Kenyan Pubs: Its a Thin Line Between Sex Work and Bar Work
Photo: Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
|Sexual violence against bar hostesses is widespread and accepted|
NAIROBI, 29 October 2008 (PlusNews) – A man in a bar gets progressively more drunk and disorderly, his speech growing more slurred and his sexual advances to a waitress becoming more aggressive as he tries to get her to go home with him.
The scene is from a sketch at the second national bar hostesses’ conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where bar staff told the gathering they often had to deal with sexual violence and harassment.
“People don’t respect you as a bar worker; they treat you badly and expect that you are an easy target for sex because of your job,” Catherine Wacira, a bar hostess in Nairobi, told the conference on 27 October.
“Our managers rarely take our side when we are being harassed because the customers are paying a lot of money; they prefer to keep them happy rather than defend us.”
Participants at the conference on preventing HIV and sexual violence among bar hostesses said their working conditions sometimes made it difficult for them to refuse punters’ sexual advances.
“We work up to 10 hours a night and get paid only 4,000 shillings [US$50] per month, and sometimes that is reduced because the owner docks your pay for flat beers and broken bottles,” Wacira said. “So sometimes you need to respond positively to the customers’ sex requests so you can make ends meet.”
A study by the Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support Programmes (BHESP), which organised the meeting, noted that 90 percent of Nairobi’s bar hostesses were sexually active, many of them with multiple partners.
Although there are no statistics on HIV prevalence among bar workers, the BHESP estimated that prevalence in this group was higher than the national level of 7.8 percent. Kenya has more than 40,000 nationally registered bars, each with an average of four bar workers.
“These women are relegated to subservient status and, as such, they find it difficult to negotiate for safe sex or good terms of employment,” said Peninah Mwangi, head of the BHESP.
|You wouldn’t start asking a nurse or a teacher for sex while she is at work, so why do it to a bar hostess? It is a job just like any other|
“Violence against them is widespread and accepted; the main perpetrators are patrons, management and even law enforcement officers. They face sexual harassment at work and are often raped, as they leave work in the middle of the night with no protection.”
Mwangi said the constant threat of violence was linked to low self-esteem and depression, both of which were common among waitresses. Substance abuse was another related problem.
“We need the government to be on our side,” Wacira said. “Every labour day they announce a minimum wage for workers in different sectors, but never for ours. If we had good wages, our chances of getting HIV would be reduced; we would not be forced to sleep with customers.”
The BHESP, which has a national membership of 5,000, is in the process of forming a union to strengthen the bargaining position of women who work in bars.
“You wouldn’t start asking a nurse or a teacher for sex while she is at work, so why do it to a bar hostess? It is a job just like any other,” the assistant minister for medical services, Danson Mungatana, commented in his opening address.
“There is a need to promote behaviour change communication so that they understand their rights and members of the public also give them due respect,” He told the delegates.
“We all know our sisters are in this business not because they have chosen to do so in most cases, but because fate has landed them there. They must put food on the table, clothe their children [and] take them to school.”
Mungatana said the government would provide support to initiatives aimed at giving bar workers better survival skills, empowering them with female condoms and strengthening general legal and policy frameworks to support women’s rights to economic independence, such as the right to own and inherit land and property.