HIV stigma drives sex work in Northern Kenya

When Zeinab left her home village in Northern Kenya to look for a job, she had one thing in mind; work hard to help her struggling family. But her plans were destroyed by something that would keep her from home for the rest of her life.

When Zeinab Halima (not her real name) left Kambi Sheikh, her home village in Northern Kenya to look for a job, she had one thing in mind; work hard to help her struggling family. But her plans were destroyed by something that would keep her from home for the rest of her life. She was infected with HIV.

Like many girls who are HIV positive here, Halima knew that she would be shunned by even her closest relatives if she ever went back home. For in her village, like many others in Northern Kenya, HIV is associated with immorality.

It is a society where morals are based on culture and religion. Islam is the popular religion here, and so the wide belief is that young people should preserve their chastity until they are old enough to begin a family of their own.

Being HIV positive is seen as a betrayal of these morals, including among the Borana tribe, which is Zeinab’s ethnic group. So she had to move on.

Lured into sex work

Zeinab left home when a female friend had tipped her off about good jobs in Isiolo, a fast growing town teeming with trade and activity.

“My friend talked a lot about well paying jobs in the town,” she recalls slowly sipping a soda at a twilight joint where she is now a sex worker. “I was ready to even be employed as a house help.”

As days ebbed into weeks, Zeinab searched unsuccessfully for a job until one day her friend found her on the edge of despair.

“She told me there was some other work which I could do but it involved some risk. She introduced me to a male friend whom she said would take care of me before things got better. I was helpless and so I was easily convinced.”

It turned out that she had been lured into a trap, to serve as a sex worker to the male truck driver whenever he was in town. One day, he disappeared.

“I later learned of his death,” recalls Zeinab. “By this time I was feeling sickly and so I was not able to follow up on what happened to him.”

Voluntary counselling and testing

She later went for counselling and testing and discovered she was HIV positive. In some ways, Zeinab was fortunate in that she got support from groups like Isiolo Youth Against AIDS and Poverty (IYAP), and enlisted for treatment.

But she says she could never go home because she is afraid for herself and the pain she would cause her family were her condition to be known. However, she has friends who keep her going. Together, they have formed a peer group to encourage and comfort fellow sex workers.

Some of them are HIV positive and had to flee their homes in the villages when people in the community learned of their status.

“They were raped during cattle rustling, military sweeps, or after undergoing harmful cultural practices,” says Zeinab. “I tell them to be brave and concentrate on positive things like the use of condoms.”

Instability makes access difficult

According to the Kenya AIDS Response Progress Report 2014, sex workers are among vulnerable groups that shy from seeking vital HIV services due to stigma and discrimination from health workers and society.

Previous studies indicate Northern Kenya is the most affected by stigma. The situation is made worse by the inability of health workers to reach the region. For instance, officials who conducted the Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey 2012 acknowledged they excluded Northern Kenya due to regional insecurity.

A report by the Civil Society Coalition on Kenya’s second Universal Periodic Review indicates sex workers still face stigma and discrimination. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), this is denying them access to health care services.

“Criminalising sex workers and other sexual minorities is risking their lives,” says Atsango Chesoni, the executive director, KHRC. “They are not able to ask for services and so they are not enjoying their right to health.”

Fighting stigma

Civic leaders acknowledge Kenya has made headway because more people are declaring their HIV status. But there is a need for public campaigns to convince people that sex workers are still part of society.

“We must continue to fight stigma and not only fight it but ensure the rights of sex workers and sexual minorities are protected,” says Hassan Omar, the Mombasa County senator and religious leader.

Meanwhile, sex workers are calling for their trade to be recognised as a legal profession in Kenya – but few policy makers are paying attention.

“Protecting a particular segment of the population is protecting us all,” argues Kagwiria Mbogori, the chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. “So it is possible to afford sex workers protection in the area of health, social security, and even physical security. That will go a long way in terms of describing who we are as a people.”

Maybe one day this will convince Zeinab’s Borana community to accept her back home.

Read Nalia’s story: adolescents who sell sex in Ethiopia