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Desperate times: women sell sex to buy food

A young girl cleans rice to cook at the Eldoret IDP camp, April 2008. The camp hosts over 14,000 people displaced during the post election violence in Kenya.
At least 350,000 were displaced at the height of the violence, which also claimed the lives of m
(Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

By day, Angela* does odd jobs at a primary school in Isiolo, a town in Kenya's Eastern Province, but by night she and her two daughters rent a house in town where they sell sex to local men and truckers passing through. According to health workers, more and more women are turning to sex work to survive the ongoing food crisis and rocketing food prices.

"Life is no longer the same; reputation is not an important issue anymore," Angela told IRIN/PlusNews. "Everybody is concerned with food, with survival."

Food and water shortages have led to migration from rural areas to Isiolo, and many of the town's new female residents were also selling sex to buy food. As a result, she and her daughters often did not insist on safe sex. "Most of our clients don't like using condoms; you have to accept it or die of hunger," she said.

The town is on the north-south highway through Kenya, and also hosts four military camps, creating an abundant demand for sex work. According to Mohamed Guyo, the Isiolo district HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections officer, HIV prevalence in Isiolo district rose from 2.8 percent in 2007 to 4.7 percent in 2008.

"Isiolo town has been invaded by a high number of women and young girls ... we are concerned," he said. "Most of these women are either single mothers or young girls who have dropped out school - they are victims of poverty, conflicts, and HIV."

An estimated 10 million Kenyans are facing a food crisis as a result of crop failure due to poor rains and drought, high food prices, and the effects of election-related violence in early 2008 that disrupted farming activities. The price of a 2kg packet of maize flour or 'unga', a staple food, more than doubled in 2008.

Besides crop failure, the northern and eastern areas of the country, largely populated by pastoralists, have seen their herds of goats and sheep decimated by 'goat plague', a viral disease related to rinderpest in cattle. Clashes over water and pasture have also increased in these areas as a result of food shortages, leading to even more migration.

Mary*, who was a sex worker in Isiolo town for several years, quit three years ago when she was diagnosed with HIV. She took up domestic employment but since food prices have shot up, she has had to return to transactional sex.

''Life is no longer the same; reputation is not an important issue anymore. Everybody is concerned with food, with survival''

"I have struggled to raise the children but it was impossible with only one job," she told IRIN/PlusNews. She lives in fear that her employers will discover she is a sex worker and sack her, but the fear that her family will starve is greater.

"I am happy that the little money I get at night is helping my children; I want them to complete their studies so that they can help themselves," she said. "I still take my drugs but my clients do not know my status."

Health workers in the eastern district of Makueni said they had heard reports of men sending their wives out to sell sex so as to have money to buy food. Rebecca Lolosoli, who runs a local NGO in the northern district of Samburu, said rising levels of poverty were forcing many rural families into Samburu town.

"Most of them are from remote parts; they are ignorant and desperate, and are not aware about HIV and how to protect themselves," Lolosoli said. "Many young girls and women are migrating to urban centres because of insecurity and poverty; these two factors are contributing to new cases of HIV in our districts - it must be addressed."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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