This day is celebrated since 2001 when over 25,000 sex workers gathered in India for a sex worker festival. It has been designated to highlight the human rights challenges, success and failures facing sex workers.
The organizers of the event, the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA), in collaboration with the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP), hailed the event as a milestone for sex workers in Kenya who face challenges in their profession. Peninah Mwangi, the Executive Director of BHESP said, ‘This event was meant to bring together sex workers from Kenya to share their experiences and seek a way forward. Our theme was access to health care as part of the broader specter of human rights we want sex workers to be accorded as persons. In addition, this event is the first to bring together representatives of sex workers in Kenya. We are very happy with the turnout.’
The over 300 hundred sex workers, both male and female began with a peaceful procession from Coast General Hospital to the Tononoka Social Hall. Wearing red T-shirts and carrying red umbrellas, the members marched hand in hand carrying banners with a message of accessing health services for sex workers as well as enjoyment of their human rights. Singing songs of hope and freedom, their raised in solidarity and chanted for their rights.
Velvine Jobiese, the KESWA Chairlady was delighted by the large number of participants who showed up. She hailed the fact that both male and female sex workers came out in large numbers terming it as ‘a great milestone.’ KESWA, under her management, has been undertaking human rights and health training for sex workers as well as outreach programs in towns in Kenya. According to the National AIDS Control Council, the HIV infection rates among female sex workers stands at 14.5% and due to stigma, most sex workers cannot access health services. Velvine said, ‘We want our fundamental human rights and more so, given our profession, health services when it comes to general health, HIV/AIDS, vaccines, e.t.c.’
In attendance were also male sex workers and MSM. John Mathenge, the Executive Director of HOYMAS, a group formed to cater to the health needs of positive MSM with a particular concern for male sex workers said ‘MSMs account for 15.2% of new HIV infection in Kenya yearly and that 60% of these MSM are in heterosexual marriages.’ John cites that most MSMs and male sex workers cannot access health services due to their sexual practices which to most medical personal are deemed as unnatural and shameful. He says that he has reports of MSM being denied health services in hospitals on account of their orientation and sexual activity. He also says they face police harassments.
Additional reporting here
Among the activities was a beauty pageant at the social hall, where both male and female sex workers, competed for the title of Mr. and Mrs. Red Ribbon. Maurice Owour emerged winner in the male category as Sylvia Akinyi emerged Mrs. Red Ribbon. Maurice said he will use his title to bring together male sex workers and seek opportunities to broaden their access to health services whereas Sylvia congratulated the participants and urged the female sex workers to be proud of their profession and to always be safe. The judges were Velvine Jobiese from KESWA, Clifford Owuor of PEMA-Kenya and Denis Nzioka from Gay Kenya. The winners of the pageant walked away with cash prizes presented by Peninah Mwangi of BHESP.