By Cynthia Ochieng.
Every thread in our society’s fabric tells a different story, and sex workers’ stories are no exception as they fight against societal norms and biases that limit their prospects. Notwithstanding these obstacles, The Right to Education is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed in their stories.
Sex workers who have access to education are empowered to take charge of their lives and develop the abilities and self-assurance necessary to make positive changes.
It is critical to acknowledge this transformative power because access is necessary for everyone, regardless of circumstances or career choice, inclusion alone is not enough.
This narrative takes us on a journey to understand the challenges faced by sex workers as they pursue education, while also emphasizing the life-changing possibilities that result from overcoming these obstacles. It’s an open call to action, to dispel myths and recognize that equitable access to education, regardless of social standing or line of work, is a prerequisite for real equality.
As a sex worker, Maryann Chebet is based in Paradise, Eldoret town. When she was barely 17 years old, she started her career. Even though she tried to go back to school and had hopes of becoming a teacher, the stigma from other educators, non-teaching personnel, and fellow students ultimately shattered those dreams for Chebet. Now after ten years into this profession, she hopes that members of society will begin treating sex workers with respect so they can access essential services without judgment or discrimination.
Chebet acknowledges that there are numerous challenges in her line of work. She once attempted to further her education after obtaining some funds but faced unbearable judgment and stigmatization from teachers who verbally attacked her. As a result, she experienced lowered self-esteem compounded by no friends to confide in about this negativity prompting Chebet’s decision to drop out and return to the streets as it was not necessary for any validation. However, given another opportunity today; Chebet would gladly venture into schooling again.
It is an early Thursday morning when I arrive at Chebet’s house, on the outskirts of Eldoret Town. Being a single mum of two, she prepares her kids for school and drops them off a few meters away from her house. Chebet adjusts to her daily cycle. She walks through the busy streets, her destination being a place that only a select few are aware of, far from prying eyes. She waits for those there who are looking for comfort, engaging in a transaction that blends her reality with theirs. The conversations are short, a delicate back-and-forth in the dim light. She hides behind a mask, that protects her from her weaknesses exposed in these brief moments.
As the business of the day comes to an end, Chebet takes comfort in little moments of calm. She sips her coffee in a quiet corner of the café while reflecting on her own life. She maintains a fantasy of a bright future for her kids beyond her heavy heart as she ponders over it in these moments on her own. At about 8.30 pm, she gets ready to go home back to her kids.
Sex workers have observed bureaucrats in the education sector neglecting their duties. Many sex workers are eager to return to school but struggle with accessing financial aid. Mary Nekesa encountered hostility three times while attempting to secure scholarships and bursaries for tuition fees.
“The primary reason for school dropout is the lack of financial resources. Despite my efforts to obtain financial aid, I was met with scrutiny and judgmental looks regarding my income source. Society must recognize it’s not solely about employment but also the impediments hindering us from attaining a brighter future.”
The opinions on whether or not commercial sex workers should have access to education differ among the upright members of society, with the conservative ones arguing that educating commercial sex workers could unintentionally legitimize their line of work. They argue that rather than providing educational opportunities for individuals involved in the sex trade, society should put much focus on discouraging involvement in it.
On the flip side, a more sympathetic subset of the upright members embraces inclusion and acknowledges the human element of sex work believing that education acts as a ray of hope for people wishing to leave the sex business.
According to Paul Odhiambo, a trainer in one of the vocational training centers in Eldoret, a tutor’s ability to mold students’ lives and advance society as a whole should never be questioned, regardless of their background.
“The classroom is a neutral space. A person must be offered knowledge once they enter the premises in search of it. Since education is a core human right, everyone should be able to pursue it. Discrimination cases ought to be unheard of in educational institutions.”
Education is a catalyst for change because it gives people information, the ability to think critically, and confidence. Giving sex workers access to education will improve their lives by empowering them and advancing social justice.
A remarkable transformation, however, takes place in the quiet corridors of resilience, where the echoes of untold stories linger. These are the stories of sex workers who decided to end their exploitation and embrace the positive change that comes from learning new skills and writing their own success stories. Among the people who have gained from education is Mercy.
After abandoning the sex industry behind, she embarked on a journey of empowerment and self-discovery. Her love for sewing started after she enrolled in programs for vocational training and realized the complex skill of tailoring. She developed her ability to create works of art out of discarded cloth by being determined and having a keen eye for detail.
“I discovered the strength within myself to redefine my identity as well as the power of knowledge when I ventured into the world of learning. My college experience turned into a haven where I was safe from the judgment of the past. I used to feel judged if I publicly boasted about my source of income, but that is no longer the case. I can boast with pride about the tailoring I do. I am a living example of how things can change.”
Beyond being denied the opportunity to pursue their right to education, sex workers deal with a multitude of other difficulties. They face an array of challenges that impact their overall well-being, safety, and quality of life in the complex threads of their lives. Many of them operate in legal gray areas, that puts them at risk of legal consequences. Their safety makes it challenging for them to seek justice or protection when they are exploited or abused. Working in the sexual sex industry increases one’s susceptibility to several illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and STIs. The workers’ covert activities and limited access to healthcare services make these health disparities worse.
Physical and sexual violence against sex workers is a common occurrence. Because their work is covert, they are frequently vulnerable to being taken advantage of by clients, police enforcement, or other parties, which feeds abuse cycles and power disparities.
Non-Governmental Organizations have over time emerged as champions of justice in the maze of societal complexities where sex workers frequently find themselves marginalized and silenced. They diligently negotiate the difficulties to protect the rights of people whose voices might have drowned in the darkness. Kelvin Sang is the founder of the Man Can Foundation.
“Since sex workers are members of our communities, it is necessary to include them in plans for the development of society. In this situation, we should ask the government and non-governmental organizations for assistance in granting sex workers access to important resources and education, such as post-secondary education. Talents and skills have the power to alter the type of life and lifestyle that sex workers lead to making a living,” reiterated Sang.
Eldoret town has over 10,000 commercial sex workers, both male and female with only 2800 registered members of Eldoret Sex Workers Alliance, ESWA.
The church, as a societal extension, has for the longest time been part of creating and maintaining the stigma associated with sex workers. The religious doctrines that have placed a strong emphasis on chastity and purity tend to frame sex work as sinful with sermons and teachings perpetuating social norms that dehumanize sex workers.
In the context of sex work, the phrase “It takes two to tango” is significant as it conveys the intricate relationships that take place within this industry. This statement recognizes the mutually beneficial engagement between sex workers and their clients in the intricate transaction and shared experience that takes place in the domains of intimacy and business. It is a reflection of the shared responsibility between the service providers and their customers.
If society only acknowledged the unique challenges that sex workers face when attempting to further their education, collaborated to create all-encompassing regulations and support initiatives, and addressed the unfavorable perceptions associated with this profession, a haven where those involved in prostitution feel free to pursue their academic objectives without fear of discrimination or bias would be created.
Our objective is to work toward a time when no one is subjected to prejudice or neglect because of their occupation. We must see education as a powerful instrument that may demolish societal prejudices. Let’s close the gap and guarantee that sex workers have access to education so they may benefit from its transforming power as well