PEER EDUCATOR WITH A MISSION The death of Mercilyn Atieno’s mother in 1996 was a big blow. Being the first born, Atieno had to shoulder the burden of the entire family.

The misery life full of struggle and going without food forced Atieno to abandon school at form two while living with paternal uncle to fend for her family.

“I was the only one to fend for my ageing father and younger two siblings,” recalls Atieno, who was born in East Asembo Village, Rarieda Sub County in Siaya County. Although she briefly sojourned with her paternal uncle while attending school, life became hard for her family.

After trying jobs without success, a friend initiated her into sex work. Few months into sex trade, Atieno got pregnant. She states: “That was the worst thing l expected. How could l meet clients and provide my family while pregnant?” Later, she gave birth and continued with her trade. I tried selling potato chips but the business was never lucrative.

Atieno, 26, says her problems increased. As she engaged clients and made money of at least Sh 1000 per night, that helped her pay bills.

“On many occasions, l would get rogue clients who paid a lot but insisted we have intercourse without protection. The huge money was tempting and l agreed, unaware of the dangers l was exposing myself to,” notes Atieno.

The trade had its challenges too. She shares some clients didn’t honour the pay agreement. Many are times when she was infected with STIs and sometimes assaulted by their clients but feared seeking help for fear of being in trouble with the law and society.

Lady luck smiled her way and an opportunity to abandon sex work came calling when peer educators from Impact Research and Development Organisation (IRDO), gave her a ‘surprise visit‘ at her favourite bar during an IRDO medical outreach.

They asked her to visit a ‘Drop In Centre’ established in town where she could be taught how to protect herself from being infected from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS. At first, Atieno was reluctant but after days of soul-searching, she thought it wise to drop in. According to her, the centres have been of great help because they get virtually all services they require without any fear.

“I was able to confidently negotiate with clients and compel them to use condom because of the skills I was equipped with through trainings sponsored by IRDO. We were also given condoms and lubricants for free,” said Atieno.

“We provide a broad spectrum to services at the Drop in Centres ranging from STIs screening and treatment, Family planning, enrolment for HIV care and treatment, cervical cancer screening and treatment, Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PreP), Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PeP), post abortion care and issuance of condoms and lubricants to Female Sex Workers (FSWs), Men Who have Sex with Men (MSM) and People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs),” said Javan Ochieng, Technical Advisor, Key Population Program at IRDO.

The drop in centres are located in strategic areas in Asembo Bay, Bondo, Ugunja, Alego Usonga, Mbita and Suba.

Despite being a peer educator and DREAMS Mentor she confess that leaving the trade was not easy. “I was used to it and quitting was a hard and gradual process,” said Atieno.

However, Atieno says she is determined to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a nurse despite a myriad of challenges she has had to wade through. So far, she has hired teachers who are coaching her in preparation for next year KCSE examinations.

“I pay the teachers with my little savings because I am focused on sitting the examinations and later joining university. I enjoy mentoring girls since I do not want them to make the mistakes that made me turn to sex trade” explains Atieno

“We are working closely with the Ministry of Health and other players in ensuring FSWs have access to essential health services as one way of reducing HIV/AIDS infections,” says Javan

Javan cites stigma against FSWs and MSM as main hurdle in realizing their goal of rehabilitating the affected persons. He says the peer educators who are mainly rehabilitated FSWs are paid a stipend for reaching out to their colleagues and convince them to attend trainings and visit drop in centres to get assistance.