During the more than a decade that Carolyne Njoroge worked as a sex worker, she never saw such violence and abuse against her peers. Now working full time for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), she says that the COVID-19 lockdown threw everyone into disarray.
“At the outbreak, no one was prepared for the coronavirus,” she said. “It’s not like the rains that we know and can prepare for.”
The government’s lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus—a dusk-to-dawn curfew and shutting of bars and nightclubs—have left sex workers in Kenya to either work during the day and be very visible or to break the curfew at night.
So far, more than 50 sex workers have been forcefully quarantined, and women have been arrested for not adhering to the social distancing rules and obligatory mask-wearing.
“How do you expect women to adhere to these measures when they cannot feed themselves and their families and many of them don’t even have homes?” Ms Njoroge asked.
Kenya does not criminalize sex work. However, the law forbids “living on the earnings of sex work” and “soliciting or importuning for immoral purposes,” which Ms Njoroge said means that the women work in a grey area. “It’s a very hostile work environment and sex workers are the first to be violated because they say our work is not work,” she said.
Phelister Abdalla, a sex worker living with HIV and KESWA’s National Coordinator, said that the police are taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation.
She said that police raided guest houses more regularly and targeted the community, shaming and beating them, leaving them defenceless.
“This is a population that needs to be protected, but if we are told to stay at home we need to be given food,” she said.
Currently, the government has not released funds or directed aid to sex workers, so KESWA started a fundraiser to dispatch hygiene packs, which include hand sanitizer, masks and menstrual pads, as well as food baskets.
Ms Njoroje said that 100 sex workers from the informal settlements had benefitted. “Our challenge is keeping up with demand, so we are reaching out to others for help,” she said.
Ms Abdalla said that fighting the pandemic together is key. “If we want to end COVID-19, we should not be judged by the type of job we do,” she said. “We are first and foremost Kenyans, so treat all of us equally.”
Fifty-seven Kenyan civil society and nongovernmental organizations, including KESWA, drafted an advisory note to the Kenyan Government to urge it to put in place safety nets to cushion the communities and people who cannot afford to not work. They also urged them to stop security forces from enforcing measures around social distancing and curfews. The note adds, “We cannot use a “one size fits all” approach for COVID-19” and calls upon the United Nations leadership to help safeguard the progress.
UNAIDS believes that governments are bound by international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, without discrimination, even in times of emergency.