WHY COMMERCIAL SEX WORKERS ARE ADDICTED TO THE STREETS
A brown-eyed social worker strolls across a Nairobi Street that is Koinange (K-street), in the dead of a cold-July night. In this twilight, skimpily dressed girls in shinny heels wait in baited breath, hoping for a posh bait today. Some are her former classmates from the University of Nairobi, which is a stone throw away. A few are as young as 14. Others, almost retiring from the trade, are clocking 40. They barely look their ages. Eunice Likoko is sad. A city council lorry swoop is raging today. Girls are being arrested, and ferried to the Police station nearby.
Commercial sex trade takes a community’s action or inaction, to thrive. Neighbors watch in silence, parents front their young; peer-pressure and willing clients keeps the girls in the streets.
During the day, Koinange Street is a one-stop-shop for honorable ’business’. At dusk, the twilight girls from all walks of life, keep streaming in, coming back where danger, violence and substance abuse rage. Why?
Studies on the Sociology of aging show that pressure and sexual abuse cause psychological aging, especially if such abuse is repetitive (wear and tear theory, Havinghurst, 1974). Further, prostitution shortens one’s reproductive lifespan, causing psychological and physical depreciation (Ouko and Odhiambo, 1999). But the trade remains lucrative in Kenya, despite being illegal. Nelly Njoroge, a Counseling Psychologist working with victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence says that judging those in the trade is inappropriate. “The fact that they bend over backwards to their clients could be a sign of rejection, class-level tensions or low self-esteem. To her, prostitution is giving one’s body in exchange for material possessions. “Love of the self is so important. It helps one value their body,“ she retorts. “Suppression of values is another cause of prostitution. At first, a girl is unsure of what she will encounter. Frequenting the streets gradually causes her conscience to die. Suppression also numbs her pain. She separates her body from the sexual act,” she adds. This is why some never kiss their clients. Also, when abused, they rarely speak about it.
Nurture or sexual abuse can be traced in the past of a number of sex workers. Since behavior is learned, victims of rape for example, either chose to refrain from sexual intercourse altogether, or suffer low self-esteem. One aged 18, tells of how she was fronted into the trade by her mother, to supplement the family’s income. Aged 40, the mother who is a support staff at a local organization sells her daughter to senior colleagues. Another striking woman aged 30, claims to have a high libido, which no man can satisfy. She speaks of her sexual encounters openly to relatives, friend and foe. She fronts herself to any man she wants. Her behavior is possibly learned from her promiscuous parents. She remains unmotivated, having dropped out of University, despite being from an able family background. Her hopeless state contrasts with that of her younger sister who holds a Master’s degree and is happily married with two children. Yet another of Nelly’s clients aged 17, cannot tell the number of partners she has had or whether she used protection in each encounter. Many times, she has been raped. She is an alcoholic, just like her unruly mother.
Working in the day is difficult for the street girls. It necessitates house calls. In such seclusion, most cannot negotiate for safe sex and are prone to violation. They prefer night jobs when their services can be done at their own terms and place of choice. In this, clients eventually return home to their wives. A 20 year old accounts a house call encounter, where she was forced to mate a dog. There are some who love it, though. “The higher the risk, the better the pay,” says another. Clients love drunken girls. “Such are hired for a whole night,” she adds.
From the coastal region of Kenya to the dilapidated back streets of River Road or shanties at Luthuli Avenue in Nairobi, sex workers can be as young as 11 or as old as 60. At Luthuli Avenue, a woman in her 50’s is still here. She is popular around this busy back street. She has rented a room here, which allows her to get customers at any time of day. Others are school drop-outs. In their teens, they soon get tired of hanging around the house. Their boyfriends abandon them at pregnancy; or subject them to domestic violence. Chased away by relatives or lovers, they move from the rural areas to find a better life in the city of Nairobi. Some start as house-helps or maids. But, the minimum wages are too little to support their needs. Soon, they will end up in slums, where housing is cheaper. Here, young teens are taught the art of lovemaking by aunts or peers. The new girls are easy to spot and therefore marketable. “They cannot negotiate prices, do not insist on safe sex, are likely to be free from HIV-AIDS and are virgins,” accounts Eunice Likoko.
A survivor aged 40 has seen her children grow into their late teens. The trade has enabled her pay for their school fees. She is now settled, and has a job. But, she remains distressed. “My kids never ask me where I worked. Whenever they do, I beat them up. I have been hostile to them. I still sleep a lot when at home”. This is her defense-mechanism.
Others stay, hoping to meet a rich or white man who will love them totally. Some are lucky. But, few remain happy. They are sold to brothels abroad or suffer violence most of their lives. Another lot hopes for a father figure to rescue them from their misery. “We use witchcraft and love potions,” retorts another. Some are students. One of my lecturers recently raised a concern: “I’m afraid to walk at K-street (maybe in search of a lover). I’m afraid that one of them could recognize me?” This confirms that the University is well aware that bright students are in the trade for a variety of reasons.
