Sex-Workers Get Second Chance at Life With Microloans in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya: With higher levels of economic growth than expected, Kenya’s banks have already begun giving successful loans to a specific and special group of women. Many of these women have struggled through poverty with only one option available to them as they raise their children alone without assistance.

Known in Kenya as sex-workers – prostitutes – they work selling the only thing they have available to sell – their own bodies.

The move to assist women who are currently working in Kenya as commercial sex-workers is not only meant to get prostitutes out of a risky trade, but to improve their life.

“We are giving loans to prostitutes in a move aimed at helping them,” says Equity Bank Chief Executive Officer, Dr. James Mwangi, during a recent Women News Network interview.

“It is sad that many women are still in the trade of prostitution. Many should know about available opportunities,” says Jane Mumbi, a 35 year old mother and former commercial sex-worker, who now owns a restaurant on the outskirts of Nairobi.

In a country where the average income is less than two dollars (USD) per day, the goal of microfinance credit is to bridge the poverty gap as it also works to help women increase gender empowerment through opportunity.

We saw “no bathrooms; no toilets; no running water; no kitchens; maybe a cooking stove run on kerosene shoved in the corner. Outside the door were plastic buckets to wash and bathe in,” shared global woman’s advocate, Cathy Michael, when she had a chance to see extreme poverty conditions up-close in the Mathare Valley slum, which is only 2.3 miles from the center of downtown Nairobi.

“Women constitute the majority of the poor and also the absolute majority of Kenyans,” said a detailed 2000 report made by the government of Kenya for the IDRC – International Development Research Centre.

“Studies in Kenya indicate that women are more vulnerable to poverty than men,” continued the report. “The release of women’s productive potential is pivotal to breaking the cycle of poverty so that they can share fully in the benefits of development and in the products of their own labour.”

The Mathare Valley slum, just 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) north of downtown Nairobi, is one of the oldest slums in Kenya. There 200,000 people live on a narrow strip of land measuring only 1.2 by .2 miles. Today 85% of the shacks in the Valley are occupied by single mothers. Living in small spaces, that often measure no more than 10×10 feet with no running water, mothers and their children face constant danger from disease and malnutrition.

Crime, prostitution and lawlessness is a common reality in the Mathare Valley slum. Food scarcity and severe extremes in poverty are an everyday occurrence.

Facing daily humiliations as they are shunned by Kenyan society, many women who have decided to become commercial sex-workers in the slums, work under high stress and often very dangerous conditions, where rape and the dangers of HIV/AIDS are real and imminent.

Providing food and shelter for their children and/or elder parents, women sex-workers who live in the Mathare Valley and also in the Kibera slum, south of Nairobi, often are the only ones who can act as official “heads of household” for their families.

Providing food and shelter for their children usually falls completely on the women.

“In addition to being a prostitute, I have lived in the streets for many years and been involved in all kinds of serious and petty crimes,” says former commercial sex-worker, Jane Mumbi, who now lives a new life. “I have even been involved in drug trafficking and been jailed several times,” she admits.

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Working under the stress of a constant threat of rape violence in the processes surrounding their work, prostitutes from the slums sift through debilitating and often insulting treatment as they collect monies for sex-services. Their pay goes first for food, then for the needs of their children and parents. Their own needs come last.

“It is good. It is a good feeling I don’t have to sell my body anymore to feed my two young children. Life is hopeful,” adds former prostitute, Jane Mumbi.

Trapped in a dangerous wheel with work that is rising in acceptance among the youth in modern Kenyan society, many of Kenya’s sex-industry workers have little to no opportunity to improve their life; to learn trade skills; or to receive more than a very basic education.

The average amount of time spent for most women, who work as sex-workers in Kenya is 6 to 8 years. When given the opportunity to receive funding through microloans, many women are grateful but cautious. Fear of failure and greater poverty in taking chances in work that will take them away from prostitution haunts them.

An average microloan for women in Kenya today can range from $700 to $6,000 (USD). During the process, each woman must become a member of a specific womens microfinance group which must meet the minimum requirements of Kenya’s regulatory AMFI – Association of Microfinance Institutions.

The plan to pay back loans is brilliant. Women meet with their group on a regular basis to borrow and pay back loans to their bank over an extended period of time. Bank microloan programs succeed as women are held accountable to themselves, the bank and the group as they payback what they have borrowed. As loans are paid, opportunities for women to borrow larger amounts of money are also made available.

Many of Kenya’s commercial sex-workers see themselves as entrepreneurs or ‘bangaisha,’ a slang word in Kenya for someone who ‘solicits their own business.’ Through microloans and bank financing, the concept of ‘understanding business’ puts sex-workers in an optimized position to work well with the ideas of business loans.

