When the Law Fails to Protect: Stigma, Violence and Sex Workers’ Multi-Layered Responses in the Kenyan Cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisii and Meru


  • Lise Woensdregt




In Kenya, criminal laws on sex work and same-sex activities, combined with stigma on sex work and homosexuality, shape sex workers’ vulnerability to violence. This paper explores sex workers’ responses to violence at various levels of social and legal organisation. Drawing from a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach including qualitative interviews and focus group data, the paper illustrates a close and mutually reinforcing nexus between criminalisation, sex work stigma and homophobia as well as a resulting climate of impunity for perpetrators. By understanding sex workers as agentic actors, it demonstrates how sex workers respond to, rework and resist this repressive landscape of violence. It argues that sex workers mitigate the risk of experiencing violence by ‘getting by’ and ‘getting ahead’, while sex worker organisations support them to engage in collective resistance. The paper demonstrates a need to reform sex work-related laws and argues that action should extend beyond legal reform to include efforts to mediate the social processes that undercut sex workers’ access to rights and social justice.