Serial killer on the loose targeting sex workers
In April 2010, after eight prostitutes were murdered in the tiny town of Thika, a serial killer was arrested in Kisii town some 200 miles away. For the family of one murdered sex worker, sadness and poverty are constant. In Kenya, where prostitution is illegal, it is the sole source of income for many women. Margaret Nduta says she vividly remembers the Sunday afternoon when her daughter left their home in Gatukuyu Village, 15.5 miles from the town of Thika, to look for a job and never returned. “She left home on Sunday after she rang her younger sister to say goodbye. Then, two days later I was told my daughter was dead,” Nduta, 55, says. She cannot hold back her tears as she looks through old photos of her daughter, Jacqueline Wambui, 25, who died in February. “I miss my daughter. She was the breadwinner and she was everything to me and her two children,” says Nduta. Her whole body shakes as she begins to sob.
Mary Njeru, a businesswoman in Thika, confirms that Wambui was a sex worker. Njeru owns a brothel in Thika at the Twiga buildings, where sex workers, including Wambui, used to entertain clients. Njeru says on the night of February 2, Wambui met a client and went to a hotel called the Suitable Lodging House in the red-light district. Suitable Lodging House, although registered as a legitimate business, is primarily associated with sex work. “Wambui’s body was found naked and the neck broken,” Njeru says. She was the eighth prostitute murdered in Thika this year.
One week before Wambui was killed, another sex worker, Hellen Nyambura, was murdered at the Rwambogo Lodgings, also in Thika’s tiny red-light district. Her body was found with the neck broken and stashed under the bed. Njeru says the style the serial killer used to murder the girls was consistent. “After he has sex with them, he twists their necks, killing them instantly,” she says.
Popular opinion in Kenya dismisses prostitution as an ugly and immoral part of society. Yet the sex workers in several major towns state they have many clients.
“Prostitution is illegal. We will not allow this kind of business. The clothes these girls wear are very indecent,” stated Wilson Njenga, the Thika District Commissioner. The strings of prostitute murders in the small town of Thika brought the social stigma of sex and sex work to the fore.
Advocates are on the opinion that women in the sex trade do not receive justice when they are wronged or legal protection in cases of violence because of the deep cultural taboo surrounding sex. Peninah Mwangi the Executive Director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) was at pain with the killings and lead a well organized demonstration to condemn the incidents in Thika. “Most of the sex workers operating in Thika have been traumatized following the recent killings” noted Peninah. She lamented that sex workers have done no wrong and were just looking for a living just like other Kenyans. “We want all Kenyans protected as required by the law” argued Peninah. “We will go to the radio, TV and other forums to condemn this” stated a visibly furious Peninah. To support Peninah was Njeru, one of the brothel owners who pointed that discrimination goes beyond distaste. “The police harass these girls in town and ask them for a protection fee. If they refuse, they are arrested and charged,” noted Njeru. “I wish these girls could get help because most of them are poor and illiterate.” Njeru says most of the commercial sex workers in Thika were driven into sex work by poverty. The going rate for sex in Thika is Kshs1, 000 shillings. However some women who say they are desperate to eat or feed their children charge as little as Kshs 50.
Following BHESP lead demonstrations and other advocacy measures like attending various TV and radio talk shows, two months after Wambui’s murder, a serial killer, identified as Philip Onyancha was arrested. Onyancha confessed to killing 17 women and told officers he had 83 more to kill before he reached his target of 100 slain prostitutes. In June, Onyancha led detectives from the Special Crime Prevention Unit to locations in Nairobi, Thika, Naivasha and Nyeri where he said he committed murders. Caleb Wesa, the deputy officer of the commanding police in the district, confirmed that Onyancha took officers to several hotels in Thika’s red light district. Two sex workers in Thika confirmed that Onyancha was the man they narrowly escaped in the Suitable Lodging House, the same hotel where Wambui was murdered. “He kept on placing his hands around my neck holding tight and I struggled to get them off, then I jumped out of bed and ran out of the room,” one of the girls noted of the attack.
Among the sex workers’ community and sometimes bar hostesses, women are forced to pay a protection fee to a pimp to allow them to operate freely in the bars and brothels in return for a portion of their earnings. In the event that the sex worker happens not to have any money, then she pays by providing the pimp with free sex. Failure to pay or cooperate can have very serious ramification as Wendo, a sex worker operating in Luthuli Nairobi found out.
“I left my house in Kayole with no money, to be exact I had only bus fare in my pocket” said Wendo. “To enable me make enough money that evening, I found it necessary to sweet talk Juma, a pimp operating in Luthuli Avenue” Wendo noted. “We agreed with him, but unfortunately, I made no money that evening to share with him\. I also said no to sex without a condom as demanded by Juma” Wendo pointed out. “On hearing this, Juma turned on me with a devilish face I have never seen before and mercilessly beat me up and left me unconscious to die in the streets” noted a visibly shaken Wendo.
Fortunately Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) paralegals were notified and took Wendo to hospital and then to police for recording. BHESP took up the case, ensured Juma’s arrest and subsequent trial through provision of free legal support to Wendo.
Juma was found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison. Since conclusion of Juma’s case, many girls have come up to report other cases of violence. “We have been encouraged by the sex workers rate of reporting of these forms of violence” states Peninah BHESP Executive Director. “We have however been overwhelmed and unable to act on all these cases because of our limited resources”. She continues to note.