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Poverty leading to prostitution

By Njoki Karuoya, The Nation (Nairobi), 18 December 1999

Nairobi - Poverty has lent impetus to the sex trade and despite the threat of Aids, to some it is the only key to a 'brighter' future. Joyce Wairimu is 16 years old. She lives in Majengo, Nairobi. She is a prostitute. Or commercial sex worker, if you prefer to use the politically-correct terminology.

Joyce has been selling her body since she completed her primary education two years ago. Her going rate wavers between Sh40 and 50 per session. She told me she 'sees' four to six men in one day.

Shocking as this may sound to you in view of her tender age, Joyce is not an aberration in this desperately wretched slum in Nairobi's capital city. There are many more Joyces here. Nineteen-year-old Irene Mwivano became a prostitute after completing her secondary school education in order to earn a livelihood.

What Irene and Joyce have in common is that they were introduced to the sex trade by Margaret, a well known neighbourhood pimp who specialises in finding clients for young girls. "My family is very poor," said Joyce. "After Standard Eight, my parents could not raise the money required for me to go to secondary school." Joyce was required to supplement her family's income.

"Margaret, who was our neighbour at the time, approached me and told me about this job. She said I could earn money from it and she hired a room for me. She brought in men who paid me to have sex," Joyce recalls. Her initial rates were Sh20 to 30 per session.

When she got used to the job, Joyce began to solicit for her own clients, to supplement the income that came in through Margaret's men. "Margaret assisted with the rent, but as I got more independent, the rent gradually became my responsibility," she says. To assist her in paying the rent, Margaret got Joyce a room-mate, Irene, who had just finished her secondary education and could not raise the money to go to college. "Now we both contribute our share of Sh700 for rent every month," they explain. Between them, the two young girls sleep with nine to 12 men in a day, at the rate of Sh40 to 50 per session. Simple arithmetic will show you just how much money the girls can expect to make in order to cater for all their needs. And just how desperate they had to have been to think this money would raise their standard of living.

Cover Dominata Alfonse came to Kenya in search of a better life in the early 90's. "At times the money we make is not enough for all our needs as well as rent, so we have to look for more," Irene says. In addition to their sex 'jobs', the girls have day and night jobs in the city.

Being in the streets is not easy, and the girls are not always safe. The danger is largely presented by male clients who, after getting what they want, refuse to pay. "Some men threaten us with knives and others steal from us. They take the money we have collected for the day. Others beat us after they have had sex. Others take advantage of us because we are young and refuse to pay," laments Joyce.

Many women in Majengo are commercial sex workers. They all told me they got into prostitution because of poverty.

"We are many women in this trade. Most women living in Majengo are prostitutes," says Mastedia, who admitted to being one herself. And age is not something that can keep any woman out of the trade. Forty-eight-year-old Agnes Mutungi, whose original home is Machakos, has been a prostitute for 26 years. "I came to Nairobi from Machakos in 1972 to look for a job. Though I tried hard, I was unsuccessful and I settled in Majengo. I tried fighting against becoming what so many of the women around me had become, but after a year I gave up and began selling my body. I had to survive," she says. Since she became a prostitute, Agnes has borne five children - all sired by different men. Her first three children are boys aged 27, 25 and 23, while her younger children are girls (11 and 6). When she had her first child, she had no choice but to continue being a commercial sex worker so that she could afford to educate him.

Thus the vicious circle began for Agnes.

Living in the cramped and congested conditions that are the trademark of the Majengo slums, Agnes' children soon came to understand what their mother's 'job' was. They witnessed daily a procession of men walking in and out of their home.

Twenty-six years later, Agnes bitterly regrets that she let this happen. She blames her lifestyle for the way her children turned out. "My third born son became a drug addict and a violent robber. Several years ago he murdered someone and was caught. Now he is in jail waiting to be hanged. My second born son is also in jail serving a six-year jail sentence for having illegal weapons," she says quietly, sadness clouding her face. With the HIV/Aids epidemic wiping out people throughout the country, Agnes' greatest desire is to get out of prostitution.

"I have been sick before - on and off - with gonorrhoea, syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. I don't want to get Aids, and I want to start earning an honest livelihood selling groceries and 'mitumba'," she declares.

