the case we were making for the protection of women’s human rights, irrespective of the moral judgements anyone may have. When one caller asked how much money this sex worker earned, I was particularly impressed when the male host, who I would have imagined to be quite conservative, made it clear that she didn’t have to answer the question that any other guest –say a lawyer speaking on the constitution – wouldn’t be asked.
AWID: In the introduction to the book you pose the question, "Are [sex workers] victims or are they bastions of feminist sexuality?" You interviewed a number of sex workers for the book. What do you think is their sense about this?
ZAWADI: All the women whose stories are in the book participated in the AWLI organized by AMwA, and part of the Institute is about feminism and building feminist leadership. So even if at the beginning of the Institute some of the women may not have identified themselves as feminists, by the end of their time at the Institute they did; the sex worker pledge which is shared at the end of the book, is a testament to this These women are determined to challenge “good” woman/”bad” woman false constructs, make their own decisions, challenge patriarchy, reject repressive body politics, and cross whatever boundaries they need to, to achieve self determination. They don’t want to be seen as victims, but as people with agency. They are finding ways to negotiate money, sex and power. Sex workers who have a victim mentality are often more at risk of unwanted pregnancies, violence, rape, sexually transmitted infections, sex slavery, and even trafficking. When I Dare to be Powerful therefore contains several tips on risk management that the sex workers came up with during the AWLI. Other sex workers and sex worker rights activists around the world who have read the book appreciate these tips and have observed that it is one of the most useful and comprehensive lists they have come across so far.
AWID: What is the relationship between mainstream women's rights organisations and sex worker rights organisations and activists in the region?
ZAWADI: Many sex workers don’t see any space for themselves within the feminist movement because it is still divided as to whether or not to embrace sex worker rights. Only a few organisations openly support sex worker rights work like the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme in Tanzania, Urgent Action Fund –Africa and the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health in Kenya, and of course AMwA in Uganda.
AWID: Why is this so? Is it because sex work is regarded as "immoral" or because sex worker rights abuses do not get much exposure?
ZAWADI: It is a mixture of both. Generally people shy away from talking about sex, sexuality, and by extension sex work. Many have yet to even accept it as a form of work, where there is a formal or informal agreement between the service provider and client, for a fee. Often, women’s rights organisations want to avoid the stigma of being identified with what they regard as “lesbian issues” or “sex worker issues” and don’t consider that they are human rights and not morality issues. The women’s rights movement therefore still has a long way to fully embrace the indivisibility and inalienability of human rights.
The majority of sex workers are also working underground because of the legal context, a factor which has contributed to their invisibility. This is beginning to change because of sex worker organising, which in the region is at most about three to five years old. Mainstream organisations are more likely to take up issues that are made visible by an organised marginalised constituency. The growth of movements for sexual health and rights in the region is also apparent where feminist organisations and movements are being strengthened. We are seeing this in the advocacy around the draconian Bahati Bill* in Uganda where the campaign was spearheaded by the partnerships built between LGBTI organisations and feminist activists and organisations that were then able to mobilise the support of several other mainstream civil society organisations.
AWID: Is there a sex worker movement in East Africa?
ZAWADI: There is a movement in the making. A movement needs to have a political agenda. Because it is only just in the last year that sex worker activists and organizations have even had the space to come together, in the past there hasn’t been a defined sex worker political agenda. The first time that they came together was at the 2009 AWLI. In the last year so much has happened to promote the strengthening and networking. For instance the Pan African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA), has now been established, and two sex workers who are alumni of AWLI were appointed the Kenya and Uganda coordinators respectively of the Alliance early this year.
The Open Society Initiative East Africa (OSIEA) and the Sexual Health and Rights Programme (SHARP) also recently convened a meeting of their sex worker organization grantees in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. At this workshop sex workers identified three key areas that they plan to collectively address as priorities:
1. Decriminalisation of sex work;
2. Ending police brutality;
3. Research and documentation.
This was the first time that sex workers in East Africa have come together to jointly develop a political agenda. Donors are recognising their role in taking this agenda to the next step, and new opportunities for movement building are being created
AWID: Having interviewed several sex workers in different situations from different parts of East Africa, what common themes do you see running through their experiences?
ZAWADI: Access to proper, friendly, affordable, and appropriate health services is a major issue. Most sex workers don’t seek health services because of the stigma and discrimination they encounter in public health institutions, and they can’t afford private health care. The legal context in East Africa contributes to this situation. Even when sex workers have the knowledge about preventing or treating HIV and other STIs, the legal context creates a hostile environment that places them at risk in several ways. To begin with, clients often abuse sex workers both physically and sexually, simply because they feel that these women have no recourse under the legal system. The criminalisation of sex work also helps perpetuate social stigma and discrimination. Finally, even where health and other public services are available to sex workers, it is difficult to get these services to a population that has been largely driven underground because of the legal and social contexts that it operates in.
The police routinely harass sex workers, arbitrarily arrest them, and over and above that deny them due process when crimes are committed against them. A sex worker who reports being raped might be asked how it is possible that he or she could be raped, and then get arrested on other grounds. Many sex workers don’t know their rights and therefore do not interact with the police, if they can avoid it. They think that because their work is illegal, they cannot assert their human rights.
