High cost of living in Kenya forces women into prostitution
Posted by Administrator on May 26, 2011
NAIROBI, KENYA – In the narrow corridors of the Majengo slums in eastern Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, a group of light-skinned women sit outside a house in the morning. A man approaches and together they disappear inside the house.
A woman, Mama Njeri, who sells fruit across the road from the house, says the women are prostitutes and that they have been running their business there since she set up her fruit stand three years ago.
“[These] women are not Kenyans,” she says. “They are Tanzanians from Bukoba. When they leave their country, they tell their family that they are coming in Kenya to do business. At the end of the year, they go back to their country, but their families don’t know what kind of business they do.”
But she says there aren’t just Tanzanian prostitutes in the area.
“We also have Kenyans who are also doing the same job,” she says.
Before long, the man who entered the house re-emerges. Sweating, he runs away from the house as if he were being chased. Mama Njeri says it’s because most of the prostitutes’ clients are married men and the house is near a popular market, so the men fear that someone will recognize them. She says some of the women are married, too.
During a three-hour span, about 20 men visit the house. Mama Njeri says that the police are aware of what is happening at the house, but the prostitutes pay them a monthly allowance to leave them alone.
Eric Kiraithe, a spokesman for the police department, denied the claim saying there have been no reports of police accepting bribes from prostitutes.
Wambugu, who declined to give his full name, says the women pay him and other men a monthly fee of 3,000 shillings, $35 USD, to protect them from clients who sometimes refuse to pay after they have slept with them.
”This is a job like other job,” Wambugu says. “[These] women have families who depend on them, and as you may have noticed, life is very hard in Kenya.”
The rising cost of living in Kenya is forcing some women to turn to prostitution to raise enough money for their families to survive – and it’s no secret. Local and national medical experts aim to curb the spread of HIV, as regional authorities blame conflicting police divisions and political instability for continued prostitution here. But labor experts say the bigger problem is cost of living and that the government’s increase of the minimum wage this month is not enough to combat it.
Statistics are unavailable for the number of prostitutes in Nairobi. But the number of Kenyans living with HIV has risen anywhere from 1.3 million to 2 million from 2001 to 2007, according to the World Health Organization.
The annual rate of inflation in Kenya is 10 percent, according to UNICEF statistics from 2001 to 2009. But inflation has soared since then, with prices increasing more than 100 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to Central Organization of Trade Unions, COTU, Kenya’s main trade union that aims to protect workers’ rights.
One woman Wambugu protects is Sarah Njeri, 31, a mother of three children – one girl and two boys.
As Njeri, who is not related to Mama Njeri, prepares rice and beans for lunch, her youngest child waits outside the house. Finally, a woman tells the girl her mother doesn’t have a client and that she is allowed to go inside. Njeri says her daughter knows not to knock when the door is closed because it means her mom has a client.
Her daughter eats lunch quietly then returns to school.
Njeri, originally from central Kenya, says she came to Nairobi to look for better life with her first two children after her parents died two years ago. She says her brothers chased her from her parents’ house because, according to the Kikuyu ethnic group’s customs, a woman may not inherit anything from parents.
She had her youngest daughter with her husband, Bernard Wesonga, whom she met in Nairobi. Njeri says he knows that she works as a prostitute.
”My husband knows so long as I use protection we [are] safe,” she says.
She says that for 30 minutes, the women charge men who wear condoms 100 shillings, $1.15 USD, and men who don’t wear condoms 500 shillings, $5.80 USD.
“This job is not easy,” she says. “I have been sick for some time due to back and chest problem, and when you are sick it means loss of money. Sometime[s] I have to do it even when [I] am sick.”
She says she wakes up at 5 a.m. and starts the job immediately after her children and husband leave for school and work. She says the earlier you start the better because you can make a lot of money before the other women begin.
Unlike many women in the prostitution business, Njeri also has another part-time job at a coffee plantation factory, where she earns 200 shillings, $2.30 USD, per day. She says she must walk to the factory, which is almost 1,000 kilometers away, because public transportation is too expensive. She says the coffee factory employs her for two-week stints punctuated by two weeks at home.
”My work does not give me enough money to support my family,” says Njeri, who has been a sex worker since June 2010. “That is why I opted to do prostitution to be able to cater for my family.”
Her husband used to work at the coffee factory, where they met, but was laid off in August 2009.
“For three months, the whole family was depending on me,” she says.
He now works for a Chinese contractor, but his job isn’t full-time either.
“My husband is also not employed permanently,” she says. “He earns almost 250 shilling[s], [$2.90 USD] per day. That is not enough given that food is very expensive in Kenya and we also have to pay house rent.”
