Sex Workers Stepping Up and Stepping Out

When Redemptor Nduku, 40, left her husband in 1999, she was determined to give her two children a better life.

But as a single mother, Redemptor had very limited options for earning a decent income since she didn’t possess any academic qualification to seek formal employment. The pay from odd jobs available in her neighborhood was also too low to meet her family’s needs.

After trying her hand in several businesses without success, the streets became the only attractive avenue to eke out a living. “I had heard of stories of women who were able to create a lot of wealth by selling their bodies to men and I thought my life would change by joining the oldest profession in the streets as a commercial sex worker.” Narrates
Redemptor, who for more than four years made a living as a commercial sex worker on the streets of Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate.

However, as soon as she stepped into the streets, Redemptor realised her condition would barely change as the money she used to make was hardly enough to give her and her children the lifestyle she had hoped for before joining the trade. Instead, like other commercial sex workers, her life was characterized by physical and emotional hardships and stigma.

“When you are a prostitute, you lose your dignity and self-esteem. People look at you with a lot of contempt and no one wants to associate him or herself with you, you are completely ostracized and p rceived as immoral and dirty.” Redemptor says.Forced onto the streets as a result of unemployment and poverty, commercial sex workers face a lot of violence and are easy targets for the police and city askaris (security) who use City by-laws like loitering to arrest and solicit bribes and sexual favors from them.

Sex workers are also at grave risk of contracting HIV and AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases. Statistics from a UNAIDS report on the Global AIDS Epidemic postulates that female sex workers are 13.5 times more likely to be infected and living with HIV than women who don’t engage in commercial sex work. But despite the myriad of challenges faced by a commercial sex worker, Redemptor explains commercial sex work is a trap that is very difficult to escape from.

For Redemptor, the opportunity to step out of the streets came after they were rounded up on the streets and taken to police cells during one of the frequent swoops on commercial sex workers in Eastleigh where she plied her trade. They were accused of loitering and ordered to pay a cash bail of KES 5,000, which she did not have at the time. 

It is while they had been remanded at the police cells where Redemptor and other commercial sex workers were approached by representatives of Life Bloom Services International. Life Bloom paid their cash bail and persuaded them against going back to the streets.

“Staff at Life Bloom gave us an assurance of a decent life if we abandoned sex work. They further promised to assist us in setting up small income generating activities”.
Redemptor quips. Although some of the women went back to the streets the following evening, Redemptor made a resolve not to go back to commercial sex work. “I was at rock bottom, I had endured so much while in sex work that I had started becoming numb from the abuse. I was on a downward spiral and death from abuse or through enereal disease was not far from mind.

My children also suffered from being discriminated against. The reason why I went into the trade, to support my children, was becoming self-defeatist as I was hurting theme more" Redemptor narrates with nostalgia clearly showing on her face.

Life Bloom through a project dubbed Sex workers stepping OUT and stepping UP which was supported by KCDF sought to build the capacity of women and men in the sex work industry to transform theirfamilies through poverty reduction and thus improve their health and economic status. Under the project, Life Bloom has recruited more than 400 girls and young women from the streets and trained them in entrepreneurship and leadership.

Redemptor is now a proud owner of a retail shop in Huruma that sells household goods that she benefitted from the Sex Workers Stepping OUT and Stepping
Up Initiative. Life Bloom’s training coordinator, Wanjiru Triza says after the two and a half months training, the women in the project were assisted to develop business plans
and given loans from a revolving kitty set up through the KCDF grant.

Triza adds that the women were also trained on peer mentorship, report writing and mobilised into smaller groups through which they run a savings and loans scheme to support themselves. “They have a clear leadership structure in the group and we have assisted them to open a group and individual bank accounts where they save a fraction of what they earn from their businesses,” says Triza.

Domtilla, 47, also a former commercial sex worker says the project has restored their dignity as they are able to earn money from hard work and operate
freely in the community. “In the past, we used to wait for male clients in dark corners at night, we would then lock ourselves in houses during the day to escape the judging and stigma that comes with the commercial sex work. Today, we earn a decent income and provide for our families without the fear of being harassed or arrested by the police.” Domtilla says.

Redemptor, who is the secretary of Life Together Sisters says the project which targeted 80 former sex workers has also boosted their self-confidence, enabling them to take up leadership roles in the community. “In the past I could not address people in public, but since I joined the project my confidence has tremendously grown and residents here look up to me to advise them on health matters.” Says Redemptor who is also a voluntary community health worker in the slums.

She says the group has about KES 50, 000 in their joint account from which they get credit facilities to boost their activities. They plan to start a group business
enterprise to enhance their income and bring them closer to each other. Although they still benefit from the revolving fund, the groups says in future, they want to rely solely on their savings and loans scheme so that they can recoup the interest they pay on loans.

Each member saves between KES100 to KES 300 every week.



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