Kenya: Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) National Coordinator Phelister Abdalla


  • How are you and the sex workers in your country responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed KESWA’s physical operations this includes face to face meetings which the government of Kenya banned to curb the spread of COVID -19 Pandemic. However, KESWA has managed to conduct sensitization trainings and responded to sex workers needs during this period through setting up a hotline numbers- to respond to violence cases and also offer counselling references; procuring and distributing personal protective equipment comprising of face masks and hand sanitizers, soap and bleach; procuring and distributing nutrition packages; procuring and distributing dignity packs as well as carrying out a survey on the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on sex workers in Kenya. This initiative has reached over 8000 sex workers countrywide 

  • What is the effect on the health and the livelihood on sex workers? 

In a recent study by KESWA, on the Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19 on Sex Workers in Kenya, over 65% of sex workers stated that they lacked access to condoms and essential medical commodities like PrEP, PEP, and ARTs. The doubling in commuter prices, has seen most sex workers, who are now hardly working, finding challenges in accessing these important medical commodities 

The closure of entertainment spots means that there are no clients, who frequent public social spots, which in turn means lack of income for sex workers. Most sex workers have therefore resorted to working form the comfort of their houses, which brings about security worries as violations are rife. 

Sex workers have also been negatively affected by the social distancing rule, as most of the activities require close contact with a client. This is, coupled by the fact that clients are afraid of contracting COVID-19, has led to a steep decline in client flow. Sex workers have also been forced to reduce prices as most of their clients are self-quarantined at home, while others have lost their jobs.  

Most clients of sex work are busy during the daytime, and prefer to procure sex after working hours, usually from 6pm until 5am. The dusk to dawn curfew has therefore affected the operations and subsequent incomes of sex workers as they are unable to work at night, and also, the client flow during the day is too little. This has led to price reductions, due to client competition. In some hotspots, there is no client at all, rendering the sex workers ‘jobless’ while others are offering credit services to their loyal clients. This has had a negative impact on the earnings of sex workers, which has hit an all-time low, and reduced them to beggars. 

Similarly, most sex workers move form town to town, depending on the present economic climate. This has also been boosted by out of town conferences and safaris, where towns outside the major cities witness an influx of people. The cessation of movement of people and vehicles form certain hotpot counties has also contributed to loss of income to sex workers. 

  • What are the main challenges of responding to it? 

The main challenge is that most of these activities have been restricted by the government’s guidelines on curbing the spread of COVID-19. They are presidential directives, and we can only wait. 

  • How did you become involved with sex worker rights activism? What issues or people inspired you? 

In the past several years KESWA has become one of a main nexus of sex work organizing in Kenya, connecting together majority of the active sex worker rights organizations. Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) began after the establishment of the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) in 2009 at the first ever African Sex Worker conference held in Johannesburg in the same year.  After the meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, ASWA came to Kenya as a Creative Spaces project, an activity that was bringing sex workers together to share their experiences in Mombasa, Nairobi, Busia and Kisumu. As the ASWA project was winding up due to financial challenges, stakeholders saw the need to register a national network of sex worker led organizations and community groups to coordinate the promotion of human and health rights of sex workers in Kenya.  This led to the formation of KESWA in 2010.  However, KESWA faced diverse challenges including lack of funds, lack of capacity, and leadership challenges forcing it to collapse for about eight months. However, stakeholders met to discuss ways of rejuvenating KESWA in 2012 with Phelister Abdalla becoming the new National Coordinator. This led to the network securing some small funds from Open Society Institute of East Africa (OSIEA) to conduct a national assessment on strengthening access to legal, health and human rights services. The assessment was done in most parts of the country by visiting sex worker community led groups and the findings were shared with the board members 

  • What the name of your organisation? When was it formed and what is its objectives? Is it membership based? 

Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) was formed in 2010. 

KESWA’s main objective is to advocate for the rights of sex worker as human rights. 

KESWA is made up of sex workers led organizations across Kenya, who join for free and become members. 

