NAIROBI/MUTARE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Kenyan sex worker Elizabeth Otieno shudders each time her cellphone buzzes with a new notification.
The device may have become a lifeline in helping her move her work online during the COVID-19 pandemic, but after a client secretly recorded their virtual sex session and leaked it onto the internet, every phone alert sends Otieno into a cold sweat.
“I don’t even know how many social media sites and chat groups the video was shared on. Even eight months after it happened, I still get people forwarding it to me,” said the 45-year-old mother of two who lives in Nairobi.
“I feel ashamed and anxious all the time. My partner left me and even my family won’t talk to me. I thought it was a safe and private way to make money, but virtual sex ruined my life,” said Otieno, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Across Africa, sex worker groups say there has been a surge in complaints from members who have become victims of non-consensual pornography, where sexually graphic material is posted online by their clients without their agreement.
From Kenya and Uganda to Zimbabwe and Nigeria, pandemic restrictions such as lockdowns and curfews have seen sex workers shift from bars, brothels and massage parlours to websites, apps and video calls.
But using digital technology to offer their services comes with a barrage of online dangers, leaving sex workers vulnerable to blackmail and sextortion, said Grace Kamau, coordinator for the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA).
“Sex workers in Africa have learned how to keep themselves safe with clients in the real world. They know about precautions to take, like to inform peers of their movements and to check in at regular times,” said Kamau.
“But in the virtual world, most have no idea. It is a relatively new space for them. They don’t understand the risks and how to be safe and there is no information available to sex workers about digital security and data protection.”
She said ASWA — a Nairobi-based network of more than 130 sex worker-led organisations in 34 African countries — found that most sex workers did not report cases to the police for fear of being shamed and victim-blamed.
The digital abuse has led to many sex workers being shunned and isolated by friends and family, with many feeling traumatised, depressed and suicidal, Kamau added.
Digital Security Awareness
Even before COVID-19, more than half of girls and young women had experienced online abuse, according to a global poll last year by the Web Foundation.
Sharing images, videos or private information without consent — known as doxxing — was the most concerning issue, according to the February survey of more than 8,000 respondents.
Privacy groups and women’s rights advocates say the pandemic has only increased the threat.
Image-based sexual abuse, which includes so-called revenge porn, has skyrocketed globally, with a survey by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky showing a 20% rise in people sharing nudes and explicit material since the beginning of the pandemic.
Nearly a quarter of respondents said they shared their content with someone they have never met in person.
Some African countries have put in place laws criminalising digital abuse and protecting data privacy, but there is a lack of awareness among most women — especially those from marginalised groups such as sex workers, say digital rights campaigners.
“Members of the general society are not well-versed on what the laws and regulations are, what it means to them and how they can use those laws to their benefit,” said Juliet Nanfuka, researcher at CIPESA, an organisation promoting digital rights.
“For sex workers, it is even worse. Due to this lack of information, they will readily share their images and videos with clients — which are then shared across platforms like Facebook and TikTok, without their consent,” she said by phone.
Even if they are aware of their digital rights, sex workers are often reluctant to report crimes against them to the police as they fear they will not be taken seriously, said Nanfuka.
Lillian Gitau, a Kenyan sex worker, said she was blackmailed by a client she met on the dating app Tinder, who secretly filmed her and posted the video in chat groups on Telegram and WhatsApp.
“He wanted 3,000 shillings ($27) from me to remove the posts. I gave him the money and he deleted the video, but I know it’s still out there and is being shared,” said Gitau, 30, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“The police is not an option. They won’t help women like us. Instead, they just blame us and say it is our fault for doing this work.”
Kenyan police officials were not immediately available for comment.
Training and Education
Some sex workers said they have resorted to hiding their faces during video calls or when sending images to new customers.
“Most of the nude videos and pictures [I sell] do not show my face,” said Mandy Kusasa, as she scrolled through one of her two smartphones at her home in Zimbabwe’s eastern city of Mutare.
“Nude videos and pictures that reveal my face, however, fetch higher prices so I sell those to some of my regular clients,” added Kusasa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Sex worker organisations say their members need online safety training as well as legal support, but add that they lack the funding to provide that training.
“This is a new phenomenon for sex workers in Zimbabwe,” said Hazel Zemura, director of All Women Advocacy, a Zimbabwean organisation that offers health services to sex workers.
“Some women do not know about safety precautions like two-step verification, applications to secure nudes, or the use of a virtual private network to hide their IP address.”
Nanfuka at CIPESA added that sex workers and the police also need to be educated on how to remove pictures and videos that have been posted online without permission.
“Not many people are aware of how to report, so these images remain online to the detriment of the victims when technically they could be taken down,” she said.
“Sometimes they are taken down, but that’s not always the case. Even when they are taken down, they have already journeyed far and wide and the damage to the individual has been done.”