Prostitutes are products of societal neglect

EAS, By Njoki Ndung’u on this link

If victims of the alleged serial killer on the prowl in Thika town would have been different, the public uproar would have been far louder.

By now, there would have been predictable demonstrations pillorying the police for security lapses.

Politicians from otherwise divergent camps and persuasions would have found a temporary rallying call in condemning senseless killings. Religious leaders, nudged into action by fear of apparent ritual killings, would have found a good reason for inter-denomination prayers.

The media would have brought us moving stories by families and friends of victims provoking outcry at the needless loss of lives of adorable mothers and families.

But that has not happened because the victims are supposedly prostitutes. The reported killing of around five women has failed to stir typical fears such mysterious deaths would ordinarily cause. That is hardly surprising considering the united disdain that society holds for members of the oldest profession.

The world all over, commercial sex workers are regarded as vermin; they are home breakers and vectors of venereal diseases, including HIV/Aids.

Social problems

Yet, prostitution as a trade creates so many social problems largely because governments and its citizens tend to approach it with a puritan rather than pragmatic approach. Some countries outlaw it without looking into the reasons for which it exists.

In Kenya, prostitution is outlawed in three ways: The Penal Code which criminalises solicitation (asking for money in exchange for sex) and running of brothels (those earning a living off the earnings of prostitution).

The Sexual Offences Act 2006 outlaws child prostitution, trafficking for the purposes of prostitution and pimping. There are also the council by-laws that criminalise loitering and many archaic offences that were outlawed by the Inter Party Parliamentary Group (IPPG). These are however still being enforced by council askaris as evidenced in intermittent swoops of women and girls for loitering with intent to prostitute.

Sex workers

To underscore the futility of the latter category of laws and their application, often, those arrested pay their fines and if indeed they are commercial sex workers, they are soon back to business as usual anyway. That the crackdown is usually timed to weekends or end month strongly suggests the laws on-off enforcement is guided by extortionist desires than the pure elimination of the vice. Notably, these current laws are unreasonably discriminative. Only the commercial sex workers get arrested and prosecuted while the male customers, almost without exception, go free. The consequence of this is that everyone continues to hate prostitutes while we hold their clients, many rich and famous including politicians, priests and diplomats, in the highest possible regard.

Louise White’s book, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, gives a compelling history of factors behind prostitution in Kenya then and now. Most sex workers sell their bodies due to genuine social and economic distress. Some have children and dependants to fend for. Many opt for sex for money simply to get their next meal or find somewhere to sleep. Some are coerced into it, while others are socially dysfunctional victims of childhood sexual abuse. It would be wrong therefore to brand any of these as criminals.

Moral basis

I think there is a strong case for decriminalising prostitution from a moral perspective. Many people who oppose this use moral basis, which is blind to underlying reasons that push women to go into the trade.

Such moralistic approach prioritises condemnation and punishment ahead of the need to help them out. With exception of the countries in the West, punishment is almost always one sided. I must emphasis decriminalisation is different from legislating for prostitution which makes it a legal trade. Rather, it takes away criminal prosecutions because I do not believe commercial sex workers are criminals. Instead, they are a product of society and its neglect.

A dispassionate and realistic way of dealing with prostitution must competently address two issues: the rehabilitation of those forced into the business by circumstances and how to regulate those who wish to continue in it. The latter is especially an important prerequisite to setting professional standards and enforcing conditions such as mandatory health checks, use of condoms, combating child prostitutes and human trafficking, among others.

I am convinced these are realistic goals that are being sporadically achieved elsewhere without official Government support. Last week, I was at a meeting facilitated by KTN with a woman called Rahab who is a former sex worker. She is working amazing ways of taking girls off the street. Her story reflects that of many girls who end up being commercial sex workers.

Hold victims hostage

Most of them are introduced or enticed into commercial sex work as teenagers by older relatives, friends of their parents or other persons who are in positions of relative trust or authority to them. This has never been addressed. Neither is the drug and alcohol addiction that holds these victims hostage to the trade.

Rahab is working to have a multi-pronged approach to this problem by opening up different income generation methods and building skills to do so. The Women’s Fund and the Youth Fund should also be used to focus on this to enable those who wish to be rehabilitated and set up other lawful businesses.

We all need to support initiatives like this so as to approach commercial sex work with less of a prosecutorial attitude and more of one of understanding.


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