Kenya’s gay sex workers report gains in buying police cooperation

A campaign by gay sex workers to win over an otherwise violent police in Nairobi is making some, albeit small gains.

The campaign, involves holding awareness sessions for the police, cleaning their stations and donating desks to ease the reporting of same sex based violence.

These desks are specifically designed for assisting police in dealing with complaints related to male sex work and same-sex sexual relationships.

By providing these voluntary services, the gays of Nairobi say they want to generate a positive image with the police.  Sex work and same sex practices are illegal in Kenya.

“It helps to tell the police we are not animals and to try and prove to them that it’s possible to co-exist,” said a gay male sex worker.

In a study published last month (18th July 2021) Lise Woensdregt and Lorraine Nencel of Vrije University (VU) of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, say the strategy is making positive gains.

Male Sex Workers

“The strategy supports sex workers in changing existing power relationships between themselves and the police,” says the study in the journal Global Public Health.

The duo in the study funded by The Netherlands Government and approved by Vrije University, had engaged an umbrella non-governmental group dealing with gay male sex workers in Nairobi.

With foreign funding, the organization reaches 5000 men each year, with health outreach services and distribution of condoms and lubricants.

The study involved nine months of data collection from the organization’s members, gay male sex workers and from police sensitization sessions.

“The work was supplemented with member interviews and the observation of two police-sensitization sessions, one that took place at the office and the other at a police station.”

Because sex work is illegal and especially same sex activities highly frowned upon in Kenya, the organization hides its work under the guise of HIV control

“In Kenya, you have to be smart; you have to use the health approach. If you start talking about your rights and say that sex work is work, no one will listen to you,” said a staff member.

Foreign donors

For the police to participate in the sensitization sessions, the study says the organizers have to provide them with adequate incentives including money and lunches.

Towards this the police receive between Ksh 500 and Ksh 1000 (USD 5–10) as per diem per session accompanied by ‘nyama choma’ (roast meat) lunch. The money, the report says is provided by foreign donors through local NGOs.

The aim of the campaign is to reduce arrests, harassment and mistreatment of gay male sex workers as they go about their sex business.

Male to male sex business, the report says is rampant in Nairobi. “Male sex work form an integral part of Nairobi’s urban landscape, especially in the central business district and the high income areas of Westlands.”

The transactions takes place in bars, clubs and hotels, and increasingly the report says through websites and online dating apps especially for gay males.

Male sex workers in Nairobi, the report say experience police violence differently from their female counterparts and men are more often arrested and forced to pay bribes of money or sex

“I’d rather meet a thief than a policeman, because a thief won’t care about my sexuality. He’ll just pick my phone and go away, but a policeman will harass you because you’re a sex worker, and [if you’re] a male sex worker, he’ll harass you and even torture you,” said a male prostitute.

Consequently the NGO had reached out to the police in an effort to improve relations between the law enforcing officers and male sex workers.

Gay Police Officers

The NGO staff, the report says maintain good relationships with a few supportive police officers most of who themselves are gay, and some were clients of the sex workers.

“During our fieldwork, these officers often visited the NGO’s offices to help plan the sensitization activities,” says the report.

But despite the campaigns, not everybody is convinced the relationship between the police and male sex workers is improving.

Some members, the authors say were dissatisfied because, despite the police sensitization, sex workers continued to face arrest and police brutality.

“Several police officers attended not because they wanted to learn more but because they would receive a per diem and a meal.”

This is how one male sex worker described the campaigns: “The sensitization doesn’t help at all. The police just come for the money and pretend they hear us, but the harassment continues.”

The authors also acknowledged the campaigns are of little consequence. “Despite the positive outcomes of sensitization activities, they can do little to change the current system of power that the police wield over sex workers.”

The answer, the authors say lies in the decriminalization of same-sex sexual practices and sex work in Kenya.

About Gatonye Gathura 126 Articles
Science Journalist

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