"My parents and neighbours are still not convinced I am no longer a prostitute"

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ISIOLO, 7 January 2010 (PlusNews) - Everlyn Masha Koya, 22, is a sex worker-turned-peer educator in Isiolo town in Kenya's Eastern Province.  Now the owner of a successful small business, she told IRIN/PlusNews about the extreme poverty that drives many young women in the region into sex work.

"I still remember the release of my primary school exam results in January 2007 - it was a brief moment of joy but also marked the end of my dreams to either be a teacher or a nurse, because although I scored the highest among all the girls in my school, my parents were too poor to send me to secondary school.

"After that, my parents and brothers changed the way they treated me at home - they became harsh and hostile, accusing me of idling.  They instructed me to go out and look for work. When the situation at home became unbearable, I moved out and joined a group of girls who had hired a room in Isiolo - they introduced me to sex work.

"I still remember the first night I ventured into Isiolo town to look for a client, it was not easy... I was required to pay KSh100 [about US$1.30] to some boys who patrol the town at night.  For almost three years I served many men; my clients included the police, army, bandits and robbers, truck drivers and even men whom I suspected were mad.

"Sex work is risky work. I was a frequent visitor to the police station; last year, I spent two months in prison.  It is very cold at night, most of the time you go home without getting a client, sometimes you take the risk and allow a customer with good money - KSh500 [$6.60] or so - to sleep with you without a condom.

"To survive in the trade, you had to take all types of drugs - miraa [also known as khat, a mild stimulant widely chewed in the Horn of Africa], bhang [marijuana], alcohol and cigarettes.

"Then in July [2009], officials from the [government's] Arid Lands Office held a meeting for sex workers at the Isiolo stadium. We were asked to quit.  They asked us to identify what kind of business we wanted to start, trained us in how to conduct business, budgeting, keep a record of our sales, savings and also asked us to go for HIV testing. I was lucky to test negative.

"I chose to start selling second-hand clothes which are cheap and can sell very fast. So far it has been successful; I have many customers and have opened an account with a local bank.  But my friends, parents and neighbours are still not convinced that I am a changed person, no longer a prostitute but a businesswoman.

"I have tried to get many girls off the streets but it's really hard.  So far I have managed eight, but I am told two have already gone back.  Girls with children are the most difficult to convince.

"Girls are all flocking to Isiolo because there is a ready market for sex work: it has four military camps and a transit route to northern Kenya.  I am sure that the problem of prostitution is going to get worse and HIV/AIDS is going to get worse unless the government and NGOs assist girls to earn a living.”

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