Nascent Collectivities 2

Everlyn Masha Koya

In my previous posting, I looked at testimony of Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer educator from Isiolo, Kenya. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade led me to reflect upon contradiction between women’s economic contributions to nation-state and the nation-state’s desire to control women’s behavior and women’s sexuality. Yet it is also a story about state efforts to provide women with different economic opportunities and about women’s efforts to negotiate better lives for themselves and for other women. What else could Ms Koya’s story tell us?

Ms Koya’s grant from the state suggests that it, or its agents, have an interest in expanding women’s economic opportunities. As Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out, the state isn’t a monolithic structure. It is made up of different institutions and individuals who do different, sometimes competing, things. While one arm of the state might be securing its sovereignty by making it possible for sex workers to have access to military bases, another arm of the state might be securing grants to give women training so they have a wider range of economic opportunities. As Sunder Rajan argues, “any understanding of state-citizen relations requires…attention to the microlevel workings of state regimes” (6).

Ms Koya’s testimony suggests that the state might participate in the exploitation and oppression of women’s bodies and lives. But if we look at different branches of the state, and different individuals who work for it, the state also can be used to improve women’s lives. As Ms Koya reports, “Then in July [2009], officials from the [government’s] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit. They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.”

What else can we learn from this story?  Within the situations that she has inherited, Ms Koya’s efforts to transform her own life and the lives of other women, to work for freedom from violence tells us about what women are doing within, and against, epistemic violence. In some locations, because of their economic contributions and their perceived social role of servicing male sexual need, sex workers have been able to emerge as a collective and make demands on the state. As Cynthia Enloe points out, there have been efforts by women in Kenya and in the Philippines to create networks of women in countries that host American military bases. This is a step towards addressing and dismantling the global gender structures on which military bases depend. There are other transnational and local efforts, including daily work of survival by growing gardens and recycling waste, organizing gender forum; occupying leftist organizations which don’t address gender and gendered labor; fighting back through state institutions and on the streets; union organizing; reporting which reframes issues as women’s issues; reporting which reframes issues as more than just women’s issues; story telling; women, and people around them, saying “enough,” and many other activities for dignity and well-being.

If we look closely, we see women actively participating in public life. Women are at the forefront of resistance movements in places like Honduras and South Africa. Women protest the failure of the state to investigate the systematic murder of women in Vancouver and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Women challenge the meaning of public space and public mourning in Argentina and Iran. Women organize feminist media in Costa Rica. And there is the more quiet, everyday work of women to improve the daily conditions and work to enable themselves and their families to survive in the face of everyday poverty or ‘natural’ disasters. This happens just about everywhere and has different contexts but let’s point to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as one place where women struggle to survive.

Paying attention to gendered violence and power, all forms and mixes of it, that work through the family, the community, the state and its institutions, and through economic structures and arrangements is important work. But so is paying attention to women’s individual and collective efforts, in the context of gendered power, all forms and mixes of it, to “transform the conditions of their lives” (Kabeer, 54). Women are not just victims of material forces, state power and cultural patriarchy. Women actively seek to work for the health and well being of their families, their children, other women, and their communities. In the context of structural constraints, we see women like Ms Koya struggling, negotiating, working, and, even, organizing. It’s important to pay attention to what women are doing, their activities and obstacles to their activities, in relation to the gender-structured conditions that they’ve inherited.


(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)

Nascent Collectivities 1

Everlyn Masha Koya

Everlyn Masha Koya, a twenty two year old sex worker-turned-peer-educator from Isiolo, Kenya, recently told a story of the limited work choices that impoverished women face which can lead them to become sex workers and the daily violence they experience from police, from clients, from families and communities.

Ms Koya became a sex worker because her family was unable to afford education fees and her home situation became unbearable once she finished school. She left sex work when she was offered training by government officials to start a small business. She then tried to convince other young women to quit the trade, with limited success. Efforts to persuade women to leave sex work are difficult despite daily violence from clients, the constant threat of incarceration, and the social stigma attached to sex work.

