KENYA: Tackling underage sex work in Nyanza's gold mines

Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
Miners in Nyatike have money to spend on sex with young girls (file photo)
NYATIKE, 7 February 2012 (PlusNews) - Inside a smoky makeshift kiosk, Julie*, 16, can hardly cope with the demand from her clients for a cup of tea and a snack - the men are parched from their work as gold miners in the western Kenyan district of Nyatike. 

The money Julie makes from the kiosk is not sufficient, so she supplements it by having sex with the miners in exchange for money; it also buys their loyalty.

"These are my clients and I have to please them, so I allow them to do whatever they want so that they can come back tomorrow. If I don't do that, they will go to my competitor," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "The miners have money and they pay well for sex."

Nyatike District is in Nyanza province, which has an HIV prevalence of 14.8 percent, double the national average. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics ranks Nyatike as one of the 10 poorest districts in the country, despite the gold boom.

At any given time, there are more than 1,000 miners in Nyatike's gold mines; as many as 100 girls also spend their days there.

Back to school

One local NGO, Hope for Africa, has started a programme to try to persuade young girls like Julie back into school.

"These young girls need to get back to school and make their future. We have decided to have counselling sessions where we ask those who are ready to get back to school to do so, and we provide them with commodities that they might need while there," said Miriam Oginga, executive director of the organization.

The NGO aims to provide the girls with school supplies -including sanitary towels, soap and other personal effects - as well as food and even pocket money, to eliminate the reason many of them resorted to sex work. Since the programme started a year ago, some 300 girls have returned to school. 

Caroline Atieno, 13, is one, having dropped out to sell food and sex in the mines. "Now I am in school and I have the small things that I couldn't afford because my parents were poor. At the mines I could get money but I am happier here in school because I will get better money when I finish."

Involving parents

Authorities are also working to prevent parents from encouraging their daughters to hang around the mines.

"Parents here bless sexual relationships between their underage daughters and the miners because these miners have some money to spend both on the girl and on the parents," said Emily Waga, a senior children's officer in the area. "In an area where poverty is common, girls become the best way out of it for many families - at least that is what they believe."

Health workers say sexual relationships between the miners and young girls, coupled with low levels of condom use, put the girls at an elevated risk of contracting HIV. 

"Many girls who come here to the facility, whether married or not, are HIV-positive because they are engaged in sexual relationships where they have no power and the miners, like fishermen, are very mobile and carefree," said Ruth Adero, a maternal and child health nurse at Nyatike District Hospital. 

According to Adero, girls younger than 18 account for 48 percent of all expectant mothers visiting the Nyatike District Hospital.

Targeting miners

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Hope for Africa's Oginga noted that in order for the programme to be sustainable, the miners also needed to change their attitude towards sex with underage girls.

"We don't just target the girls, but also the miners because it is they who lure these young girls with money. We reach out to them and use both hard-ball and soft-ball tactics - we tell them men of pride do not prey on young girls but at the same time, we tell them about the law on sexual relationships with minors," she said. 

Julius Owino, a miner, is part of a recently formed committee of miners against sex with school-age girls; it urges young girls to report miners who pester them for sex, but notes that many girls are too afraid of being victimized to go to the authorities. 

"Some of us are now buying [into] the idea that we have been wrong all along buying sex from people young enough to be our daughters; taking them to school is a good idea because it means they are far away from us," he said. "We are reaching out to our fellow miners to help end the trade but I can't lie that it is easy. It has been a way of life here and changing it will take some time."

*Not her real name


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

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

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