Sex-workers get second chance at life with microloans in Kenya

Correspondent Gitonga Njeru – WNN Features

Mathare Valley slum - Nairobi, Kenya
Mathare Valley slum just 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) north of downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Image: Claudio Allia

Nairobi, Kenya: With higher levels of economic growth than expected, Kenya’s banks have already begun giving successful loans to a specific and special group of women. Many of these women have struggled through poverty with only one option available to them as they raise their children alone without assistance.

Known in Kenya as sex-workers – prostitutes – they work selling the only thing they have available to sell – their own bodies.

The move to assist women who are currently working in Kenya as commercial sex-workers is not only meant to get prostitutes out of a risky trade, but to improve their life.

“We are giving loans to prostitutes in a move aimed at helping them,” says Equity Bank Chief Executive Officer, Dr. James Mwangi, during a recent Women News Network interview.

“It is sad that many women are still in the trade of prostitution. Many should know about available opportunities,” says Jane Mumbi, a 35 year old mother and former commercial sex-worker, who now owns a restaurant on the outskirts of Nairobi.

In a country where the average income is less than two dollars (USD) per day, the goal of microfinance credit is to bridge the poverty gap as it also works to help women increase gender empowerment through opportunity.

We saw “no bathrooms; no toilets; no running water; no kitchens; maybe a cooking stove run on kerosene shoved in the corner. Outside the door were plastic buckets to wash and bathe in,” shared global woman’s advocate, Cathy Michael, when she had a chance to see extreme poverty conditions up-close in the Mathare Valley slum, which is only 2.3 miles from the center of downtown Nairobi.

“Women constitute the majority of the poor and also the absolute majority of Kenyans,” said a detailed 2000 report made by the government of Kenya for the IDRC – International Development Research Centre.

“Studies in Kenya indicate that women are more vulnerable to poverty than men,” continued the report. “The release of women’s productive potential is pivotal to breaking the cycle of poverty so that they can share fully in the benefits of development and in the products of their own labour.”

The Mathare Valley slum, just 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) north of downtown Nairobi, is one of the oldest slums in Kenya. There 200,000 people live on a narrow strip of land measuring only 1.2 by .2 miles. Today 85% of the shacks in the Valley are occupied by single mothers. Living in small spaces, that often measure no more than 10×10 feet with no running water, mothers and their children face constant danger from disease and malnutrition.

Crime, prostitution and lawlessness is a common reality in the Mathare Valley slum. Food scarcity and severe extremes in poverty are an everyday occurrence.

Kibera slum woman selling clothes
Woman on the street of Kibera slum trying to sell her belongings. Image: Chrissy Olsen

Facing daily humiliations as they are shunned by Kenyan society, many women who have decided to become commercial sex-workers in the slums, work under high stress and often very dangerous conditions, where rape and the dangers of HIV/AIDS are real and imminent.

Providing food and shelter for their children and/or elder parents, women sex-workers who live in the Mathare Valley and also in the Kibera slum, south of Nairobi, often are the only ones who can act as official “heads of household” for their families.

Providing food and shelter for their children usually falls completely on the women.

“In addition to being a prostitute, I have lived in the streets for many years and been involved in all kinds of serious and petty crimes,” says former commercial sex-worker, Jane Mumbi, who now lives a new life. “I have even been involved in drug trafficking and been jailed several times,” she admits.

Working under the stress of a constant threat of rape violence in the processes surrounding their work, prostitutes from the slums sift through debilitating and often insulting treatment as they collect monies for sex-services. Their pay goes first for food, then for the needs of their children and parents. Their own needs come last.

“It is good. It is a good feeling I don’t have to sell my body anymore to feed my two young children. Life is hopeful,” adds former prostitute, Jane Mumbi.

Trapped in a dangerous wheel with work that is rising in acceptance among the youth in modern Kenyan society, many of Kenya’s sex-industry workers have little to no opportunity to improve their life; to learn trade skills; or to receive more than a very basic education.

The average amount of time spent for most women, who work as sex-workers in Kenya is 6 to 8 years. When given the opportunity to receive funding through microloans, many women are grateful but cautious. Fear of failure and greater poverty in taking chances in work that will take them away from prostitution haunts them.

An average microloan for women in Kenya today can range from $700 to $6,000 (USD). During the process, each woman must become a member of a specific womens microfinance group which must meet the minimum requirements of Kenya’s regulatory AMFI – Association of Microfinance Institutions.

The plan to pay back loans is brilliant. Women meet with their group on a regular basis to borrow and pay back loans to their bank over an extended period of time. Bank microloan programs succeed as women are held accountable to themselves, the bank and the group as they payback what they have borrowed. As loans are paid, opportunities for women to borrow larger amounts of money are also made available.

Many of Kenya’s commercial sex-workers see themselves as entrepreneurs or ‘bangaisha,’ a slang word in Kenya for someone who ‘solicits their own business.’ Through microloans and bank financing, the concept of ‘understanding business’ puts sex-workers in an optimized position to work well with the ideas of business loans.

Former prostitute, Jane Mumbi, pays a mortgage of $30 (USD) per month for the restaurant she now owns. She also pays an additional $60 (USD) per month, via her profits, back to her bank.

The policy of lending to those in need has worked. “We have been quite successful,” says Mwangi about Equity Bank’s lending programs, which is now partnering with the UNDP – United Nations Development Programme.

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