Sex Workers, Oprah, and Hillary: Women Who Deliver
By Heather Doyle
What do Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Kenyan sex worker rights activist Carolyne Kemunto have in common? They are three of the most inspiring people working to improve the lives of women and girls, according to the organization Women Deliver. The “Women Deliver 100” list marks International Women’s Day by recognizing people who are doing courageous work for women around the world.
Carolyne, a former sex worker, was tired of watching her colleagues and friends dying from HIV and AIDS. She founded Survivors, an organization working to advance and protect the human rights of sex workers in Busia, Kenya, including their right to access quality health care services. Despite the large amounts of money pouring into Kenya from international donors to combat AIDS, particularly amongst marginalized populations, most of the sex workers in Busia had never received appropriate services. Survivors (a grantee of the Open Society Foundations) ensures that an estimated 1,000 male and female sex workers have access to comprehensive health, legal, and social services to decrease vulnerability to HIV infection and ensure access to AIDS services.
Carolyne recognized that the only way to combat HIV in the region was through programs that promote and protect the rights of sex workers. By engaging a lawyer on staff, Survivors offered “know your rights” trainings to 30 sex workers who then work as paralegals. When police illegally arrest sex workers and demand bribes or free sex, or a landlord illegally evicts a sex worker, these workers now know that such actions are in violation of their rights. This knowledge is bolstered by the ability to actually call a lawyer and a paralegal when instances of discrimination and abuse occur.
As a result, sex workers feel empowered to demand that clients use condoms, to refuse sex with police officers, and to hold health centers accountable for providing quality services. Legal aid and "know your rights" campaigns are combined with peer education, support groups, police trainings, and outreach by sex workers to provide voluntary HIV counseling and testing services.
Perhaps the biggest testament to Carolyne’s work is that not one of the sex workers reached by Survivors has died in the past three years. Hopefully the AIDS policy planners in Kenya will take note and realize that sex workers are best placed to respond to the issues facing their communities.
Until December 2012, Heather Doyle was director of the Sexual Health and Rights Project, part of the Open Society Public Health Program.