In Kenya, rights organisations run by sex workers have gone into numerous partnerships with international organisations over the past decade. In recent research, I set out to understand whether these relationships worked in favour of the sex workers and their organisations. My research focused on an organisation in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, that supports male sex workers.
This exposes them to various types of violence. In response to their everyday experiences, more than 70 Kenyan organisations led by sex workers are doing what they can to achieve social justice.
Following interviews and conversations with 99 sex workers between 2018 and 2022, I found that in most cases, sex workers’ knowledge – based on their daily experiences – was sidelined. Donor organisations, despite having good intentions, sometimes fell short of their objectives because they didn’t draw on the knowledge held by marginalised communities.
By ignoring sex workers’ knowledge, development partnerships keep power imbalances unchanged. This leaves many issues that sex workers face – including insecurity, poverty and mental health – unresolved.
My findings illustrate that policies, services and support should include sex workers’ experiential knowledge and needs.
Between 2018 and 2022, I conducted a 10-month study as part of my PhD project. I investigated how international NGOs worked with a community-based organisation led by Kenyan sex workers. Their collaborations were aimed at improving health and human rights outcomes.
My focus was how more powerful organisations, such as international NGOs, include sex workers’ knowledge and expertise in these partnerships.
I identified two primary issues affecting the relationship.
Firstly, international development agencies prioritised their own expertise over that of the communities they set out to help. This was despite NGO employees believing they had taken the perspectives of sex workers into account. They didn’t realise they weren’t listening to what sex workers were telling them.
Secondly, because it relied on statistics and frameworks, the development aid system made it difficult to incorporate other kinds of knowledge into intervention programmes.
Development partnerships tend to sideline the perspectives of sex workers.
For example, NGOs asked the sex workers in my study to provide input on outreach strategies for HIV prevention. But they had already decided what they thought would work best – peer educators and a drop-in centre.
As one respondent in my research put it:
(We ask them), ‘How do you plan to do outreach work; how do you plan to make the DICE (drop-in centre) more attractive to peer educators?’. And then we work around that. So, they get the idea, and then we fine-tune it with the team.
This approach limits sex workers to providing local contacts rather than shaping the agenda based on their priorities.
This tokenistic approach leaves sex workers frustrated. They recognise their crucial role in the success of programmes but are excluded from the decision-making.
This has led to a strong programmatic focus on sex workers’ sexual health and HIV. But they’d like to address other issues too, like insecurity and mental health.
Can the community get more services on mental health … condoms and lubes we can buy; you have empowered us enough. Now get to know our story, our sad moments, the violence we have faced and how it has affected us. How trying to make a living, get a job, a house has been the struggle and how we cope. That’s what we need.
The focus on scientific evidence, professional knowledge and statistical data makes it difficult to discover and share what sex workers know. This knowledge comes from the experience of what it means to do sex work and live as queer in Kenya.
One respondent said:
Now, most (of what) they are doing is health services, but you see the sex worker has been beaten, has been raped, so still the HIV prevalence wouldn’t really go down … They are talking about how to reach targets but this sex worker is still being violated, still being raped, still being beaten.
It’s difficult to integrate such perspectives into the evidence-based policies typical of the international development aid system. Interviews with NGO employees illustrate that requirements for accountability add to the challenge.
They (headquarters) have set out goals and strategies towards epidemic control and everything we do is guided in that context. We work within the context … and then we try … to take into account the more structural issues.
What can be done
The sex workers in my study wanted their knowledge to be included in development partnerships. They identified three things they’d want development organisations to consider.
Take sex workers’ experiential knowledge more seriously. Acknowledge that their insights are as important as academic and professional knowledge.
Acknowledge the leadership, creativity and expertise of marginalised communities. Allow these groups to design programmes based on their unique desires and needs. Community-led research methods can help make this a reality. Support communities to address what they – instead of others – consider important and liberating.
Recognise and disrupt the power dynamics in the international aid system. Dominant actors need to unlearn the power differences in their relationships with communities, which are often uncritically perceived as natural. Critically examine assumptions and practices. Question the legitimacy of the expertise of donors in community collaborations, and see whether there are gaps created by sidelining sex work-related knowledge.