The realities of older sex workers in Kenya

Illustration by Minority Africa, used with permission.

This story was written by Elvine Ouma and originally published by Minority Africa on May 10, 2024. An abridged version is republished below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Grace Nyarangi decided to enter the sex work industry when she was just over 18 years old. In her early years, she managed to support her children, put food on the table, and provide for all their necessities solely through her earnings.

Despite facing significant backlash and stigma from her family and community when they learned about her choice of profession, Nyarangi remained resolute.

“After giving birth and being abandoned by my partner, I struggled to secure employment with no success,” she shares. “That’s when I turned to this line of work.”

However, as she grew older, her income from sex work began to decline.

Nyarangi, who today also works at the Africa Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) based in the city of Kisumu, says that in Kenya, older sex workers are confronting two formidable challenges: technology and ageism.

“Men like younger women or simply younger-looking women. My looks still afford me clients because compared to my agemates, I look younger. But it’s nothing compared to when I was young, I had clients willing to pay as much as I asked for, but things have changed now,” Nyarangi says, adding, “I have competition.”

According to Nyarangi, who is over 40 now, online sex work saw significant expansion during and after the pandemic, placing older sex workers at a disadvantage. Many lacked the knowledge or skills to leverage technology to broaden their client base.

“Our younger counterparts have adapted to meeting clients online, which offers ease and privacy for clients. The inability to utilise social media to connect with clients has disproportionately affected older sex workers. Many lack access to smartphones, let alone the skills to operate them,” Nyarangi explains.

Forty-six-year-old Nancy, who has worked in the industry for over 12 years, reveals the financial hardships she faces. She often struggles to scrape together KES 50 (USD 0.38) to pay off police officers for a business space called Kiwanja, which loosely translates as “field” in the coastal regions of Kenya.

Tragically, those who cannot afford the bribe or lack the physical attractiveness to appeal to police officers find themselves locked out of their premises for the day.

“As older women, we are sometimes forced to offer free services in exchange for a business space,” Nancy says:

“Kabla uruhusiwe kufanya biashara, lazima polisi apate kitu ndio akuruhusu kusuburi biashara

“Before you are allowed to conduct business, you have to bribe the police officer first.”

To attract customers, Nancy admits that she has had to undercut the prices of younger sex workers, which she says, is unfair.

“I’ve even resorted to skin bleaching and other treatments to appear younger, but I still can’t earn as much as I did in my earlier years,” she says. “In my youth, I could make over KES 10,000 (USD 76) daily from just one client or more, especially from white clients.”

The ASWA alliance was formed in 2009 in South Africa by members drawn from more than 35 countries,  with the aim of promoting destigmatisation and decriminalisation of sex work.

ASWA focuses on providing sex workers with diverse skill sets. The organisation’s first training sessions focus on building the capacities of sex workers in Africa. In 2022, the ASWA’s donor proposed a curriculum change: a model to monitor the growth and development of sex workers who have been part of the program for eight years.

Currently, ASWA is implementing the second module of the program, the Africa Leadership Sex Workers Academy (ALESWA), which looks at empowering sex workers to be advocates for their rights in international advocacy spaces, addressing challenges that rock the profession, like HIV/AIDS prevention.

More than 500 young sex workers have so far benefitted from the organisation. However, given the impact the organisation is achieving, its module is still focused on building the leadership skills of younger sex workers, inherently leaving out the older generation of sex workers.

“Our programs primarily cater to younger sex workers, but we realised the older generation is overlooked, and their absence has taken a toll,” Nyarangi says.

Coast Sex Workers Alliance, an umbrella organisation that caters to the needs of sex workers on the Kenyan coast, was forced to move its operations online. The organisation had to tailor its programs for virtual delivery and help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

According to Elizabeth Atieno, a health promoter at the organisation, older sex workers have been instrumental and active in the fight for women’s rights, a contribution often unacknowledged, despite facing all the above-mentioned challenges.

She also adds that the growing divide of sex workers based on age predominantly affects their children.

“Regrettably, because of poverty, sex workers’ children join the industry to step into the providing role,” Atieno explains. “In some cases, children have to provide care and financial support to an ailing parent, which negatively impacts their mental health.”

“The lack of a social protection plan among sex workers puts their families through the endless cycle of poverty, and inevitably, their children could suffer the same fate,” she continues.

Atieno further explains that the problem is made worse by the preference of donors to empower younger sex workers while overlooking the old.

Nyarangi agrees and asserts that donors should invest resources in empowering older sex workers with skills that can enable them to care for their families with ease.

“As an organisation, we hope we can create programs that address the needs of both older and younger sex workers,” she says.

Atieno points out that the economic health of older sex workers is already dwindling mainly because of their age and physical appearance. This situation poses a risk to their mental health. Most of these women are the sole breadwinners in their families and are obligated to put food on the table, pay school fees, and provide accommodation.

Moreover, older sex workers prefer to have unprotected sex to earn extra coins, which exposes them to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Kazi ya condom hailipi!

“Using a condom doesn’t pay well.”

Nyarangi says.

“They prefer to sell sex without condoms because they get very little pay, as low as USD 3, but can negotiate for an extra USD 2 when they sell sex without condoms,” Atieno says. “Besides this, due to stigma and violence meted against them, the older generation of sex workers rarely seek medical help after the risk of exposure for various reasons.”

However, despite the hardships endured by the older generation of sex workers, including the ramifications of the criminalization of this profession in Kenya — such as the unresolved murders of many colleagues, permanent disabilities, and maiming — Nyarangi remains in the industry. However, she deals with just a few repeat clients.

“I fear for the younger girls/sex workers getting in the industry and aren’t aware of how to spot red flags and safety tips because sex worker killings are on the rise,” Nyarangi says.

Regarding her plans, she says, “Getting married after working in this industry is hard due to stigma. Most women think that they might get a man to provide for them when they retire, but that is close to impossible.”

“But in the meantime, I hope that one day, sex work is acknowledged as work,” Nyarangi adds with an optimistic smile.

Some names were changed to protect identities.

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