Women of Turkana, Kenya – stories of hardship and violence, a song of hope

by Elizabeth Harrop

26 October 2015

Mercy*, 38, sits quietly under the shade of a tree with a dozen other women from a small settlement in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya. All are single mothers, all are sex workers, and all are hungry.

Other than their children, a lithe black and brown dog is the only other presence. All the women are separated, divorced or widowed and there are no men living here.

Women under tree croppedMercy is secretary of the community: “We have many problems. We have no income generating activity, and we are often sick so we cannot work. Education for our children is a problem due to the costs. But we are proud sex workers. At least we can earn something, but it is not enough to feed us. Each morning I ask myself what will the children eat today, and I have to do sex work.”

The women regularly face gender-based violence

The women are paid just KSh 50 ($0.50) for each sex act, however the reality can be a lot worse. Simone*, 30, explains: “We may have to survive on KSh 100 for two days. There are few who actually do pay us. You go with a customer and the time comes to claim the money but instead of payment, you are beaten and abused. The children get no food that day. If you try and get the man to pay in advance he will just take it back at the end. Even if we get the KSh 50, all that will buy is a bowl of porridge with no sugar. We sip hot water when there is no food.”

Mary*, head of the group, adds her story to confirm the risks faced by the women: “The first time I was hurt I escaped with a cut to my arm, but the man could have killed me. I went to the hospital for a tetanus injection and spent a week at home recovering from the assault.”

They say that it is better to be a refugee in the nearby Kakuma camp, despite its many hardships, than a member of the Turkana, the host community which surrounds it. The Turkana region is one of the most underdeveloped in Kenya, blighted by drought, economic hardship and gender inequality.

Desperate for clean water

Turkana riverThe women currently walk a three hour round trip in scorching 35 degree heat to a dirty river (pictured left), where they source their water for cooking, drinking, and cleaning. As yet there is no WASH programme in the area, but that may change with new government investments into the region.

Mary adds: “Our greatest wish is for a water bore hole. It would change everything. We would not be exhausted from walking for water, or sick from drinking it. Life could change for us.”

Other than sex work, the women’s only other source of income is making and selling a local alcoholic beverage. However that also puts them into contact with local men who may be drunk, which again exposes the women and their children to risk.

Livelihood opportunities & protection

UNICEF Kenya and its partner the IRC, have recently identified the women and their needs in this isolated community.

Harriet Awuor of IRC comments: “Reporting violence is a problem because the women feel the stigma of their sex work. However sex work is about the situation not the person. The women can do bead work and weaving and we will be supporting them with access to markets to create livelihood opportunities. We also offer psychosocial support and an HIV programme where the women can receive free condoms, testing and counselling.”

UNICEF is partnering IRC to support some of this work and to address gender-based violence and violence against children. UNICEF funds a local wellness centre, where the women and their children can receive treatment, advice and support sessions, and be educated about their rights. Men often refuse to wear condoms, and so the women are taught they have a right to safe sex and how to assert their rights in a challenging situation.

Women singing croppedThe women’s greatest source of strength comes from their faith and from their mutual support. Simone comments: “Many of us were internally displaced by floods in 2012. Before we came here we did not know each other and each used to rent in different villages. Then over time we discovered each other and our similar situations, and our old chief found us this land. Before we moved, men always had power over us. Still they sometimes have power over us as sex workers, but we also have each other.”

The women chatter among themselves and start to sing. Soon they are all standing, swaying and clapping in time to the tune. Translated, they chant: “I love my life because Jesus gave it to me.” They are united as a community and united in singing their resilience, as they hope for a better life.

* Not real name

Photos: © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Harrop


Liberty & Humanity

To see a video of the women singing click here.

Turkana video cropped