At 6:30pm every evening, Emelda Ngieno’s alarm clock buzzes her out of a deep sleep. As the sun sets, she gets up, throws on tonight’s chosen outfit and heads to her designated location: Pipeline, a crowded estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
Since Kenya confirmed its first positive Covid-19 case last month, the 32-year-old sex worker’s life has begun to look starkly different.
The government’s lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus – a dusk-to-dawn curfew and shutting of bars and nightclubs – have plunged one of Kenya’s most vulnerable and marginalised groups into worry and destitution. There are more than 133,674female sex workers in the country, according to Ministry of Health estimates, and most of their usual clients can no longer leave their homes in the evening.
With tumbling incomes, and often little-to-no savings, many sex workers haven’t stopped working – it’s simply not an option. Instead, they’ve figured out alternatives amid the pandemic, potentially exposing themselves and others to the coronavirus.
Ms Ngieno, for example, decided to rent a house to host clients.
“I depend on this job for my survival,” she says. “I can’t be on the streets anymore because of the curfew, and most cheap guesthouses that we used to visit with our customers are no [longer] operational.”
In addition to covering her usual expenses (food, rent), she now pays an extra Sh5,000 per month. Without it, she would have nowhere to take her clients. The new spot has, however, not automatically solved her problems. People are scared of the virus, she says, and her customer base is shrinking.
Whereas she’d have previously met four or five clients in one night, she’s now haggling over reduced prices with one client who stays until the early morning (after the 7pm curfew cut-off, they’re both unable to travel).
“It’s frustrating,” says the mother of two. “I’m putting my health at risk and not making enough money. I know I am risking my life with my loved ones, but I will not sit in the house and see them suffer.”
Observing social distance, limiting direct contact with as many people as possible, staying at home and self-isolating is the surest way to avoid contracting the coronavirus, but sex workers gamble with their lungs and lives to pay for food and rent.
They are hourly-and-shift workers, making up a section of Kenya’s vast informal economy with few legal protections. And, like millions of people globally, many of them face a total loss of income due to Covid-19, which has killed 142,651 or more people, and infected over two million worldwide.
Kenya has so far recorded 234 cases, 11 deaths and 53 recoveries at the time of publication, though this number only takes into account the people who have been tested. Limited testing and test kitsmay mean the number is far higher.
Safety is another concern. Rather than meeting in neutral places, like in Ms Ngieno’s situation, some now invite customers into their own homes, says Mary Mwangi, a sex worker and activist for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa).
“Some women are desperate,” she begins. “My friends have said they’re doing [their work] at home and I’ve told them it’s not safe. But they said to me: ‘Mary, what can we do? We need money.’ Many have children, and you don’t know who has the coronavirus. It’s risky.”
Last month, says Ms Mwangi, a client killed a sex worker in her home.
“I wanted to follow up on the case but with corona, it’s a big challenge,” she says.
“We are really worried about sex workers, so we’re trying to educate women, giving them precautions and telling them to join Whatsapp groups to keep safe. We don’t know how many we’re going to lose during this time.”
Across the continent, sex workers have begun to demand that the government includes them in the essential service during lockdown. In Mombasa, many say life has become “unbearable” during the pandemic.
“The closure of bars, restaurants and clubs as a result of the curfew has rendered 90 per cent of sex workers jobless,” Maryline Laini, chairlady of High Voice Africa, told the Daily Nation last week.
Before the pandemic, says Ms Laini, sex workers charged anywhere between Sh50 and Sh10,000. Now, some have been forced to go as low as Sh20.
She calls on the Mombasa County and national governments to have sex workers among those to benefit from relief supplies. Yet the nature of the industry makes it difficult for workers to benefit from government schemes to cover lost earnings.
Sex work is illegal in Kenya, and the trade is often cash in hand and unrecorded. In the United States, for example, the Covid-19 bailout explicitly excludes legal sex workers. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised, the government has provided financial relief for some sex workers.
Two weeks ago, Ms Lesego Tlhwale, a South African sex worker activist, offered a potential solution to the precarious situation of sex workers in the informal economy. In an interview with local media, she argued that organisations such Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, where she works, could be used as vehicles to help distribute financial help.
“We have a membership base, where sex workers access our services,” she explained. “We can make this funding available….and organisations such as ours can manage [the funding] and we can be accountable.”
Globally, sex workers are facing an unprecedented crisis. In the UK, campaigners say they’ve been left penniless. “If you go out to work on the streets as a sex worker in the current climate, you get immediately picked up by police,” Ms Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), told The Independent. “In some cases, women are starving.”
Amid struggling to eat, the lockdown measures also mean women are less likely to report sexual violence to the police, says Adams, making their work more dangerous.
On April 8, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and UNAids released a statement highlighting the hardship, loss of income and increased discrimination and harassment faced by sex workers, urging countries to ensure their human rights be respected and fulfilled.
“As sex workers and their clients self-isolate, sex workers are left unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families,” reads the statement.
To protect the health and rights of sex workers, they’re calling for a series of measures, including access to national social protection schemes, health services, emergency financial support (particularly for migrants), an immediate end to evictions and halt on arrests and prosecutions of sex-work related activity, amongst others.
Despite having little in the way of protective clothing, Ms Mwangi still walks the streets (during the day, before curfew). In some respects, she’s luckier than most; though small, she had some savings. But, like everyone else, she simply wasn’t prepared for a pandemic.
“I’m not sure what happens next. I’m just waiting, and hoping it will be over quickly.”