Peninah Wanjiru wasn’t really one to take chances.
Her friends said the 35-year-old Kenyan sex worker was careful how she conducted business at her home in Majengo, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi, where she only allowed clients in for a “quickie”.
But on the night of May 7, a curfew imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus forced Wanjiru to allow a client to stay over. Some hours later, she was found lying in a pool of blood. She died before help could arrive.
A post-mortem report found she had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and stomach and had suffered head injuries. Police are still investigating the crime.
Women engaging in sex work have always been more vulnerable to violence but a surge in physical attacks and killings of sex workers in Kenya since COVID-19 restrictions came into force has sent a chill through the community.
This spike in violence was attributed not only to clients attacking sex workers but also by the police and other community members who blame them for spreading the coronavirus.
“It’s really frightening what we are seeing happening across the country,” said Peninah Mwangi, executive director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, a sex worker-led organisation with 10,000 members in Kenya.
“Our girls are really scared. We are hearing of women going with clients, only to find their bodies dumped. In one case, a sex worker was killed by her client’s family when she went to his house. Even so, they are more scared of hunger than murder.”
Lockdowns are forcing desperate sex workers to disregard usual safety norms to make a living, exposing them to increased violence – and even murder, according to sex worker groups.