"In our decriminalization case, we will “win” anyway just by filing the case, whether we win or lose in court. People are going to be reading about us, hearing us, thinking about who we are and what we add to society. We will be changing the narrative, and this alone is a “win” enough for us."
Phelister Abdallah is the national coordinator of the Kenya Sex Workers’ Alliance (KESWA) and an active sex worker. KESWA is committed to examining the strengths and weaknesses of international human rights and domestic legal frameworks as they apply to sex work. She is particularly focused on ensuring that sex workers are included as active participants in the planning, decision-making, and implementation of the KESWA programs. In October she will be part of a public interest litigation case in Kenya which aims to reform the anti-sex work laws there, and by so doing, give sex workers a better chance of safe and dignified lives. This forms part of a broader strategy aimed at remedying the violations sex workers face.
Phelister Abdallah, a practising sex worker, leads the Kenya Sex Workers Rights Association (KESWA). As she prepares to take her organisation into a strategic litigation process to decriminalise sex-work in Kenya, she describes the importance of this, as a public advocacy tool: “we want to use the case to give sex-workers a human face” – as mothers providing for their families, rather than demonic sinners. Her passion for decriminalisation is grounded in her own very traumatic experience, one not uncommon in her country: she was gang-raped and left for dead by policemen from whom she sought protection, when she was being threatened. Openly HIV-positive, Phelister writes of how she has come out to her children – and also reconciled with her estranged mother. Phelister wanted to be a lawyer when she was little: “Now when I hear you talking about going to court,” her mother told her, “I can see how by being as sex-worker and an activist you have accomplished your vision. You are so passionate and articulate, and you speak out in a way I was not able to. You are picking up the same stones people are throwing at you."