Sex workers unite to defy stigma

After being raped and contracting HIV, Amina knew she would become an outcast in her village. This is her story.

The day the military raided Amina Danait’s* village in Muguru na Nyori will forever remain etched in her mind.

Soldiers had been deployed to search for alleged illegally held guns in her village in Northern Kenya. But they also found girls like Amina and, as she recounts, they raped them.

“The soldiers paraded the men outside but girls and women were forced to remain in the huts,” says the 26-year-old. “Then they raped all of us.”

“I started getting sick repeatedly,” she says. “When the doctors at the Isiolo district hospital saw me several times they suggested I go for an HIV test.”

After confirming she was HIV positive, Amina could not go back home. “The people in the village say that if someone has HIV they are either bewitched or cursed,” she says. “From there someone becomes an outcast.”

That was seven years ago. But the pain and grief refuses to go away.

Turning to sex work

Luckily, Amina knew a friend who lived in Isiolo town. She did not turn her away when Amina found her. Her friend was a sex worker and she offered to connect Amina to the trade.

“At first I resisted her invitation,” she says. “But I was already on antiretrovirals and the doctors had insisted that I must eat nutritious meals. I could not afford to do this without a job.”

The friend allowed Amina to live with her and it was during the brief stay that she learned about condoms and how to use them. “I always carry condoms,” she says, as she waits for a client at a noisy night club in Isiolo town.

“When I agreed to my friend’s advice I started getting money. I can afford good food and regular medical checks. This is why I look so healthy,” she says, smiling.

“I have made friends here. When we meet, we spare some time to discuss issues that affect us as sex workers. We care for each other and ensure that those on antiretrovirals adhere to treatment,” she says.

The emptiness she feels for having left her home is, however, difficult to conceal. When she speaks about her family, she drifts into a faraway trance.

Sex workers’ rights

Article 154 of the Penal Code says that sex work is illegal in Kenya. According to a study published by the Public Library of Sciences, there are about 103,300 sex workers in Kenya.

This research should allow the newly decentralised county governments to play a greater role in female sex workers’ programme planning and implementation.

Amina would like that, and according to her, this would make it easier for sex workers to access health care services without discrimination. For instance, the fact that sex work is illegal in Kenya has made it difficult for her to access health checks in government hospitals.

She would also like sex work to be recognised by the government as a legal profession. “But the problem is that people say we are immoral,” she says.

Uniting sex workers

Amina would like to prevent the same abuse that happened to her from happening to other girls.

“When I have saved enough money, I will invest in a mentorship programme to educate girls about HIV and AIDS,” she says. “These will be my children since I have none.”

Although sex worker networks exist, such as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the challenge is ensuring that everyone knows about them and has access to them.

Meanwhile, Amina would like groups involved in research that seek to find a cure for HIV to work closely with female sex workers. And she is hopeful that sex workers all over the world will one day be united to lobby for their sexual and reproductive rights.

*Name changed

Read more about HIV stigma driving sex work in Kenya

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