Ask Peninah Mwangi about the PEPFAR pledge

Faced with violence against sex workers in Kenya, Peninah Mwangi noted, “The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a Kenyan.”  Mwangi should know.

Peninah Mwangi is the Executive Director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, BHESP, located in Nairobi, Kenya. BHESP organizes, advocates, and empowers sex workers. Before the recent elections, BHESP organized `awareness campaigns’ with bar hostesses and their customers, to make sure that everyone voted, that no one missed voting due to drunkenness. It was a critical citizenship participatory popular education program run from one bar, and one barstool, to the next.

BHESP has marched and lobbied for decriminalization and legalization of sex work. They have marched and lobbied to end police violence against sex workers. At the same time, they have established drop-in centers, legal services, hotlines and havens. The Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme have improved and saved women’s lives in Kenya, and are a model for the rest of the world.

They are supported by Pathfinder International, the Open Society Foundations; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Almost every major organization that matters admires and supports the great, innovative and urgent work that BHESP provides. The large exception, the elephant-in-the-room exception, to this is PEPFAR, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Why? Because Peninah Mwangi and her colleagues won’t take the `anti-prostitution pledge.’ Apparently sex work is a far greater `emergency’ than AIDS.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case in which opponents to the `pledge’ argue that the `pledge’ violates first amendment rights and impairs attempts to improve the working conditions of sex workers. Proponents claim the `pledge’ rescues women from trafficking and worse.

Behind, or obscured by, the legal debate are the sex workers themselves. On one hand, researcher after researcher has noted that the PEPFAR pledge harms any campaigns or programs among sex workers to reduce and eradicate HIV and AIDS. Criminalization of sex work increases risk factors for AIDS among sex workers. Transnational and global criminalization of sex work widens the pool of those increasingly at risk into a global ocean. As some have noted, it’s a dark ripple effect, which keeps on spreading.

Here’s one example of the impact of the `pledge’: “As a result of the pledge, in many instances information sharing about successful programming with sex workers has nearly ceased. Sex work programming has become a taboo topic; organizations that receive other funding are likely to be interested in or to seek US government contracts and funds. Others with specific missions have reigned in all activities unrelated or tangentially related to their missions; this has affected many sex work projects the world over. The anti-prostitution pledge has prevented the sharing of information about successful programming and prevented scaling up successful operations.”

Prevented the sharing of information. Silence. Equals. Death. The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a `fellow citizen’, a human being. Ask Peninah Mwangi. She should know.


(Video Credit: Josephine Nekesa Were /