By Martin Stolk, GNP+
“I was once arrested by night police during a Musako [meaning police raid in kikamba]. While in remand one day we were summoned outside the room by two prison officers. One of the officers said he will assist me if only I do what he wants. I had no choice but to agree and he made me swear not to disclose. He came for me that night and took me to his house. He told me ‘Now that you are a prostitute I am going to sleep with you unconditionally’ He ordered me not to ask for money nor ask him to use a condom. I kept quiet because I had no choice. He took me to bed and did the sexual act. When he finished he took some drugs, dressed up and said he was leaving for work but his other colleagues would come to take me out of his compound. I went all alone crying because I knew all was not well. I didn’t go to hospital immediately. Much later during a visit to the clinic I learnt that I was infected with HIV.”
– Personal story from a 37 year-old sex worker in Machakos county whose clients are mostly truck drivers.
Every day, sex workers around the world experience violence and criminalization just like this. These assaults limit their ability to access HIV treatment and prevention services. Transgender sex workers and sex workers living with HIV are especially vulnerable to human rights violations.
Today in Kenya sex workers are taking to the streets for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. They demand their rights citing mistreatment in health care services and by law enforcement agencies. Using the Human Rights Count, a research tool by the Global Network of People living with HIV (GNP+), Kenyan sex workers recently documented such experiences of their peers.
Phelister Abdalla, a 30 year old sex worker from Nairobi, is the National Coordinator of the Kenyan Sex Worker Alliance. She was one of the community members interviewing other sex workers living with HIV about their experiences of rights violations.
Most of my colleagues, and myself too, have experienced violence and mistreatment at some point because of our jobs. Sometimes the violence comes from our clients, but when we started documenting we decided to focus on mistreatment in health care and by law enforcement. These are areas that are based on the principle of equal treatment regardless of race, gender or occupation.
As an interviewer some of the stories that I recall the most are the experiences of mistreatment in health care facilities. It is striking how health care workers’ attitudes change when you explain you do sex work. Doctors and nurses say the HIV is your own fault and that you are the one that is infecting their husbands. People have been refused HIV treatment, post exposure prophylaxes after rape, as well as treatment when in need of surgery or during delivery, just to name a few examples.
Typical is also how people perceive sex workers’ services are available for everyone, at any time. We know stories of doctors asking payment in sex for health services, or in case of police officers to avoid arrest and detainment. One of the experiences shared actually tells how one of my colleagues became HIV positive after having forced sex with a police officer.
The documentation of such rights violations has already led to some advocacy successes. We started dialogues with the police forces on how we can work together better so both the police and ourselves can do our jobs. We already talked with police commanders in two counties, and today, after our march, we’ll be speaking to the commander of the police force in Nairobi.
For more information, download the report, “Speaking out: Personal testimonies of rights violations experienced by sex workers in Kenya”.