Is it time to legalise brothels in Kenya?


EAS By Pravin Bowry Published on 07/04/2010

What would be the reaction of Kenyans if a female parliamentarian were to publicly call for all brothels to be legalised and all the prostitutes to be given rights to work in dignified way, by even paying taxes?

I am sure there would be vehement opposition from the so-called gender sensitive community and the proposal branded perverse, unthinkable and unAfrican.

A French female MP, Chantal Brunel, of the ruling UMP Party has done exactly that. Bring back the brothels, she said last week.

According to Brunel, France must bring back the brothels to protect its prostitutes from exploitation, trafficking and aggression in the streets.

She seeks the French authorities to study the possibility of legalising centres where sex workers could serve clients within a regulated and protected framework.

It was time, she said, to move away from attempts to stamp out prostitution and instead focus on making the sex trade more safe and transparent.

Sex trade

In 2003, President Sarkozy, then interior minister, made passive solicitation a penal crime punishable by a jail term and a hefty fine. Brunel voted for the law at the time, but now says the crackdown failed. She is urging the government to look at other countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, in which licensed brothels are allowed.

Amid the shame of wartime “horizontal” Nazi collaboration and growing concern for women’s rights, 1,400 maisons closes were shut in 1946 under what is known as the Marthe Richard law. Richard was a prostitute turned politician and fought to have brothels outlawed out of a desire to kill off the sex trade for good.

Accused by some activist of encouraging a return to the bad old days, Brunel, author of a new book titled Putting an End to Violence against Women, insists she is not calling for the resurrection of brothels as they were once known, but envisages maisons ouvertes in which shelter and medical care would be provided.

Other activists, however, are outraged at the proposals. “What kind of a society is it that shuts up its women for the pleasure of its men?” wondered Bruno Lemettre, president of the Mouvement du Nid anti-prostitution association. “Allowing such a thing in the country of human rights would be unacceptable,” he said. Are Kenyans ready to adopt laws from other jurisdictions?

Kenyan reality

That prostitution in Kenya is rampant in all its manifestations cannot be denied. High-class brothels in Lavington with Chinese flavour to squalid ones in rural areas and roadsides on our trunk roads and with soliciting going in Koinange Street to Mombasa nightclubs are a Kenyan reality, which must be faced honestly and bluntly.

In Kenya’s Penal Code — under a chapter titled “Offences Against Morality” — which has been amended and re-amended, piecemeal with the 2003 Sexual Offences Act gaining prominence — prostitution per se is not categorised as an offence.

Procuration of individuals under the age of 21 years for purposes of unlawful carnal knowledge, procuring defilements by threats or fraud or by administering drugs, householders permitting defilement, detention of females for immoral purpose, male person living on earnings of prostitution or soliciting premises used for prostitution and keeping brothels are all offences. The tolerance by the police is equally interesting in its apathy with most women culprits being charged under municipal bylaws for soliciting for immoral purposes.

Like homosexuality and lesbianism, prostitution must attract the attention of the Parliamentarians sooner or later. It will not help to bury our heads in the sand and move on as if the problems do not exist.

The author is a lawyer in Nairobi

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