Kenyan sex workers marched through downtown Nairobi in broad daylight Tuesday to demand respect for their trade and better treatment from the government. Activists in the group say it is a human rights issue, but some onlookers were unconvinced.
Wearing black and orange masks to cover their faces, a group of about 40 men and women stopped traffic on a busy weekday morning to draw attention to a trade that is ever-present in the Kenyan capital, but rarely mentioned.
The protest followed similar demonstrations in the past few days in other countries, including South Africa and Namibia, as part of an international sex workers movement.
“It's sex workers rights day today. We want the decriminalization of sex workers because of police harassment, stigma, access to health, access to services, justice - no justice.”
Masked sex workers lie down in protest in front of the Kenyan Supreme Court in Nairobi, March 6, 2012.
Desire for basic human rights
Dottie, a 28-year-old former sex worker, is now an activist with the social justice organization Fahamu. She said this protest is about basic human rights.
“In Kenya, and in other parts of Africa - in East Africa especially - sex workers are not recognized as human beings. They are discriminated upon," she said. "They are harassed and they don't have access to even legal services in the event that they've been assaulted, they've been raped.”
Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, but sex workers are commonplace on the streets of the capital and in the city's high-end bars and hotels.
Mixed views on subject
Komba Karofia was one of hundreds of onlookers lining the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the brazen demonstration.
“I think prostitution has always been there and it's only hypocritical because like Koinange Street is a red street, the government doesn't have a policy - in the books, it is written that prostitution is illegal, but in practice the government does not enforce the illegality,” said Karofia.
But not everyone is so tolerant.
“I hate it, because first of all it is immoral and in any case it is not God's will that people do prostitution,” said Baswete, a middle-aged man who shouted obscenities at the protesters as they marched past him on Moi Avenue downtown.
He said he has always been dismayed by the presence of prostitutes, ever since he moved to Nairobi as a child in 1963.
“And, then when I was walking from school to take a bus here at the OTC [bus terminal] down here, and then you find behind there that they've opened their small square rooms and they are bending like this and their dress is up to here, what is that nonsense for,” said Baswete.
A masked sex worker leads a protest demanding basic human rights, in Nairobi, Kenya, March 6, 2012.
Call for fairness
Dottie, with the Fahamu group, points out the obvious: it takes at least two people for a sex worker to make a living.
“Sex workers have to be obviously serving a certain part of the community, because they aren't selling to themselves. They're actually selling to clients. So why aren't the clients of even sex works coming out and saying that 'we get services from them and there's nothing wrong with it - as long as there are two consenting adults - there's nothing wrong with it'?” she said.
Earlier this year, Nairobi Mayor George Aladwa proposed legalizing prostitution after receiving a list of grievances from the city's sex workers.
He quickly backed down from the suggestion, following a popular backlash, and said police would continue to crack down on so-called “twilight girls” and their clients.