Black Sex Workers’ Lives Matter

by Aya de Leon

In an era where we in the US fight for the idea that Black Lives Matter, to be black and female, African and a sex worker, is to inhabit a location of deepest neglect and disregard.

TRIGGER WARNING: violence, disfigurement of women.

In recent weeks, there has been an outcry from the Kenyan sex work community and its allies about a series of murders of sex workers. In a number of cases victims have also been disfigured, nearly beyond recognition. According to the Kenyan national media network Citizen TV, some were “skinned” and “mutilated.” 

Grace Kamau, on behalf of KESWA, Kenyan Sex Workers Alliance, estimates that there are approximately ten murders per month in Kenya, with a recent escalation that included six sex worker murders within the span of a week. According to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects NSWP, KESWA member Kamau “also criticised the police who she said were not keen on investigating the cases.” This, despite suspicion that a serial killer might be at work.

In an open letter to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, KESWA wrote:
T]he death toll continues to rise. Our…beloved president, we request the following;
  • Right to be free from violence
  • Right to be protected by the law
  • Those behind these killings be arrested and face the full force of the law
  • Sex workers be respected as human beings and citizens of this country….
Protect us, fight for us, help us; we need you now more than ever to save lives before it is too late. 

We are witnessing femicide. A systematic pattern of violence against women. Typically in femicide, the public institutions entrusted to protect women and girls fail to do so. Instead, male perpetrators are able to inflict monstrous brutality on women’s bodies with near impunity. In some cases, institutions such as the police and judiciary actually shield and enable the perpetrators.

I first came across the term femicide in regard to Juarez, Mexico. It describes the violent deaths of hundreds of women and girls since 1993 in this northern Mexican city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. In recent years, the femicide has escalated throughout Mexico. At the beginning of this year, Judith Matloff from Al Jazeera America, reported: 

According to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory, a coalition of 43 groups that document the crime, six women are assassinated every day. Yet only 24 percent of the 3,892 femicides the group identified in 2012 and 2013 were investigated by authorities. And only 1.6 percent led to sentencing. “Femicides are a pandemic in Mexico,” asserts Ana Güezmes, the local representative of United Nations Women, the agency devoted to gender issues.

More recently, I have read reports of femicide in Canada, where over 1200 indigenous women are murdered and/or missing. According to Audrey Huntley of CBC News Canada, Canada’s own law enforcement officials: 
“put the numbers of murdered indigenous women between 1980 and 2012 at 1,017, and cited another 164 as missing under suspicious circumstances. Activists and community members believe these numbers to be low….While indigenous women make up only 4.3 per cent of the total female population, they represent 16 percent of all female homicide victims over more than three decades according to the report…the deafening quiet in mainstream society around this crisis that prompted the founding of No More Silence in Toronto, Ontario over 10 years ago.”

First Canadian activist Delores Schilling tweets consistently on the subject:

@DelSchilling: I have been tweeting this everyday. Will you join me? Over 1200 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women - #MMIW 

I have also heard of indigenous women in the US being targeted for sexual violence and femicide in cases by white men from outside reservation lands. As visitors to the reservation, these men can commit violent crimes against indigenous women, and then leave the reservation, thereby escaping prosecution by tribal authorities. Indigenous women then face the typical uphill battle of attempting to get justice and protection from US authorities, which has never been forthcoming in the US for women of color.

Black women in the US also know what it is like to face utter neglect and disregard by police and other authorities. A year ago, I reported on the murders of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, black teenage sex workers. They were brutally murdered and dumped on the side of the road in Florida in 2014 Many activists have also noted the violence of Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw against black women, many of whom were sex workers. Writer and former sex worker Peechington Marie suggests that sex workers of color are targeted because the brutalizers know they are far less likely to charged, prosecuted or sentenced. Their crimes are not seen as human rights atrocities, because society has already dehumanized the victims through racism, sexism, and whorehobia. “In fact, in the cases of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, as in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his alleged victims, the idea of sex work [is] an important factor in the crime [that] continues to be obscured.…We are completely correct in our steadfast refusal to simply disappear into the ether when we are violated, when our lives are snuffed out.”Throughout the world, the common threads here are: first, the systematic brutalizing of women, second, the lack of response of law enforcement agencies, and third, an absence of public outcry. 

To be sure, there is an overall numbness or tacit acceptance of violence against all women—including women of privilege. However, the lives of women of color, indigenous women, poor women, sex workers, and women from the Global South are particularly expendable in our global political economies.
I am writing this to place these Kenyan sex workers in the international context of femicide. I want to thank the activists in leadership of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for giving us language for the basic value of our lives. I appreciate the leadership of the those who put together the words #SayHerName, for pushing our community to care about women’s lives alongside black men who are murdered. Let our African American movements further develop and maintain a Pan-African scope of analysis that includes our people on the Continent. I also applaud our actions in solidarity and coalition with other people of color in and out of the US. And as always, I want to highlight the importance of holding precious the lives of sex workers. Of every color. Everywhere on the planet. And, right now, particularly in Kenya. 

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, Ebony, Woman's Day, Writers Digest, Guernica, Fusion, Reductress, Quartz, Hip Mama, The Honest Courtesan, Bitch Magazine, and has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon, and about being a debut novelist at Kensington Books will be publishing her feminist heist novel UPTOWN THIEF in 2016.

Photo: iStockPhoto

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