Why is the state interested in helping women leave the sex trade? How might the presence of trade routes and military bases conflict with state efforts to give women alternative employment? How might the expansion of the national “economy” create a situation in which multiple forms of persuasion are not effective? Why is it difficult to persuade young women who have children to leave sex work? These questions suggest a feminist investigation of the nation-state’s dependence upon women as symbols, workers, and dutiful daughters, and the role that women play in the national-economy.

The patriarchal state treats prostitution in two contradictory ways. First, prostitution as female sex work is an aspect of the economy. Prostitution services “what is generally viewed as an incessant and urgent male sexual need…and is therefore to be safeguarded in more or less overt ways for this purpose.” In a situation where nation-state wants to produce and secure livelihoods through active trade routes, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for men to be good workers. In a situation where the state builds military bases to protect the physical borders of the nation-state, sex workers are seen as “necessary” for well-being of soldiers. Thus, the nation state relies upon women to enter sex trade to preserve national economic security and military security. Ms Koya’s statement captures the material situation in which women enter sex work: “Girls are all flocking to Isiolo because there is a ready market for sex work: it has four military camps and a transit route to northern Kenya.”

Second, prostitution serves as an instance of deviant or criminal female sexuality, an activity which the state monitors and controls. The state is interested in producing a coherent population, a “culture,” a “national people” with a shared language, values, behavior, and “history.” This state wants to unify “people” as a national community and to produce citizens in specific ways and in specific roles. It is therefore deeply invested in controlling individuals and populations which exceed norms of gendered behavior. The state demonstrates its authority by placing sex workers under surveillance and controlling sex workers through state institutions, including police, courts, and social welfare-bodies. As Ms Koya says, “Sex work is risky work. I was a frequent visitor to the police station; last year, I spent two months in prison. It is very cold at night, most of the time you go home without getting a client, sometimes you take the risk and allow a customer with good money – KSh500 [$6.60] or so – to sleep with you without a condom.”

Here’s the contradiction: sex workers are “necessary” for the productivity of male workers and stability of military bases. At the same sex workers are vulnerable to surveillance and harassment by the police because they are marked by the nation-state as outside of gender and sexual norms. And, sex workers receive little support or protection from families who see sex work as degraded work.

Ms Koya is caught in this contradiction. Her family is unable to support her education. There are few economic opportunities for her after she leaves school. She enters sex work because there’s a market for it. At the same time, the state, her family, and the community stigmatize women who violate sexual norms by participating in sex work. Meanwhile, women are vulnerable to violent clients, at risk of being infected by HIV/AIDS, and at risk of developing drug addiction. In Ms Koya’s testimony, these risks are part of everyday life, not extraordinary or exceptional, mundane rather than dramatic. The conjunction of these contradictions is epistemic gender based violence – violence of the police, violence of the state, and violence of culture – which appears normal in as much as it does not appear as violence. Epistemic violence is a “logical and consistent and systematic philosophy and world view” which is built into institutions, systems, and structures of society, convergences of rule of law, national identity and citizenship, and rhetorics of ‘protection,’ ‘economy,’ ‘health,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘autonomy,’. This violence limits women’s capacities, opportunities that are available to women for freedom, for safety, for economic self-determination, and health and well-being, and for the freedom, safety, and heath of their families and those who depend upon them.

So, Ms Koya receives a small government grant and training to open a second hand clothing story which enables her to leave sex work. But for women who are responsible for children, the state’s economic modifications are insufficient. And this insufficiency becomes particularly vivid in the context of police violence, the threat of HIV/AIDS, violence from clients, and the dangers of substance abuse. Ms Koya’s failure to persuade women who have children to leave the sex trade can be understood through the contradiction produced by women’s economic responsibilities to their children and reliance of the state on women’s vulnerability and exploitability. As Ms Koya says, “I have tried to get many girls off the streets but it’s really hard. So far I have managed eight, but I am told two have already gone back. Girls with children are the most difficult to convince.”


(Photo Credit: Noor Ali / IRIN)