Mombasa, Kenya | Photo taken from Easyvoyage
While undertaking research on the impact of Kenya’s artisanal and small-scale mining on women’s well-being, some interesting findings were discovered in the country’s sex-for-trade industry.
In the last century, sex tourism in Kenya has been on the rise, asserting itself as a prevailing element of the tourist fare. Looking at tourism in general, international tourist numbers in Kenya continue to fluctuate, with 850 000 tourists in 1994, followed by a considerable decline of 66% of tourists in 2008 due to post-election violence (Akama, 1997; Business Daily Africa, 2018). Nevertheless, a tourist growth rate of 37.3 percent occurred from 2017 (1 817 000 tourists) to 2018 (2 025 206 tourists) (Business Daily Africa, 2019).
Though Kenya’s tourism industry fluctuates over the years, the demand for sex workers continues to grow. While research reveals that only 5% of Kenya’s urban female population of reproductive age are sex workers, this number is rising in coastal areas (Odek, 2014). Mombasa, a major beach town, draws in an abundance of tourists where there are numerous sex workers available to serve the demand in clubs, discos and cinemas (Omondi, 2017).
Although today sex tourism may be widely regarded by society as a means of survival perpetuated by systemic factors, Kenyan women involved in this industry have stated the opposite. Not only do these women consider engagement in this profession as a means of financial security, but a pathway to high social status as they can earn a lot more money than in any other job (Omondi, 2017). For instance, for the majority of female sex workers without formal higher education, waitressing is their alternative employment option, earning between 5000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 50) to 7000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 70) per month. This is contrasted to studies that show that they would be able to make this same amount in one evening as a sex worker (Omondi, 2017).
With costs of living being so high and salaries not commensurate with even the most basic lifestyle needs, these women often find themselves participating in the sex tourism industry. Moreover, many sex workers are single mothers who are forced to engage in this work to fund childcare and provide their families with basic needs. (Omondi, 2017).
The perception of sex as a reliable, quick and easy way of earning money is also common along the shores of Lake Victoria, particularly in its fishing communities. In Abimbo, a village along the shores of Lake Victoria within Siaya County, the common local practice of jaboya predominates (Kirui, 2017). Jaboya is defined throughout sub-Saharan Africa as trading ‘sex-for-fish’, a form of survival sex work, as stated by the Nairobi-based journalist, Dominic Kirui. Rachel Atieno, a 32-year-old widow with five children, expresses that without another income she has sex with fishermen for a portion of a catch to feed her family (Kirui, 2017). Atieno states that, “This ‘jaboya’ thing will always be there. In fact, it has increased due to the poverty in our area and those who do [jaboya] do so because there is no other option,” (Kirui, 2017).
While trading sex for food is not new, as poverty rises the increase in women engaging in sex-for-trade needs to be acknowledged. This enables interventions to be built so that these women are able to live healthy and sustainable lives without having to compromise their health and safety. For instance, a study by Rekart shows that through this work women are vulnerable to exposure to HIV/AIDS, experiencing psychological trauma, drug addiction, and exposure to criminal activity (2005).
When it comes to protecting women’s sexual health, sensitization of the transmission, cause, symptoms and treatment of HIV/AIDS (as well as sexually transmitted infections [STIs]), must be widely enforced by community health programmes. In Thailand, for example, the ‘100% Condom Use Programme’ helped empower workers to demand condom use, facilitated access to STI screening and treatment, and resulted in a significantly decreased rate of STIs. It has the potential to do the same in Kenya (Jana, Rojanapithayakorn & Steen, 2006).
Establishing community centres similar to that of Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), where women involved in sex-for-trade have access to HIV testing, counseling, and human rights-based workshops, is essential. Additionally, enabling access to a safe, supportive and inclusive space is important for women’s emotional and physical well-being.
For women involved in jaboya, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must help support women’s sustainable employment initiatives. This can include access to start-up loans and capacity-building through financial management and planning.
Government policy that incorporates women’s rights and well-being when it comes to sex-for-trade is important, especially considering the high number of gender-based violence cases along Kenya’s coast where sex tourism occurs. Enforcement of women’s rights in Mombasa city’s legal frameworks is currently lacking, in which for instance, its city council bylaw merely forbids loitering for ‘immoral purposes’ and does not take into account gender-based violence of those involved in sex-for-trade (Omondi, 2017).
Measures like these must be taken to reduce women’s vulnerability and enhance their health and safety. With support from NGOs and civil society organisations like KESWA, as well as Kenya’s government, there remains great potential for Kenya to improve the well-being of women involved in sex-for-trade, empowering them both financially and mentally.
Rosie Jervase is an EAI Research Assistant, conducting research on women's health in Kenya's artisanal and small-scale mining sector.