While sex workers around the world are facing great difficulties and are often excluded from relief programs, Kenya may have an interesting alternative solution. Activists are calling for sex work to be classified as essential services.
Sex work is not for nothing the oldest profession in the world. Prostitution satisfies basic needs and some assume that it has a stabilizing effect on society. The right to physical self-determination and sexual freedom has long been a basic right in many Western societies, and the importance of a healthy sex life is being advocated by more and more people in a self-confident and scientifically grounded way. An industry that makes these things possible to be classified as systemically relevant is, therefore, less far-fetched than many moral guardians might initially think.
That sex work – whether legal or illegal – takes place no matter what is also a known fact. Many states have therefore come to the conclusion that a state-regulated form is the best solution for all parties involved.
Based on these considerations, sex workers in Kenya are now arguing to exempt their industry from the shutdown and recognize it as a systemically relevant and essential service. Such an approach would solve many problems of the corona crisis and would be a potential model for societies worldwide. The trick is, of course, in the details. How can sex work be allowed responsibly when physical proximity entails risks of infection and the specific disease has not yet been fully researched?
In any case, the current situation is a serious problem not only in Kenya. Sex workers who cannot work in brothels are moving into the underground. This puts them in double jeopardy, and the customers also take immense risks.
But hardly any sex worker can afford not to work. This is one of the reasons why the UN authority UNAIDS has appealed to all governments to include sex workers in government aid programs to alleviate the economic consequences of state-imposed curfews and factory closures. This has generally not been done. We reported on the situation in Japan last week. But in South Africa, France, and the United States, too, not only sex workers but the entire erotic industry is often excluded from government help.
In Kenya, this still looks difficult at the moment as well. On 13 March the first case of the new coronavirus was recorded there. Shortly afterward, the state imposed a shutdown and curfews.
Sex work has a difficult but legally unclear status in Kenya. Prostitution is not officially permitted, but the exact laws and practices vary from city to city. The lobby group High Voice Africa is now working for a pragmatic solution to the problem without having to use state funds for sex workers. The Mombasa-based group demands that the government classify sex work as an essential service. Then sex workers could go back to work.
Maryline Laini is the chairwoman of the organization and says in an interview: »Since the scourge started, we have incurred losses. The closure of bars, restaurants and clubs as a result of the curfew has rendered 90 percent of sex workers jobless. These were the places where we could get our daily bread.«
Sex workers earn relatively well in Mombasa. One prostitute can earn 10,000 Kenyan shillings per customer. That’s about 85 Euros, which is more than many sex workers in Germany can take from their clients. The average income of a worker in Kenya is barely 70 Euros per month. However, there are also cities and regions in Kenya where sex workers serve customers for less than one euro.
In addition to the classification as a systemically important industry, Laini also demands that sex workers be included in the government’s relief efforts.
Bangladesh shows that things can be done differently. There the prostitutes working in the country’s twelve legal brothels received 25 dollars and over 30 kilos of rice as emergency aid. In the coming weeks, too, the government intends to provide at least food for the sex workers there.