It has often been referred to as “the oldest profession”. Prostitution, the selling of sexual services, has been around since time immemorial but still we do not seem to be able to come to terms with it, or what to do about it, if the debate running through the media in Kenya over the last month is any indication.
The Mayor of Nairobi, Mr George Aladwa, sparked off the latest round of a long-running controversy.
In a speech to Non-Governmental Organisations in early February, Mayor Aladwa seemed to suggest that the setting up of ‘zones’ where prostitutes, or ‘sex workers’ could ply their trade, could be in the offing and that he was looking at a review of the city’s by-laws on the subject. He was also reported to have ordered council askaris to stop harassing prostitutes.
NAIROBI: 7,000 WORKERS, 28,000 CLIENTS – A DAY
Under Kenyan law prostitution is illegal (Articles 151 to 156 of the Penal Code) as is living of the earnings of prostitutes.
Illegal it may be but as we all know prostitution thrives in Nairobi, there being an estimated 7,000 sex workers operating in the city servicing 21,000 to 28,000 clients every day, figures quoted in a report by a task force set up by Mayor Aladwa to look into the grievances of sex workers and consider ways to ‘harmonise’ Nairobi’s by-laws.
However, Aladwa it transpires, was not advocating a more liberal attitude to the sex trade in Nairobi along the lines of Amsterdam’s De Wallen red light district where prostitution is legal and
regulated. “As of now and as has been the case before, the council will not allow the sex trade to flourish under any circumstances”, he told a press briefing.
SEX WORKERS TAKE TO THE STREET – TO DEMONSTRATE
Last week sex workers demonstrated along Kenyatta Avenue and marched on City Hall, demanding that the government legalise their trade. “We are ready to pay tax”, Peninah Mwangi of the ‘bar Hostesses Programme’ was quoted as saying, “provided that the government gives us time and a conducive environment [in which] to operate”.
Ms Mwangi cited years of harassment by city council askaris and policemen, the payment of bribes to avoid prosecution, and the raping of sex workers. Her view had been fully endorsed by the City Council’s own report which claimed harassment by askaris and police officers was ‘rampant’, as was the bribing of officials.
So it is back to square one as far as the Kenya Forum can see. The truth is however, that maintaining the status quo will mean that the sex trade will continue to flourish, as will exploitation, harassment, abuse, the spread of disease and criminality.
SEX IN THE CITY NAIROBI STYLE
The newspapers always cite Koinange Street and the clubs nearby as the centre of prostitution at night in Nairobi but the truth is the trade continues during the day, not just in massage parlours but also operating from outwardly respectable bars, cafes and restaurants in Nairobi’s city centre.
Just one anecdote will perhaps suffice to say more about prostitution, its prevalence and its causes than all the reports ever written by Nairobi City Council.
Just off Kenyatta Avenue a restaurant and café beneath a large yellow awning, conducts its perfectly lawful trade. It is a popular place and the customers are mainly popping in to meet with friends, or talk business over a cup of coffee or a Tusker. Most are neither ‘punters’ nor prostitutes, but (as a man) sit on your own for a short while reading a daily newspaper and you will soon find that one or two of the young ladies seated nearby are not just there for lunch or afternoon tea and one will sidle over to your table for a chat, or to cadge a cigarette (but of course, she sits down at your table to smoke it).
This scenario happened to this Forum correspondent. Engaging the young lady in conversation she then explained her circumstances and why it was she was now selling herself.
She lived in Eastleigh, in a one-room accommodation. She had a small child whose father had disappeared as soon as the child was born. During the week, she said, she made money by knitting and sowing but as that did not bring in enough money to keep her family fed and a roof over her head she prostituted herself on two days a week.
That young woman was not bad, evil or “fallen”; she was poor, desperate, ill-educated, alone and doing the best she could.
Prostitution and the sex trade will continue in Nairobi, whatever we say or think about it. Its causes are many but principally it arises out of poverty. As such, and as with the criminality, drug abuse and deplorable human trafficking often associated with the trade, it will continue to offend and disturb us, but it is in large measure a symptom of our society’s problems, not a cause. Just condemning and criminalising it will get us nowhere, nor will it help the mainly young women caught up in its living nightmare.