  • Which countries and/or regions are you focused on in terms of mobilising support for the work that you do? 

KESWA works across all the 47 counties of Kenya. 

  • Have you or any person in your organisation or country attended the Sex Workers Academy Africa (SWAA)? If yes, what is the impact in advocacy and movement building in your country? 

Yes. KESWA has managed to have 3 members of staff who have attended and graduated from SWAA.  

From the training at SWAA, KESWA has managed to understand different levels of advocacy and has stepped up its stakeholder engagements. 

  • What organisations are you currently involved in and what are the priority areas that these organisations work in? Tell us a bit about your activism/work specifically. 

KESWA has managed to engage the Kenya Women Parliamentarians Association and the East African Community Members of Parliament in Burundi on insights about sex work and to see the issues of key populations addressed at the E.A.C level, respectively.  

KESWA has also maintained relations with government departments, like the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) and mainstream CSOs like the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). 

KESWA advocacy focuses on the following issues and goals: Human rights: Sex workers’ human rights are promoted and protected.  Health: Sex workers have universal access to health services, including for HIV.  Labour: Sex work is recognised as work.  Stigma and discrimination: Sex workers live free from stigma and discrimination.  Criminalisation and legal oppression: Sex workers do not face criminalisation or legal punishment.  Violence: Sex workers live free from all types of violence.  Migration and trafficking: Sex work is not conflated with trafficking and sex workers can move and migrate freely.  Economic empowerment: Sex workers have free choice of employment and economic security 

  • What were the biggest events or challenges you’ve worked on in the past? 

The biggest event in KESWA’s annual calendar is the commemoration of International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, held on every 17th day of December. This has seen KESWA reach out to law enforcement agents as well as government officials like the Women Representatives. the Challenges have been the constant stigmatization by the community members, who include religious leaders. 

  • What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future? Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement? 

One of the biggest challenges we anticipate as KESWA is the commencement of the Public Interest Litigation with a view to scrap punitive laws that criminalise sex work.  

There is Nothing For Us Without Us 

  • How do you carry out your activism e.g. what forms of social media and/or strategies do you use? (protests, social media, legislation, e.t.c.) to further the cause you advocate for? 

This is conducted through Awareness Raising, Capacity Strengthening Organizational Development and Advocacy. KESWA has done focused group discussions, campaigns through social media, sensitization meetings as well as themed talks on economic empowerment, universal health coverage and gender-based violence. 

  • What is your view on decriminalization of sex work in your country? 

Criminalizing adult, voluntary, and consensual sex – including the commercial exchange of sexual services – is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy. In short – a government should not be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms. 

Criminalization exposes sex workers to abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, such as police officers. Surveys by KESWA titled – Silenced by Law, has documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them. 

World over, Human Rights Watch has consistently found in research, across various countries that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder, by attackers who see sex workers as easy targets because they are stigmatized and unlikely to receive help from the police. Criminalization may also force sex workers to work in unsafe locations to avoid the police. 

Criminalization consistently undermines sex workers’ ability to seek justice for crimes against them. Sex workers in Kenya, for example, said they did not report armed robbery or rape to the police. They said that they are afraid of being arrested because their work is illegal and that their experience with police is of being harassed or profiled and arrested, or laughed at or not taken seriously. Even when they report crimes, sex workers may not be willing to testify in court against their assailants and rapists for fear of facing sanctions or further abuse because of their work and status 

  • What is your message for both the sex workers and sex work leaders who have newly entered in sex worker movement?  

Sex workers are human beings, just like any other person. No body should violate their basic human rights on the basis of what they do. 

It is paramount to know your rights as a human being so that one is able to articulate the issues affecting sex work and sex workers. 

  • Any more information you would like to add? 
    KESWA would like to increase its lobbying efforts so as to incorporate other Civil Society Organizations such as Federation of Women Lawyers – Kenya (FIDA) and National Gender Equality Commission (NGEC). We would gladly accept any buy in efforts spearheaded by our strategic partners. 

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