The special midnight shows at striptease joints, with nude women performers, are a rage in Kenya, despite the fact that the law bans all forms of pornography. There are two sets of laws that deal with this issue: there's Section 181 of the Penal Code that makes trafficking, publishing and exhibition of obscene publications punishable, and the Sexual Offences Act Cap 3 of 2006, which specifically targets children for protection from acts of lewd exposure.
However, when it comes to enforcing the law, unfortunately, it is never the club owners - normally men - who are arrested. During police raids, it is the women who end up behind bars. And this discriminatory attitude also extends to the prostitutes working in the unofficial red light districts in the country.
In mid-June this year, the police unwittingly invited the press to witness a raid at Deep West, a popular tavern located in a middle-class suburb in Nairobi. Brazenly, in front of TV cameras, the police cornered the women clients and performers, while tacitly providing a getaway for the men.
This is not an isolated incident. The police has been known to provide a safe passage to men 'caught in the act', while being harsh on the women.
In 2005, there was a huge scandal in Kenya, when five male legislators caught kerb crawling along Nairobi's Koinange Street, the capital's unofficial red light district, were freed unconditionally by the officers at the Central Police Station. The women prostitutes caught in the sting operation, though, were not that lucky.
Fortunately, though, when they were produced in the High Court, the magistrate, Catherine Mwangi, let them go. She felt the police were "steeped in a discriminatory mind frame that believes women are inherently prostitutes, while the male clan is eternally immune from soliciting sex in exchange for money or pleasure."
She further added, "It's discriminatory and unacceptable that in this day and age the organ of government required to act in word and in deed in a non-discriminatory manner is perpetrating a hollow belief that men are incapable of moral lapses. For the record, it's a known fact that the prostitution trade has the men to thank because, traditionally, it is they who are the clients. But seldom do the police see them as deserving of a reprimand."
Kenya is among the few sub-Saharan states where the economy has a serious capitalist element. Conspicuously, within urban locales, a form of raw hedonism reigns as king, coalescing around five phenomena: Sex, Music, Idolism, Liquor and Evil, popularly termed, 'SMILE'.
In response to the allegations of gender discrimination, police spokesperson, Erick Kirathe believes it's a "coincidence" that when prostitutes are paraded in court they all happen to be women. "The men escape the dragnet because they normally outrun the police but women are slow and, therefore, easier to apprehend," he says.
In fact, when it was pointed out that his answer paints women as the sole perpetrators of prostitution (dismissing the existence of male prostitutes), he argues that it's "difficult" to point out a male prostitute, but for women it is different. "They are easy to detect because of their provocative attire. How do male prostitutes dress? When we can answer this question the issue of acting unfavorably towards women during such raids will be resolved," he says.
While the law criminalizes lewd acts of a sexual nature, punishing the guilty with either a maximum fine of Ksh 50,000 (US$ 700) or three months incarceration or both, a bit of palm greasing offers a way out.
"The police force has an image problem. Reports from generic human rights groups have routinely placed the police force as the foremost bribe-taker in Kenya. And the perception on the ground shows that civil society has little faith in the police force as it is presently constituted," says Hussein Hassan, Deputy Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a government funded institution.
However, according to Dr David Ndii, an economist with The Leadership Institute, a local NGO involved in policy making and research, remuneration of police cadres needs to be improved if everyone expects the local constabulary to walk the straight and narrow road. "How do you expect the police force to eschew tendencies of palm greasing if an inspector currently earns a miserable Ksh 15,000 (US$ 235) every month, with no quarters to shelter a family?" he asks.
But, what of the strippers? Already, life for them is tough. While some are struggling to make ends meet as single parents, others have to send home money to their families in the villages. Joan Akinyi, 27, a stripper, says, "I don't really admire what I do, but for now it's the only job for me. I am a single parent, so right now getting a formal job is difficult. Also, the money I make at strip clubs in a week sometimes even exceeds what a formal job can offer me."
Akinyi had to learn to fend for herself early in life, as her parents separated when she was young. "Currently, my mother lives with my two siblings in the rural areas and when I make good money I send some money home," she reveals.
Mary Wangui, 25, another stripper, comments, "Stripping is like any other job. However, if I got a formal job with a good pay I would switch without hesitation."
Ask her whether her family approves, she reveals, "My family does not know that I strip for a living. If they knew, I know they would be annoyed with me. But I need money to survive and stripping offers me that opportunity."
So, what do the girls take home? A good day at the office brings in Ksh 3,500 (US$62), while on a slow day they earn just about Ksh 1,000 (US$15).
Like Wangui and Akinyi, there are around 200 strippers, in the age group of 18 and 35, working in Nairobi alone. And they considerably boost the earnings of large liquor selling outlets and clubs. In fact, owners concede that they can't do without these performers. "Our business is driven by market forces. If we banned the nude shows, we would be run out of town by our competitors. Look, it's the 'in' thing. It wows our patrons and they keep coming back for more. In fact, our bar is relatively tame. Some joints even employ very young girls, just out of school. Here, a woman has to be above 18 years because that is the official age for adulthood. But stopping this show is out of the question," says Charles Mustapha, co-owner of Wallet, a popular bar-cum-restaurant in Nairobi.
"If it's unlawful to have nude women performing why doesn't the government ban altogether the advertising of these joints in the mainstream media?" asks Prisca Nyamai, 26, an executive sales agent with a leading beverage manufacturing firm.