Njeri says her children understand that she has to do the job so that they can have food on the table and go to school. She says that as long as her family has food, she doesn’t consider quitting sex work. In a month, she earns 30,000 shillings, $350 USD.
Njeri says she is concerned about her health. Every Wednesday, Njeri and the other women take off from prostitution to visit the nearby Pumwani dispensary for counseling and condoms. Njeri says she isn’t HIV-positive but that those who are also receive antiretroviral drugs in the hospital.
Dr. Joshua Karega, the doctor in charge of the Pumwani dispensary, says Wednesday is normally set aside for counseling and HIV testing. He says that the area has recorded a steep rise in HIV, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases since 2001. He says the prostitutes have told him during counseling sessions that their clients used to be from out of town but now include young men who say that it’s cheaper to sleep with a prostitute than date a girl, thanks to high unemployment.
He says that the Ministry of Health is doing nothing about the rising rates but that the dispensary is trying to work with the government to conduct a public bazaar to elicit solutions from area residents.
Regina Ombam, head of strategy for the National AIDS Control Council, the government body tasked with developing policies, strategies and guidelines to prevent and control AIDS, emphasizes the practical measures being taken to reduce prostitution here.
“Practical measures such as HIV testing and counseling[,] treatment of [STIs,] campaigns to combat stigma and discrimination[,] and the efforts to promote gender equality and equitable distribution of resource[s] are also required if cases such as prostitution in the area is to reduce,” Ombam wrote in an e-mail.
Kiraithe says the police are being educated on HIV.
The prostitutes operate just 100 kilometers from the chief’s camp – the area government offices – a mosque and a church. COTU headquarters is also nearby.
Francis Atwoli, COTU secretary-general, says the women have been there for many years, and as others die, they bring in new women. He says that he has tried to discuss the issue with the area member of Parliament, MP, but nothing has been done.
The area MP, Simon Mbugua, was removed from office earlier this year after the court nullified his 2007 win because of election malpractice. The candidates campaigning for his spot in the election at the end of this month are running on platforms to improve housing and employment and to send the Tanzanians back to their country.
Atwoli says the government needs to install a mechanism to enforce Section 154 of the Kenyan Penal Code, which makes prostitution a felony.
Samuel Karega, the area chief, who is not related to Joshua Karega, says that Section 155 of the Kenyan Penal Code enables magistrates to issue police a warrant to enter and search houses where they suspect prostitution is taking place and to arrest any prostitutes they find.
But Karega says that enforcing the laws on prostitution is difficult because of conflicting police divisions. He says the Administrative Police say they are being undermined because they arrest the women but then the Kenyan Police release them on bail instead of bringing their cases to court.
‘’Some in the police is responsible for the action and activities that are being undertaken here in Majengo because the women bribe the police,” he says. “It’s very difficult for even me to gain the support of removing the women in this area.”
Kiraithe of the Kenyan Police says that the government has been introducing police reforms to educate the officers on new laws and create a police union where they can discuss salary raises to motivate them to do their jobs without accepting bribes.
“The issue of high cost of living is affecting everybody in the country at the moment, and engaging in unlawfully practices will not be tolerated,” he says. “The police have to do their job without fear or favor, and the law must be enforced at all times.”
Atwoli also says that the Kenyan government should attack the root of the problem – the rising cost of living facing the general population. He has proposed increasing the minimum wage by 60 percent and general wages by at least 10 percent in order to cushion all workers against rising costs.
According to the price survey conducted by COTU for selected consumer products and services, prices have increased, on average, by 107 percent between 2010 and 2011. Atwoli says issues like prostitution and insecurity will continue to rise because the Kenyan government uses a poor consumer’s price indices method and argues that the prices of basic commodities purchased by low-income workers are too high.
“[The] majority of the youth in Kenya are jobless, and the government has always promised to cater for the needs of the youth,” he says. “It’s high time that the government considers putting the needs of the youth in the top agenda if they want issues like insecurity, HIV/AIDS, poverty to reduce in the country.”
Labor Minister John Munyes announced on Kenya’s Labor Day, celebrated earlier this month, a 12.5-percent raise in the minimum wage to combat the rising inflation.
But labor unions, which had demanded a 60-percent increase, say they are not satisfied.
COTU called for a strike on May 23 but froze this plan after the government agreed to more talks. Atwoli also demands that the government reduce the price of food.
According to the government, many factors are out of its control. The political turmoil in the Arab world, the fall of the Kenyan shilling against international currencies, and the rising insurance and shipping costs because of Somali piracy are the main factors that have driven up oil prices and led to the high cost of living in the country, according to the government.
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