Neema* is 21 years old and she live in a one bedroom house in Mathare South. She is formerly from Western Kenya and dropped out of high school in form two because her parents could not afford to pay for her school fees. She moved to Nairobi from her upcountry home that she shared with her family when she was 17 years old. Neema found it extremely difficult to find employment in Nairobi due a several factors including her level of education. She also found herself pregnant while still jobless. Neema was introduced to this trade by a girl friend and a neighbor who seemed to be doing well financially. She invited Neema to go out with her one evening and showed her where she worked. She told Neema that if she wanted to live well and earn good money she had to join her in the streets where she waited for potential and would be clients.
Initially Neema frequented Koinange Street in the company of her girlfriend. She got up to four clients per night who paid her relatively well in her opinion. She soon decided to venture into the business of strip- dancing with one of her friends and colleague from the streets business. Currently Neema is involved in both commercial sex work and stripping in a famous strip club in Nairobi. Active business starts at around 9.00 o’clock every evening of the week but depending on business she can be out until the early hours of the morning. She then spends most of the day resting and in preparation for the following night. Her Saturday nights double up for the sex work and stripping at the strip club.
Neema now has two children, one is as a result of her work as she has had not used had not used any contraception and had reported late for medical termination. This was either because of sheer ignorance which had resulted from low self esteem. After entry into sex work, she did not want to have children in since she was already a single mother. She however does not regret this as she is now able to provide through her job to both her children.
Neema always prefer unprotected sex but sometimes she has to contend with unprotected sex. In these instances the client could be willing to pay a lot of money. Sex workers also find it difficult to negotiate safer sex with intimate partners and clients in the context of physical and sexual violence perpetrated by some of them. This is usually when the client want to have unprotected sex. Neema has extremely limited access to information and virtually no support network. She has never been involved in any form of support for her as a commercial sex worker.
Neema does not have access to Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) and HIV/AIDS services. The reasons for this are varied, but violence or fear of violence and discrimination play a role. She says that health services are often hostile to sex workers, subjecting them to disapproval, refusal to treat their health problems, mandatory HIV testing, exposure of their HIV status resulting to stigma. This has made her reluctant in seek health services. Neema feels that violence and lack of control over ones life means that sex workers may give lower priority to their health needs and behavior change, over more immediate concerns for safety and survival.
Neema considers violence “normal” or “part of the job” and do not have information about her rights. As a result, she is often reluctant to report incidences of rapes, attempted murders, beatings, molestation or sexual assault to the authorities. These incidents are very common and even when she is willing to report she is afraid that her claims will most likely be dismissed. In several settings she has encountered police using anti-prostitution laws to harass, threaten, arrest, beat and sexually coerce sex workers. Sometimes city council police, watchmen and policemen sweep the streets and arrest her and her colleagues. Sometimes she/they are forced to give some of their proceeds to the watchmen or police to avoid being harassed and arrested, since they will be taken to the cells and will eventually cost them more money.
Contrary to the believe of many that call girls are only found in high market areas, Nancy* who is 42 years old and lives in Mathare with her three children; one son and two daughters has been acting as a call girl for a while now, she loves this business because although she gets to make money, she is assured of business particularly during all times in the month and safety in the course of the business. She has her own established clients who visit her or she visits them strictly on appointment.
Nancy’s day starts with her sleeping for the better part of the morning to compensate for the sleep lost during the night. She arrives in her house in the early hours of the morning and goes right to bed. Her children who share her small one roomed house are used to their mother coming home in the morning; lately her son is getting uncomfortable with this behavior and has been questioning her about where she goes for the night. She is starting to find this very difficult with her son growing older and understanding more about his surrounding and his mother’s life style.
Nancy has about 10 regular clients, she sees each one of them at least once per week, sometimes some of her clients don’t call for a week, and sometimes only gets one call leading to her income reducing. This means that she sometimes has to subsidize her income by seeing other clients. She may then go out into the night looking for clients in the neighboring pubs or in the streets. Nancy is well known by her target clients so she easily gets the clients.All her regular clients are from her neighborhood, when they need her services they call her on her mobile phone and book an appointment with her. The business is sometimes conducted in her house if it is during the day and her children are away in school, and sometimes the client can ask her to join them in a rented room in the neighborhood. Her rates are fixed for her regular clients, so this makes it easy for her because she does not have to keep negotiating with them; her regular clients also pay her promptly and are less likely to refuse to pay her.
When all her clients have money which is usually at the end and beginning of month, her business is good because they call her more often. Her rates for other extra clients vary from one client to another, she can charge as low as 100/= and as high as 1000/= depending on her rating of the client’s ability. However she is not comfortable and does not entirely feel comfortable with these clients, she knows too well the risks of dealing with clients who have picked her from the pub or road side.
Nancy perceives her risks as lower than for other commercial sex workers peddling sex in the streets or in pubs. This she says is highly because she knows her clients and has developed some kind of bonding and trust with them. She feels that they are unlikely to harm her or even “exploit” her. Nancy is worried since her children are starting to ask her questions. She feels that her son’s disapproval will increase with time and reckons that they still do not know what her work entails but soon they will. She does not want her children to grow up knowing her lifestyle but she has no alternative. Her business has been good and is providing for her and educating her children, and she feels that this is all that matters for now. Nancy has had no access to any organizations that work with commercial sex workers nor does she know where she can get basic information on sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. She is however interested in knowing where these services can be found.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.