Her body lay on the cold slab of Nairobi’s City Mortuary. Her bulky blonde wig covered part of her face.
In life, her body had been battered by alcoholism, drug abuse and violence that sex workers endure. Now in death and without make-up, all the ugly marks of her suffering on her face and hands were exposed for the world to see.
Only her thighs, which were barely covered by her off-shoulder ribbed pink dress, seemed to have survived the wear and tear.
She had been booked in by police as ‘an unknown African female adult’, but her name was Anita Nyambura.
Her body had been retrieved from a city hotel room at noon on March 26, another commercial sex worker killed in Nairobi.
Hers was the sixth body in the list of victims of suspected homicide received at the facility that day.
It had taken her colleagues a whole morning to figure out that she had died. The last one to see her alive had parted with her at midnight, when Nyambura got a client on Koinange Street near the Cardinal Otunga Building. Her phone was not going through since dawn. “I had been calling her in vain because we usually meet, freshen up and leave for home together,” her friend said.
A call from another friend who was coincidentally inquiring about Nyambura’s welfare aroused suspicion since she had heard that a call girl had been killed at a hotel in town. “We decided to go and check the body at the mortuary, and we positively identified her. Police suspect she died from strangulation,” she said.
Outside the mortuary, more women arrived, taking turns to view the body.
“She was murdered,” some whispered to one another as they tried to inquire from her friend the details of the man who picked Nyambura or the registration number of his car. But she actually knew nothing, and if her face had any expression, it was one of confusion and self-blame. Nyambura’s death came just a few weeks after that of another sex worker, who was killed in Kayole. The woman was picked by a client at 11pm and her body was later found in a fodder plantation in Ruai.
FREE TO KILL
A number of other women have been killed in Pangani, Nairobi West and Lang’ata. No arrests have been made, and police are tight-lipped on the progress of investigations, if any.
In 2016 alone, 25 female sex workers were killed in Kenya, according to a report by the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (Keswa) and Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme. The report was presented to the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in Geneva in October last year.
Dubbed ‘Aren’t We Also Women’, it detailed accounts of all the murders of sex workers in Kenya, violence against them and discrimination from the society, health facilities and family.
In most instances, the suspects are still prowling the streets in the dark, free to kill again, and again. Keswa says the killing of sex workers has become common. The lucky ones who survive attacks sustain long-term physical and psychological injuries.
According to the alliance, some of the attackers are fellow sex workers who think newcomers are encroaching on their territory. Others are police, county askaris and business people who feel the women give a bad name to streets in front of their premises.
A reformed sex worker interviewed by Nation in Mlolongo said in one incident, a sex worker was attacked by three colleagues on Koinange Street, stripped naked and an umbrella inserted in her vagina. “In some streets, new girls have to pay money to be allowed to operate there. If you don’t, you are beaten up,” she said.
Purity Mwende, a sex worker, says they also risk contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
On Thursday, April 19, Nation experienced first-hand as four police officers accompanying city council askaris drove along the streets, arresting sex workers and bundling them into a car. The vehicle was eventually parked at the intersection of Yatta Road and Racecourse Road.
One of the sex workers, as we later came to know, called Amara Atieno, 23, who said she was a student at the University of Nairobi, was thrown out of the van with blows and kicks. The law enforcement officers claimed she had been rude to them.
“They asked us to pay Sh500 each. Today, I have not had any client and so I could not raise that amount. When I told them, they pushed me out of the car. They have even taken my handbag which contains my identity card, my clothes and other things. I had to use a boda boda to follow them so they could give me back my belongings,” she said.
The vehicle from Kamukunji Police Station, was parked at one spot for hours as those who had been arrested including hawkers and drunkards were asked to pay for their freedom.
“I have been a commercial sex worker for three years. I am a student and I just have to do this because I have no money. I also have no one to depend on as my mother who lives in Ramba in Uriri is sickly,” she said.
She added that her father died seven years ago, when she was still in high school.
Amara said she has a two-year-old daughter, and that she also has to provide for her two brothers and sister. Her daughter, she said, is a product of a man who had promised to marry her, and get her off the streets. “He later changed his mind and I had to go back to doing this job. I have nothing else to do. I cannot find a decent job and I need cash. I do not like what I am doing. There are so many dangers. I have heard about sex workers who have been killed. I have watched fellow sex workers being beaten, some being raped, others are drugged and left in hotel rooms,” she said.
Nyambura’s killing rekindles memories of Philip Onyancha, a self-confessed serial killer who was accused of killing 19 sex workers and drinking their blood.
Recently, a member of the Finnish Parliament, Anna Kontula launched a security application called the Artemis Umbrella meant to help sex workers to alert their friends whenever they are in danger or distress.
Ms Kontula said the idea of the app came to her mind when she visited Nairobi in 2016 and met sex workers.
“I realised that even though the sex workers were in a tough spot with the legal system and suffered stigma attached to the work and poverty, they all had smart phones, which could be used as security resource,” she told the Global network of Sex Work. The application, whose name is derived from the goddess Artemis of the Ancient Greek mythology, contains an alarm button that sends an alert about one’s location.
Nation established that sex workers are paid anything between Sh200 and Sh5,000 per encounter depending on where they operate and the class of clients they have.
The National AIDS and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP) says sex workers are the population at higher risk of HIV infections. They account for more than 30 per cent of new annual HIV infections in Kenya.
According to a NASCOP report, Kenya had 136,675 sex workers in 2016. According to the statistics, one in every three sex workers is infected with HIV, making it the highest reported HIV prevalence of any group in Kenya.
“There have been interventions like the provision of condoms to us, but sometimes, some clients violently refuse to use them,” a sex worker who preferred anonymity said.
Some sex workers said it was hard for them to access Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, Prep, and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, Pep drugs meant to reduce the chances of contracting HIV, because most clinics sell them expensively.
Sex workers interviewed by Nation said they were raped regularly, but it was hard to press charges against the attackers, even when they are known to them.
“When you go to hospital, the nurses mistreat you because they have this notion that you got what you wanted. The question of whether it was consensual or not does not apply. Once they know you are a sex worker, they generally assume that you were willing,” one of them said.
The Kenyan Penal Code penalises prostitution, the aiding of prostitution, and the solicitation of prostitution. It however, without elucidation, differentiates the punishment for men and women involved in commercial sex work.
Sec 154 states, “Every woman who knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution, or who is proved to have, for the purpose of gain, exercised control, direction or influence over the movements of a prostitute in such a manner as to show that she is aiding, abetting or compelling her prostitution with any person, or generally, is guilty of a felony.”
Although the penal code also penalises the running of brothels and spells severe punishment for detaining a person against his or her will in a brothel, or for the purposes of unlawful sex, sex workers said they are usually the ones on the receiving end. The said brothel owners, mostly men, go scot free.