Sylvia Okoth, 22, was sold to a brothel when she was 16 years old.
When she managed to get out, she vowed that she will dedicate her life to helping other girls in similar situations. She talks about finding hope after darkness
“A crowded bar at 3am on Friday is no place for a 16-year-old girl. But it was here that I spent a big chunk of my teenage hood.
I would be leered at, have my body parts grabbed and every so often a customer would get violent in a bid to get off from paying their bill. It was tough. But this is was far better than my fresh start at a brothel.
It was also here, in a crowded bar, that I was empowered and found my life’s purpose.
‘You have a right to say no to harassment from clients even if he is paying for drinks. You should report to the cops if you get harassed,’ said a spokesperson for a bar hostess organisation.
That was in 2015. How I wished I knew this when prostitution was forced upon me.
The bar episode marked my first ray of light. I began seeing the possibility of a future where I would be happy and independent.
Four years back my life had suddenly changed. My mother had died from a sudden illness while I was in Form One and a family member took me and my little brother to live with him in Nairobi.
My brother was eight and I was 12. It wasn’t long before he began taking out his stress and frustrations on me.
Then, one Friday in May 2013, he sold me to a brothel. On this day I woke up a hopeful, trusting 16-year-old schoolgirl, and by supper time I was the newest resident at a Kileleshwa brothel.
I had been a Form Three student at a day secondary day school in Nairobi. When I came back home I found a strange man waiting for me.
He told me that he was here to offer me a job. My young mind thus saw this job offer as a way out for my brother and me.
I remember packing a few clothes, bidding my brother bye and following this man.
When I asked what kind of job it was, he told me no to worry, I would be working with other girls like me.
That it was easy and I would enjoy it. I believed him. I didn’t know to ask more questions; I didn’t know the red flags to look out for.
We took two matatus to a big house in Kileleshwa. The man laughed with the women we found at the front desk.
I sat on a hard chair as they had a hushed conversation after which he left and I was taken to a room I was to share with another skimpily dressed girl.
When I wondered out loud why she was dressed this way, she told me it was because she sold sex.
My first reaction was that of shock, and then came denial. Surely, a person I trusted can’t have done this to me.
I was still a virgin. I was a good girl; a good student. There must be another job here for me.
At around 8:30pm that night, my worst fear came true. The woman I had met at the front desk, who seemed like the manager of the place and who the girls referred to as matron, knocked on our door and summoned me upstairs.
I was taken to a different room and told to wait for a man. I will never forget the man’s face and what he wore.
When it was all over, the matron came back to my room livid. This man had complained that I had given him a hard time.
I was warned that if this happened again, I would go without food and bathing water. So for the next month, frightened and alone, I did whatever they told me to do.
Each day I would be sent up to this room three or four times. The men would pay at the reception and the money would be sent to my family member.
In between these sessions, I cried my eyes dry. The older girls, about 20 of them, would take turns taking days off but I was not allowed to leave.
One day I was sent upstairs to meet a young man, probably in his late 20s. He seemed surprised by how young I was and asked me how I got here.
I told him. This man kept coming back to see me; he would leave me some money each time. He never touched me.
After a month, he asked to be allowed to leave with me as an escort promising to bring me back. He took me to town, bought me a meal, gave me a thousand shillings and told me to find my way home.
There was no home for me. I knew I couldn’t go back to the person who had sold me.
I started by sleeping over at schoolmates’ houses but soon after I found myself out in the streets.
I would hang around estate vibandas during the day and sleep at entrances of buildings at night.
It was while here that I met a young woman who would change the course of my life. “I would like to go back to school,” I told her at the end of my narration as to why I was on the streets.
My new friend housed me for a few months and got me a job in a local bar so I could pay for my fees.
I would go to school on weekdays, rush home Friday evening for the night shift, work through the weekend serving drinks at the bar, and repeat the cycle the next week. It was a hectic period in my life.
It was at this bar that I met the people who changed my life. They were from the Bar Hostesses Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP), a community-based organisation that helps reduce stigma and discrimination among sex workers and bar hostesses.
Despite the harrowing circumstances, I scored a C+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination and went to college to study HIV management and project management.
I now work as an advocate of girls’ rights and a peer educator with BHESP.
I live with my baby brother who is now in secondary school. I have also been lucky to find love from a gentle and kind man with whom I hope to raise happy, empowered children.
As a girls’ rights advocate and peer educator, a regular day at work for me entails crisscrossing low-income areas in Nairobi where girls are more vulnerable.
‘It’s not the end of life if you are a prostitute,’ I tell them. I tell them not to despair. Because just like me there is hope.
I also tell them they can make money through their talents. That a girl can make bead necklaces and earn money to buy sanitary pads. I also teach them the signs to look for in a sexual predator.
Unfortunately, sometimes I do not get to a needy girl on time. One haunting experience is when a teenage girl committed suicide after being forced to sell her body.”