What is interesting is that many of the commercial sex workers residing in Majengo are originally from Tanzania. Like Zelda Clements, Jesinta Rumboyo, Mastedia John, Dominata Alphonse, Fredastina Posiani and Safina Swaibu. They all say they came to Kenya in search of a better life and they all settled in Majengo in the early '90s.

"Men just walk around here looking for sex. We hardly have to advertise ourselves as they do most of the soliciting themselves," said Zelda. But she says it is a profession she would rather abandon. "If I had the means, I would start a shop and sell 'mitumba' between Kenya and Tanzania."

A divorcee and a mother of three children aged nine and seven years (twins), Zelda prays her dream will one day come true and she will go back home to Tanzania and see her children who are currently living with her mother. "My husband left me for another woman, and I had to take care of the children. I want them to have a good education and a better life than I had," she adds.

Jesinta's story is similar to Zelda's. She came to Kenya ten years ago to escape poverty and hardship in Tanzania. "I have eight brothers and sisters who all looked to me for support. When I came to Nairobi I met some friends who encouraged me to join them as commercial sex workers," she recalls. Though her heart was not in it, she had no alternative.

Jesinta contracted chronic syphilis for which she has to seek constant treatment, even as she continues with her profession. Asked why many commercial sex workers from Majengo do not contract HIV/Aids, she said, "It's God's will.

We do not know. But there are many others who have died from it."

As with young girls, the mature women cited harassment from their clients as their biggest problem. "After we've had sex and it is time for them to pay, some men turn on us and beat us. Some carry knives. Despite our screams, neighbours do not come to our aid, they don't want to get involved." says 27 yr. old Fredastina. She came to Kenya in 1994 to look for better prospects, only to realise that things were different.

"I had no choice but to become a commercial sex worker. It is a humiliating and embarrassing job. People look down on us and despise us. Men have learned to take us for granted and some just walk into our homes as if it is their right.

When we refuse to give in to their demands, they threaten or beat us. We are nothing in their eyes, and we are regarded as mere tools with no human feelings," she cries, her eyes downcast.

The women live in the wretched makeshift shelters that are prevalent in Majengo. When it rains, the roofs and walls leak, and there is no difference between being outside in the downpour and being in the cold, wet house. "We frequently suffer from malaria and pneumonia. It is a harsh life," Fredastina says. In spite of the hope that the work she does would earn her a decent living, she can hardly make ends meet after all.

"I want to stop doing this job. It is not safe, it has no dignity and it is not worth the money. I hope I will be able to open up my own business in future and take care of my children who I have not seen in years. I want to be a respectable woman in society," she says.

Some young girls are lured into the profession by relatives, as happened to 30-year-old Safina. After her husband's death, Safina's in-laws took away all her property, leaving her with her two children.

"They did not care how we would survive," she recalls bitterly. A couple of months later, one of the in-laws visited her and promised her a job in Nairobi. "He told me there was a job waiting for me in a hotel. I left the children with my mother and came here with him," she recalls.

To her surprise, the job awaiting her was not the one she had envisioned. "He wanted me to become a prostitute and I refused. I demanded to be taken back home, but he refused to give me fare and instead threatened me. Eventually, I was forced to become a prostitute," she says.

"What is most frustrating about this job is that one cannot plan ahead. It is such a dehumanising job, yet the money we make is not enough to take care of our needs, let alone have some left over to send home."

All the same, Safina has somehow managed to educate her children. But she still wishes: "I wish I could get out and start a tailoring business." 18-year-old Dominata is an orphan and she finds herself in the same vicious circle. "My parents died while I was still young and there was no-one to take care of us," she recalls. The eldest of four children, it was up to Dominata to take care of the family.

"I had to drop out of school." Dominata came to Kenya in 1994 aged 14 and immediately became a commercial sex worker. Not being streetwise, she became pregnant at age 15 by one of her clients. "My daughter died after a few months," she says. Dominata became pregnant again last year, but that child, too, died suddenly early this year.

"I wish I could leave this job but I have no alternative. If I had the means, I would like to become a tailor," she explains. She also says she would hate her younger sisters to go through what she has experienced, and she therefore does all she can to protect them.

Tortured by the reality of their sordid lives, it is no wonder that most of the commercial sex workers I talked to expressed a fervent desire to leave the profession. But the harsh fact is that without an alternative, they have no choice but to continue.

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