Sex workers and truck drivers were at the centre of different HIV/AIDS programmes and media attention when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was officially recognised as a national disaster in Kenya in the 1990s. Both groups were seen as ‘risk groups’ by international medical experts due to their mobility and ‘risky sexual practices’. Great international and national efforts were dedicated to engage with these and other ‘problematic’ groups in order to reduce the spread of the virus. 20 years on, news articles that discuss sex work only as a health issue (such as this) are still common in Kenya. Such pieces usually discuss sex work in terms of health risks and condom use, but fail to hear what women selling sex are saying. Sex workers interviewed are telling about their difficulties to provide for their families and commercial sex as a solution to this problem; the journalists are still quoting HIV/AIDS statistics, showing the infrastructure created by the government to reduce the risks associated with the spread of the disease, and do not engage with wider gendered issues leading to sale of sex.
Listening to what women who self-identify as commercial sex workers, or even truck drivers say (for an article where few truck drivers were quoted see here, to read some sex workers’ life stories see this great publication by Akina Mama wa Afrika) can be the beginning of a more productive conversation helping to understand both the HIV/AIDS spread and why women sell sex. Women selling sex speak about the difficulties of providing food and/or education for their children or siblings that they take care of. They speak about the difficulties of finding an alternative job that would bring them sufficient income. Several attempts to do other jobs such as working as a house-help, maid, waitress or hairdresser are very often part of these women’s stories. They also speak about their lack of education, which is often the reason why they cannot access better paid jobs. The violence that women suffer as children, as young girls and that is part of their lives today is also often mentioned. As well as the husbands (and other men) who died, abandoned, cheated them or simply cannot provide for their families in a difficult economic climate. Women selling sex are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, friends, and have many other important identities apart from that of a ‘sex worker’.
Understanding how women are positioned in society because of all these different identities might help to understand why we still read about sex workers and truck drivers in Kenyan media today despite long international and national engagement with these ‘risk groups’. Male bias, which comes from the assumption that social reproduction is connected to the market through a wage that is paid to a male breadwinner, is a very important notion when exploring gender in the labour markets. Such an assumption was clearly visible in colonial policies when mainly men were allowed to move and work in towns and women were supposed to remain behind taking care of land and families. Such a bias is still prevalent today, with men dominating both formal employment and better paid informal opportunities. Since economic structures favour men and the male workforce, women form relations with men to access the male wage. Such access is traditionally guaranteed through family ties or marriage, but becomes problematic when women fall out of traditional patriarchal structures (on their husband’s death, or when a husband loses his job or abandons his family for instance). When a man cannot or does not support his household financially, women have to find another way to take care of the household needs. With opportunities in the labour market being limited and not well paid, women in vulnerable positions have to find other ways to depend on men. For example, if working as a hairdresser does not bring enough profits, a woman might take a lover, who would help her with money or exchange sex for money from time to time. A National AIDS Control Council (NACC) report on Kenyan sex workers shows that 95 per cent of the women who trade sex have a secondary income. Or rather, the majority of women in the sex trade find that the occupations in the labour markets are not paid enough and have to be complemented with income derived from sex work. The position that women occupy in society and the economy shows that it is more important to speak about gender in the labour markets and gender in the Kenyan economy than just about the health risks, because it is gendered economic opportunities that result in women struggling to make their livelihoods independently. Truck drivers (and other men) are an important part of this story, because it is them who usually have money and therefore are targeted by women in difficult circumstances.
The fact that women have limited possibilities for independent living and use their sexuality to secure access to a male income is not anything new considering a highly gendered economic history. Or maybe it should be in the news, because a country with continuous economic growth and whose ‘high hopes are warranted’, as IMF’s Christine Lagarde has put it, still suffers from gender issues in its economy that have changed little in the last 20, 50 or even 100 years. Economists and Kenyan politicians speak about strategic new infrastructure projects and transport corridors, but ignore societal gender issues (and sometimes even make decisions that could increase such gendered inequalities, as the recent bill regarding polygamous marriages show). In this context we will continue reading about sex workers and truck drivers (or pipeline and railway builders, workers at the oil exploration sites, men working at renewing or building ports) and what societal health threats they pose in the foreseeable future, instead of seeing more significant change towards gender equality.
Egle Cesnulyte completed her PhD in 2013 and currently works as a teaching assistant at the University of Leeds (UK). Her research focuses on gender, sexualities and political economy in Kenya.