Former prostitute, Jane Mumbi, pays a mortgage of $30 (USD) per month for the restaurant she now owns. She also pays an additional $60 (USD) per month, via her profits, back to her bank.

The policy of lending to those in need has worked. “We have been quite successful,” says Mwangi about Equity Bank’s lending programs, which is now partnering with the UNDP – United Nations Development Programme.

Equity Bank, which started as a non-profit financial service in Kenya, is now one of the top 100 largest banks in Africa in terms of assets. Many lenders, starting out as traditional nonprofits, have now been transformed into commercial banks that focus on helping the poor. This has attracted additional financing from private investment funds and investment entrepreneurs.

“My restaurant is now making a profit of more than $800 (USD) per month,” says Jane proudly.

Loans by Equity Bank range from $700 to as much as $6,000 (USD). The bank also provides loans that are smaller for women who are starting at a beginners level.

“We encourage realistic proposals from the applicants. (Applications) have to be from women,” says Mwangi about the institution’s microloan program for women. “We have other lending categories which men can apply for, but this program is for women (only). They also have to prove that they can pay back the loan.”

Owner of a tailoring business in Kiambu, Kenya, former sex-worker, Margaret Muchene, has created a new career. Through a microloan program at Equity Bank, Muchene has received more than $3,000 (USD) to launch a sewing and clothing company.

Jamii Bora Trust, a MFI – Micro Finance Institution based in Kenya, got its beginnings in 2000 when Swedish humanitarian and former head of the African Housing Fund, Ingrid Munro, offered street beggars and prostitutes small microloans to start self-owned businesses. Soon vegetable stalls and used clothing businesses were created as women who received the loans were asked to first save half the amount of money they gathered to pay back their loan.

Jamii Bora is now one of Kenya’s largest microfinance organizations, with 230,000 plus members. Through extended programs they also sell life and disaster insurance. An affordable comprehensive health-insurance plan is also available for members. Those who become part of the program pay approximately 40 cents (USD) per week for care in mission hospitals.

Jane Mutua, who is widowed and has never been a prostitute, has also benefited from a small Jamii Bora loan ($1,500 USD) which has helped her expand her farming business.

“I am very happy. Women like me are at a very high risk when we do not have any money. We often tend to go into prostitution and other vices to survive and feed our families,” shares Mutua.

“The good thing, with these small loans, is that you can always borrow (again) as soon as you pay back,” Jane explains.

In the last ten months, as microfinance programs expand in the region, Equity Bank has been the financial lender to more than 7,000 women who have begun to establish their own businesses.

“The government (also) hopes to reduce HIV infections in the country, which still remain high,” says Equity Bank CEO, Dr. James Mwangi.

“There are many microfinance specialists who say that the very poor cannot use a microloan. But that is an ancient myth — one that dies hard,” says Sam Daley-Harris, recipient of the first Susan M. Davis Lifetime Achievement Award and founder of RESULTS, a grassroots lobbying organisation working closely on issues to alleviate world poverty.

“Many women are scared to apply for loans since they fear that failure to repay will increase their levels of poverty. Many have died from HIV or other causes,” adds Dr. Mwangi.

Teaching commercial sex-workers in Kenya the financial territory that comes with microloan programs is very important. Empowerment, self-worth and training are an essential part of the formula.

“The agreed deadline of 2015 (for The United Nations Millennium Development Goals) is fast approaching,” said UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon recently on September 16, in a formal statement on world poverty. “There is still much to be done.”

Located 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) south west of Nairobi, the Kibera slum is the largest slum in Kenya at a population that has now reached over one million. In Kibera many young women are turning to prostitution to feed their families. A large proportion of the men who use prostitutes in Kibera also refuse to use protection. As a result, the spread of HIV is running rampant. This 4:36 min video is a March 2009 CurrentTV production.

Green Bridge CBO Founder, Lydia Ondiek, helps women sex-workers learn to connect to greater opportunity with microfinance programs available in the region. Microloans help women sex-workers begin their own business projects as they learn to engage with Kenyan society in a new way. This 2:54, January 2010 video has been produced by Andrew Ochieng for Kenyan CitizenTV news.

WNN correspondent, Gitonga Njeru, is a Nairobi, Kenya journalist who specializes in investigative reporting, human rights and science reporting. His news stories have been published by Reuters News AlertNet, The Guardian (UK), Africa Science News, along with The Daily Nation and The Nairobi Star Newspaper in Kenya. Njeru’s work has also been featured by Spore Magazine (Brussels) and Ooskanews (US) covering water, land and sanitation issues in developing countries. Charles is also a very recent recipient of an award grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.