An encounter with twilight girls confirms that most have a don’t-care attitude. This is reflected in their speech, dress and walk. They dress in super-flashy tops and shoes. They are unfriendly to neighbors, but people can pinpoint them easily. “This is a defense mechanism. They avoid question about how they earn a living,” says Likoko. The girls are also hostile. They cannot trust a stranger, especially an inquisitive one. “They are afraid that you mean no good. They are afraid that you are like the many who judge them, especially if you stare at them,” Likoko affirms. Likoko is concerned that some aged 16 and 17 are violent. “They carry knives for protection. They account casually of a kill or a stab,” she adds. Violence is their norm, their coping mechanism.
New recruits are hard to rehabilitate. Initially, they suffer shock, then disillusionment. “I can’t believe this is me,” says one. Within two months or so, they begin to enjoy it. They can afford new clothes, shoes and jewelery. They cannot return to the claws of poverty and misery. They can now supplement family earnings and provide for their young. As they delve deeper in to the trade, very few of them want out. You can see it in their eyes. ”Where else can I go, this is all I know. This is it for me.” As you listen to their story you will sense their despair. They earn good pay, but have little to show for it. There is often the need to pay for anti-retrovirals, nurse wounds after battery by crazy or demanding customers, pay hospital bills and buy drugs to numb their pain. Drug use is yet another coping mechanism. “Girls who use alcohol are easier to work with. Most drink to keep warm, and are not alcoholics,“ says Likoko. She feels that Alcohol abuse is easier to control. “I wish we had free drug rehabs in our country, to facilitate ease in rehabilitating drug abusers. The most we can do is counsel them.”
Hope at the end of the tunnel
“I can’t get out unless I get an alternative source of income,” is the hope of one aging girl. “I need to feed my kids,” says another. When asked about what legacy they want to leave, their body language changes. Suddenly, they finally get it! This is where the journey to liberation begins, for most. Even they want to be remembered as 'somebody’. All of us do. “In a composition, my son wrote that I work at a salon,” Lamented a 21 year old. This former commercial sex worker and mother of a 3-year-old became sexually active at age 16. “Her son must know that his mother is up to no good. But she's determined to get out,“ whispers Likoko.
Eunice Likoko is a Social worker at Full Circle, a ministry that was inspired by the likes of Africa Reaching Africa and Women at Risk (based in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia) who are walking a journey of reclaiming the lives of Commercial Sex Workers. She first encountered the loose life at campus. “There are posh prostitutes who earn about Kshs. 50,000 (US$ 680) or slum ones who earn as little as Kshs.20 a day.” We merely explored the streets on our way to hostels, from campus.” Little did she know her calling was to mentor the girls out of prostitution.
Full circle is an initiative of Mamlaka Hill Chapel. The Vision of the Church in mid 2006 was to reach out to communities within a one-kilometer radius. These include the University of Nairobi and K-street. (www.mamlakahillchapel.org).
To chat with the girls, you may need to pay up an hour’s wage, just to chat with them. “We chat with them and share the Gospel of Love,” Likoko says. For the girls, time is money. However, those in pubs are friendlier and open. “They are easier to approach,” she adds.
“Rehabilitation of street girls is not a game of numbers”, says Likoko. “It is a slow walk with each individual.” The message of Full Circle Ministry to the girls is “You can amount to something”. “Our role is to affirm and rebuke them. This effectively reaches their conscience, and starts the change process,” she adds.
Full circle is about to complete a Manual with findings that the trade retards mental growth. Most are school drop-outs, hence lack basic life skills on simple budgeting and balanced diets. Why else do they often throw tantrums and suffer severe self-pity and lack self esteem? ”Society expects them to ‘act their age’, as they are often unruly, loud and skimpily dressed,” says Likoko.
There is need for a paradigm shift. Rehabilitators need to avail alternative livelihoods for the sex workers. If this is coupled with value change, the girls will not retrogress. Cultivating a work culture in them will keep them off the streets. Due to their low levels of literacy, possible jobs for the girls range from hairdressing to small-scale businesses. They also need basic but simplified life-skills. Most importantly, extend grace to the girls. Bad habits are difficult to unlearn. Most drag. “We emphasize on Christian Values. The girls live in anomie, hating and flaunting any rule in the book. But they love our approach and keep coming back,” adds Likoko.
Communities should not judge sex workers. Supporting an errant child is crucial in preserving their future. Each of us needs to find out the story behind any sex worker. “One can only judge when they have played an active role in rehabilitating a street worker," says Nelly. Such support programs need to be result-oriented for lives to be transformed. Abused children need counseling when they are still young. The media should also be regulated, to educate and empower the young as opposed to influencing them into irresponsible sexual encounters. "Also, the Kenyan Government ought to keep its promise to provide minimum allowances to poor families, to allow them meet basic needs," Nelly retorts.
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