When I Dare to be Powerful: Zawadi Nyong'o Returning Home to Help Build a Movement

When I Dare to be Powerful: Zawadi Nyong'o Returning Home to Help Build a Movement

by Corinna Yazbek, CLPP Program Coordinator

What is often lost in the current debates about the sex trade - between sex worker rights advocates and sex work abolitionists - is the voices, experiences and desires of current and former sex workers. Working with Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) and the Kenya Sex Worker Alliance (KESWA), CLPP alum Zawadi Nyong’o (Hampshire 00F) helped organize Kenya’s first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, where 1,000 sex workers marched on the streets of Nairobi for the first time.

Zawadi recently published When I Dare To Be Powerful...On the Road to a Sexual Rights Movement in East Africa, a breakthrough contribution to feminist discourse that “allows sex workers to speak for themselves; claim their spaces and share their stories.”

“The first time I strongly identified as a feminist was at the first CLPP conference I attended at Hampshire College,” Zawadi explains. “Since then, most of the work I have done as an independent feminist social justice consultant has been around sexual health and rights issues. I am really interested in working on the sex worker rights agenda in Africa and across the globe, and have been very active in contributing to the building of a sex worker rights movement in East Africa.”

As a 2001 RRASC intern with CIDHAL (Comunicacion e Intercambio para el Desarrollo Humano en America Latina), Zawadi helped organize environmental education workshops for sweatshop factory workers and supported donor communications. After graduating from Hampshire, she worked with Urgent Action Fund (UAF) - Africa. In a region where homosexuality is criminalized, UAF-Africa was one of the only organizations willing to take the risk to engage in advocacy for queer rights. In 2005, Zawadi organized the first regional conference for LGBTQI activists from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with UAF, and in 2008, she helped establish a regional fund, UHAI: The East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative.

In 2009, Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) held the first-ever Sex Worker African Women’s Leadership Institute, where sex workers from Kenya and Uganda spoke out and shared their stories in the hope of changing societies’ and governments’ perspectives towards sex work, sexuality and sexual rights. When I Dare To Be Powerful features the voices of some of these activists and leaders, making the connections between sex work, forced early marriage, land rights, poverty, education, property and inheritance rights, motherhood, and HIV.

As Zawadi wrote in the book, “We need to understand the politics behind sexuality, sexual rights and sex work because the liberation of all women, the equitable distribution of power and resources, and the ability to control our own bodies are indeed critical to our feminist agenda.”

Following are excerpts from some of their stories:

Macklean, UGANDA

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was always a good student and remained focused on my studies. I was also a leader from a very young age. In primary school, I was a girl guide, at O-levels, I was a prefect, and in secondary school, I was the head-girl. Despite my commitment, by the time I got to Senior Four, there wasn’t enough money to send me to school. I was determined to complete my education, though, so I did whatever I could. That is when a friend of mine introduced me to sex work, which quickly became my source of livelihood. I was really scared at first, but with time I got used to it because I was able to earn the money I needed to pay my school fees, hostel fees, and even pay fees for my younger brothers and sisters. I also made sure I supported my dear mother so that she would not have to depend on my father. It was not easy for me when I started, but despite all the hardships I was going through, I continued to do it because I was committed to making life better for my family. This is what kept me strong whenever I was arrested, tortured by cruel clients, or suffering the bitter cold of the streets at night.

I am able to stand tall and proud as a professional sex worker, an activist, and a human rights defender because I believe in myself and I don’t let anyone put me down or let anyone take away my joy. I think being small in size made me this way. People look at me and expect me to be humble – they don’t expect me to be strong. When I speak in public, some people even say that I am not Ugandan, or that I am paid to say the things I do. I speak out without fear and ask others to respect sex workers just like they do other professionals. I believe in myself and I am proud of what I have managed to achieve in my life as a sex worker. I always say that “if you feel uncomfortable being with me or near me then that is your problem.”


I am a sex worker, an activist, a human rights defender, a sister, a mother, a friend. My dream is to see sex work legalized. I also want to see an end to the violence against sex workers. Sex work should be considered work, and sex workers should be respected and loved like everyone else.

There were girls in the bar (where I worked) who I used to admire because they had money. I would see the girls coming to the bar counting their money and talking about how much money they had made. I wondered how they made so much money and in talking to them I realized that I needed to wise up and stop letting the men use me, sleep with me and not pay at all, promise to pay and never pay, or pay me very, very little money. I thought it better to be like these girls who had sex for money instead of having relationships which had left me with nothing. I started listening to their advice and got some clients. I started making money and before long I bought a plot of land and built my own house. Everything changed. When I joined sex work, I completely changed.

Sex work is work like any other profession because you work and earn money. My retirement plan was to build a house to reduce financial pressure, so that is what I did. I even started a porkroasting business to stop going to the street, but because of a lack of business skills, it collapsed and I lost all the money I had invested in it. Now I am saving up again to start a new business. I want to open up a boutique selling nice clothes. I will call it Daisy’s boutique.

Susan, KENYA

Some of the most generous people I know, and people who have a positive outlook in life are sex workers. For you to be able to trust a total stranger, you have to have a special heart, have a lot of faith, and look at people in a really different way. You need to have a positive attitude – this is what gets us through. 

Another positive aspect of my life and my work is the rewarding feeling I experience when we impact a sex worker’s life. As sex workers, many of us have a really strong sense of sisterhood. We show our support for each other in a variety of ways, such as: posting bail for a colleague so that they are released from police custody; or completely turning around someone’s life if this is what they want. It is also rewarding when the organization gets recognition for the work we do and when mainstream organizations include us in discussions and come to us for input. Many civil society organizations, donors, and government institutions such as NACC, FIDA-Kenya, KANCO, SWOP, PEPFAR, and even the media have approached us in the last few years. This is how we know that what we have to say is considered important to others. We are able to represent a very large constituency of young women in Kenya who would otherwise not be represented. 

Daughtie, KENYA

My name is Daughtie Akoth and I live in Mtwapa, Mombasa. I am 25 years old and I have a lovely 5-year-old son whom I absolutely adore. I have several nicknames that I have been given by other people – “Amarulla Girl” because of my skin color, and “Naughty Daughtie” because I am daring, wild, and speak my mind. I love watching movies, especially Italian movies because I love Italian men. I like intellectual movies too and I love cartoons because they make me laugh. I am a fun-loving person and I am a very good mother. I dedicate my time to children at an orphanage where I volunteer, and I dream of one day having an orphanage for AIDS orphans. 

So when people ask me who I am, I tell them that I am many things – I’m a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a woman, an activist, and so much more. Yes, I am a sex worker, but that is not who I am, it is just what I do. 

When so-called feminists say that sex workers are victims, that we are being exploited by men, and that we are not in control of our lives, I tell them some of the times I have felt most powerful in my life have been when I was doing sex work. 

For sex workers to be part of the women’s movement, though, we need to get rid of the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There are women’s organizations that are against abortion, against sex work, and other things or groups so they tend to exclude anyone that they don’t agree with. If we are really committed to movement building, then we should all be under the umbrella of the women’s movement. This is why I keep saying, “I am not just a sex worker. I am someone’s sister, wife, mother, and friend. I am everything that other women can be.” 

The full text of the book can be found here: http://www.oozebap.org/dones/biblio/Sex_Worker.pdf

At CLPP, Corinna supports national movement building work through our summer internship program and our network for young and emerging leaders. Before joining CLPP, she worked at Arise for Social Justice, a poor people’s rights organization, on various campaigns including the decriminalization of prostitution in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. 


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