KENYA: Fight against child sex tourism needs a boost

Photo: Flickr/mzeecedric
Kenya's coastal paradise has a dark side
MOMBASA, 28 April 2011 (PlusNews) - When police in Kenya's coastal tourist city of Mombasa conduct night raids, it is not unusual for a large number of sex workers arrested to be under 18.

The government faces a struggle to end a trade that many young girls see as a fast way out of poverty and into a more glamorous life.

Munirah* spends her days looking for customers at the city's Kenyatta Public Beach. Just 15, she already has one child and is the sole breadwinner for her household.

"My widowed mother lost both her hands while working at a steel processing factory in Mombasa, forcing me to do what I am doing," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Munirah says she has been selling sex for six months and has already slept with several men, mainly tourists. Most of her clients prefer sex without a condom. When asked if she was aware of the risks of HIV, she shrugged and admitted she had never been for an HIV test.

According to Grace Odembo, a field coordinator with the NGO, Solidarity with Women in Distress, SOLWODI, many of the girls on the streets have limited formal education and therefore little chance of gainful legal employment.

She said "beach boys" - young men who hang around the beaches - acted as pimps for tourists seeking young girls and were paid handsome commissions, fuelling the cycle of child sex work.

"This large number of small girls you see loitering along the beaches looking for wazungu [white men] and even those engaging in legitimate businesses such as selling curios... they fall prey to beach boys who [tell] them they'll be introduced to perfect rich suitors, only to have them end up in the arms of sex pests instead," Odembo said.

According to a 2006 study by the government and the UN Children's Fund, as many as 30 percent of teenage girls in the coastal towns of Diani, Kilifi, Malindi and Mombasa were involved in casual sex work. More than 10 percent of girls began transactional sex before the age of 12.

The study also found that 35.5 percent of all sex acts involving children and tourists took place without condoms.

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In 2004, Kenya introduced the "Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism" to create awareness and prevent commercial sexual exploitation of children. However, the code seems to have done little to deter tourists seeking sex with minors.

Members of Kenya's tourism sector say poverty is the main reason young girls turn to sex work, and why it is so difficult to fight the phenomenon.

"The parents, most of whom happen to be poor, instead encourage their daughters [to sell sex] so as to supplement their family earnings," said Titus Kangangi, chairman of the Kenya Association of Hoteliers. "In many cases, a guardian sides with the accused whenever sexual abuse charges are brought."

Out of court settlements are the norm in such cases, with tourists paying off families of young girls to avoid jail terms.

Action needed

Tourism Minister Najib Balala told IRIN/PlusNews it was important to rid the coast of its reputation of a haven for child sex tourism.

"This embarrassing tag must be dealt with right from the community level; it is a cartel that needs so much attention if we have to win," he said. "It has cost the region and country credible tourists and investors, who now see the country as a sex destination.”

Balala said the government was putting more effort into adhering to the code of conduct by cancelling the business licences of establishments allowing tourists to check in with underage girls.

SOLWODI counsels young women and offers alternative incomes through microfinance loans. However, its resources are limited and for many girls, the small loans from NGOs are no match for the income they earn from wealthy tourists.

''Many governments have lists of paedophiles who are blacklisted from entering their countries, but we have no such measures in Kenya''
Poverty is key

Odembo said the government needed to be more vigilant in keeping young girls off the streets. "The government needs to come up with enough rescue centres within the region," she said. "They should also get to the bottom of why a child found loitering in the beach isn't attending school."

According to James Weru, programmes director for the NGO, African Pro-poor Tourism Development Centre, tackling poverty is key to ending child sex tourism.

"Tourism is one of Kenya's biggest income earners, but less than 20 percent of this income trickles down to local economies and as a result, locals remain very poor," he said. "The government needs to spread the income out to benefit the locals so that there is less temptation to go into sex work."

He noted that it would also be important to enforce adherence to the code of conduct and to back this up with serious legal consequences for defaulters.

"We also need to carry out education for tourists and ensure that we are getting the right kind of tourists," Weru added. "Many governments have lists of paedophiles who are blacklisted from entering their countries, but we have no such measures in Kenya."


*Only one name used to protect the child's identity

Theme (s): Children, Education, Gender Issues, Governance, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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