Recently someone close to me made a joke along the lines of “Yawa. Nyi kondele ka timo nade sani gi curfew ni?” which roughly translated to how were female sex workers known to mostly operate in Kondele, an area in Kisumu notorious for its wild night life coping with curfews? While I may not remember what my response was since this question popped up suddenly in the middle of us being high and discussing if we’ve ever paid for orgasms, later on when I was sober and more rational, I looked at it from a more serious lens, wondering how sex workers especially female sex workers were surviving right now with these archaic laws and blatant violations of human rights being the order of the day while linking this with the rising cases of femicide in Kenya where 17 women are killed every month by their intimate partners with more cases going unreported currently due to lockdowns and women being quarantined with their abusers.
As I talked to Phelister Abdalla who is an activist and the National Coordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) about the effects of covid 19 on female sex workers, her insights about sex work and Covid 19’s unique impact on it reminds me of how we as women and other feminine presenting persons have never really had ownership over our bodies. From the word go, our bodies never belonged to us having been made into war zones and places of debate under patriarchy. This reality which comes out clearly in Ms. Abdalla and I’s discussion is what most of us have to live with. In the wake of covid 19, many African women are stuck in major cities like Nairobi, forced to look for ways to survive since things like lockdowns, cessations and police brutality continue to negatively affect how they fend and provide for themselves. COVID 19 pandemic has paralyzed the order of everyday life in countries where it has struck including Kenya with governments being forced to order and respond this crisis in ways they best.
Here is what Ms. Abdalla had to say about the impact of this pandemic on Female sex workers in Kenya:
Tell us a bit about your organization. Where does it operate and what areas does it cover?
Keswa (Kenya Sex Workers Alliance) is a national network of sex worker led originations from all over the country that works in all 47 counties and does advocacy, capacity building and a bit of human rights. It’s an umbrella body of the sex workers led groups and organizations and it exists to strengthen the voices of sex workers and to empower their health and human rights. Sex workers here is inclusive of male, female and transgender.
What has changed for sex workers since the beginning of covid 19 in Kenya?
Directives to close bars, restaurants, scale down of travel, and the introduction of dusk to dawn curfews have negatively impacted our ability to earn income Yaani kazi hakuna (there is no work). This has made many sex workers lose their source of income with some staring at the possibility of being unable to meet their basic needs and provide for their families. It’s during curfews that the Police continue to take advantage of sex workers who work during the day by breaking into their rooms and arresting them/ taking them to forced quarantine when found with clients. In this instance, the impact COVID on our socio-economic and livelihoods as well as its impact on access to HIV and STIs prevention and treatment services, remains unknown. Besides, the behavior of sex workers just like that of other members of the public is influenced by their knowledge and perceptions about COVID 19.
Any laws that have negatively impacted sex workers?
Since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Kenya, the government has taken steps to monitor and prevent its spread to the whole country and some of these measures include: dusk to dawn curfews, cessation of movement in and out of hotspot counties (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale) and small towns (Eastleigh, Old Town), closure of public spots (churches, mosques, schools, bars & restaurants,), as well as social distancing of up to 1.5 meters with public service vehicles having been directed to carry 60% of their passenger capacities. Due to the nature of sex work, clients are found at public social spots like bars and restaurants therefore the closure of entertainment spots means there are no clients, which in again means lack of income for us since we operate during late hours (between 5 pm to 5 am) which are the timings of this curfew.
That sounds like a lot. If may ask, despite all this happening, is there a way in which your organization is working with other sex workers to make this pandemic easier on your members? Any projects currently ongoing?
We as KESWA started a sex workers relief fund for sex workers who couldn’t get food and other basic needs during this time. These items are bought through support from donors and are shared with sex workers in need from all over the country. We also ensure that work continues virtually so as to keep in fostering the spirit of togetherness even when we don’t get to meet physically which has helped most of our members as isolating and not getting to meet as frequently as we want has taken a toll on their mental health in way. We have also started a friends of sex workers drive where our friends and other well-wishers donate to us and we use those funds to support our members in need. We have also partnered with organizations like FEMNET to run webinars that discuss the effects of covid and share any relevant information any of us might need. To sum it up, we recently had a nationwide survey of sex workers which helped us know what our members were lacking and what we needed to do so as to make surviving through this pandemic easier for them. These are some of the many ways we’ve been ensuring that this pandemic is easier on everyone we work with for the truth is 1. Times are hard and 2. This isn’t ending any time so we might as well as learn to live with it.