The major underlying factor in all these issues is poverty: sex worker rights abuses happen primarily in the context of poverty. The more economically empowered a sex worker is, the better she or he is to choose (and therefore screen) clients. A sex worker who is desperate to put food on the table every night will take anyone as their client, have unprotected sex for more money, or even agree to have sex with a police officer to avoid being arrested.
AWID: Judging from the reaction that the book has received, and the work that the nascent sex worker movement in East Africa is doing, do you think that the decriminalisation of sex work is in the offing, or that sex workers are going to enjoy better protection of their human rights any time soon?
ZAWADI: I think that this is really a good time for advocacy towards this. One entry point is through the health sector. The government of Kenya, for example, in its HIV/AIDS policy has recognised sex workers as one of the most at-risk populations (MARPs) and both the National HIV/AIDS Control Council (NACC) and the National AIDS and STI Control Program (NASCOP) are working with sex worker organisations like BHESP to develop policies as well as a minimum service package for MARPs.
In the recent past there has been a lot of attention focused on the security of sex workers because of the serial murders of several of them in Thika, Kenya. Some sex workers who reported these incidents to the police were arrested and charged with “submitting false information to a public servant.” * * [Some of these women appear in the photograph above.] BHESP engaged the services of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness for Women (CREAW) which provided legal aid for the 17 sex workers whom they encouraged to plead not guilty. The case is still ongoing, but the publicity of this case has drawn attention to the security and other needs of sex workers.
There is also some improvement in services to sex workers. One bank in Kenya is now extending loans to sex worker groups without imposing conditions that they stop sex work as many microfinance lenders do. Nairobi also has a free health clinic, called SWOP, which is for sex workers exclusively. In the city of Kisumu, Keeping Alive Societies’ Hope (KASH) is also doing innovative work with the police. They bring sex workers and police officers together to help them understand their mutual and respective challenges, and to conduct peer education among their colleagues. This collaboration has proved mutually advantageous. The sex workers help by giving information that helps solve crimes, and the police officers who have gone through the programme protect sex workers against arbitrary arrest and help educate other police officers about human rights and women’s rights.
AWID: What are some of the challenges that the sex worker movement in East Africa faces, and what are some of the opportunities that are opening up?
ZAWADI: Strong movements need strong organisations, networks or groups. Right now most of the organisations and groups are weak, invisible, informal, and lack access to technical and financial support. The legal environment has a major role to play in this: it is difficult for sex worker groups to organise and to get legal registration, which in turn affects their access to funding and perpetuates stigma and discrimination against them.
The economic context of the region is also significant. The high levels of poverty militate against sex worker organising. Most sex workers don’t have the time to engage in activism; they need to earn a living for the survival of their families. Another factor is the mobility of sex worker populations which makes it difficult for them to maintain networks, and these are crucial for movement building.
One huge threat is the rising religious fundamentalisms in East Africa. We have seen this with the Bahati Bill in Uganda and the current constitutional debate in Kenya. These perspectives threaten to restrict access to reproductive health services and to equal rights for all citizens.
There are certainly opportunities: as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of donors and organisations committed to sex worker rights. Hivos, OSIEA and SHARP, for example are currently working together to develop a long term support strategy, based on the findings of a recent mapping initiative that a team of consultants including Leila Sheikh (Tanzania), Jackie Asiimwe (Uganda) and myself in Kenya conducted on their behalf.
We have the African Feminist Charter of Principles which is also a useful tool for building a cadre of feminist activists, organizations and movements in Africa. There is currently a public interest litigation cases before the High Court in Mombasa, Kenya, challenging discrimination against sex workers and the arbitrary arrests they are subjected to.
AWID: Any parting thoughts?
ZAWADI: I have two:
1. The rescue and rehabilitation approach to sex worker rights has been tried, tested and failed. In cases where sex workers have been “rescued” and “rehabilitated” more often than not they have ended up being more destitute and vulnerable than they were before. Health and rights based approaches work better, particularly those that emphasise the personal empowerment of the individual – raising their self-esteem, equipping them with management and negotiation skills, helping them understand their human rights and how to engage the legal system, and so on. Although many sex workers say that given the right opportunity and financial freedom, they would rather be doing something else other than sex work, they express their need to do it with as little risk as possible to their health and security, for as long as it continues to be the best option available to them.
2. How do we define sex work? People are quick to judge the woman in the street with the short skirt, but what about the married woman who stays in an abusive marriage just for financial security, or the people who engage in sex to get or keep their jobs? There are so many kinds of sex work, but at the end of the day it is the people doing this work that we need to be most concerned about. All human beings deserve to live in dignity and peace. As Daughtie Akoth says in When I Dare to be Powerful, “sex work is not who I am, it is just what I do.”
* The Anti-Homosexuality Bill proposed by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati. For more information see this interview with Kasha Jacqueline of Freedom and Roam Uganda.
** This photograph was taken moments before 17 sex workers were charged in a Thika, Kenya court with "submitting false information." They sheltered from the sun under a red umbrella unintentionally but symbolically sheltering under the emblem of the sex worker movement worldwide.
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