NAIROBI, Kenya (GPI)-- Esther Mwende, 32, was 14 when her aunt introduced her to sex work.
Mwende lived with her aunt in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, because her mom was struggling to support her and her siblings. As soon as she got home from school every day, she and her aunt boarded a bus to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. They worked all night and returned early in the morning, just in time for her to prepare for school.
Mwende quickly got hooked on the trade as she made enough money to meet her needs and even support her mother, who washed people’s clothes to feed and educate her five other children.
Mwende says hard drugs kept her awake during her first year of high school, although she didn't give her studies much attention.
“I was in form one then, and on good nights, I could make up to 30,000 [shillings],” she says, which is the equivalent of $350.
The slightly built woman says life in the city’s red-light district was a risky affair, especially for girls her age.
“We would face harassment from all corners, from police officers to city council officers and street boys,” she says. “At times, I would go home empty-handed despite making thousands of shillings, as I had to pay for my freedom whenever I got into trouble.”
When Mwende couldn’t give them money, she says they demanded sexual favors.
Mwende dropped out of high school just as she was about to graduate because she became pregnant. As soon as the baby was born, she went back to sex work. Eventually, she became pregnant with her second child.
She says during the 10 years she was on the streets, one of her most harrowing experiences as a sex worker was when a client threw her out of a moving car. She was trying to persuade him to pay her the full amount after he paid her less than they had agreed when he became violent.
“He sent me rolling on the road, and the next thing I saw was a hospital room’s ceiling,” she says. “A good Samaritan had found me lying on the road unconscious and took me to the hospital. I swore that I would never go back to the streets.”
But as soon as she got well, Mwende returned to her work, her determination to escape poverty urging her on. This was despite losing many of her colleagues to violent clients and to HIV
It was not until her family learned about her trade that she finally left the streets.
“They did not condemn me as I had expected,” she says. “They gave me the support I needed, and I thank God I left the streets alive and healthy.”
Mwende now sells jewelry for a living.
Recent homicides of sex workers have prompted their colleagues to protest for increased rights and security. Living off the proceeds of prostitution is illegal in Kenya, but efforts to enforce this law have led to clashes between sex workers and local authorities. Sex workers in Nairobi promote safety precautions while they advocate for the decriminalization of sex work and recognition as Kenyan citizens with equal rights.
There are 200,000 sex workers in Kenya, according to a 2012 survey spearheaded by the National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections Control Programme. The majority are women – 185,000 – with men accounting for 15,000.
Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, a project that engages the community to end human rights violations against sex workers, doesn’t have a database of members because they don’t want to be registered as such, says Daughtie Ogutu, 28, who founded the Kenyan chapter of the Africa Sex Workers Alliance in 2009.