In Kenya’s Kwale county, where tourism once flourished, girls and boys increasingly see no other way than offering their bodies for sale. Amid high unemployment and deep poverty the local demand for cheap sex is growing.
At first sight, Kwale looks like a true paradise: palm-fringed tropical beaches overlooking the deep blue Indian Ocean. The area is located on the coast south of Kenya’s second largest city Mombasa and stretches all the way to the border with Tanzania. The seaside village Diani is the main beach destination in the country. However, looking beyond the beaches, the poverty in Kwale’s interior cannot be missed. Almost three quarters of its 650,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line of less than one US dollar a day. This makes Kwale one of Kenya’s poorest counties.
Most of Kwale’s population is surviving on small-scale farming and fishing. Tourism is the other - seasonal - source of income. However, many workers in the tourism sector have recently been unemployed without any pay. Tourism in Kenya has declined significantly in recent years, due to the threats by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab amongst other factors. At the same time, the few large companies based in Kwale prefer to hire employees from outside the county, because of the low level of education of the locals. The titanium mines and sugarcane plantation use migrant workers who come from other parts of Kenya and are better qualified. These men have moved to Kwale without their families.
The result of this influx of migrants who do have something to spend, is that the demand for cheap labour - for example domestic work by children - is increasing. The same is true for cheap sex. Students from outside the county who have been enrolled in Kwale’s new university, are also seeking pleasure for little money - in local clubs or in their own dwellings which they turn into brothels for cheap sex. The high unemployment rate - in many families there is only one meal a day - and the growing market for cheap sex with minors, is putting pressure on children, especially girls.
In a recent survey by Terre des Hommes Netherlands, eighty percent of the youth interviewed admitted that they were engaging in commercial sex - with or without their parents pushing them. The vast majority of these victims, eighty percent, are girls, mostly aged between thirteen and eighteen. But there are also younger victims. Prostitution is often seen as the only way out of the deep poverty in Kwale, or the only way to survive. Most sex deals are arranged by local middlemen, who can be either male or female. They agree on the price and collect the money, keeping the larger part of it to themselves. The boy or girl gets around 1.90 dollar per customer. Each weekend one child has two paying customers on average. But in addition he or she often provides sexual services in exchange for payment in kind, such as food, clothes, salon visits and motorbike taxi rides to their 'workplace'. Boys offer their services mainly to female tourists on the beaches. Homosexual contacts are usually established through intermediaries, pimps and middlemen, and take place in deep secrecy. Even though homosexuality itself is not prohibited by law, homosexual acts are.
Asia, 17 years old:
I started as a sex worker when I was 13 years old. One day I decided to go to the beach. And there, well, everyone knows what is happening on the beach. They were all kinds of men, young and old. Per weekend I earned about two dollar. I could use the money to buy food and other things I needed, such as sanitary towels.
Traditionally, girls in Kwale have a subordinate position: they have to oblige with their parents’ demands and are required to contribute to the family income from an early age. Little value is put on their education. “Parents see their daughters as a source of income. They regard prostitution as 'easy money' which can be quickly earned at the beaches and markets of Kwale and near the border with Tanzania", says the president of a local child protection committee. What is also common, is the notion of ‘giving back to the hand that feeds you’, sex in exchange for material or financial support to the girl herself or her family. ‘Quid pro quo´ sex is often a long-term tacit agreement between the girl, her family and their benefactors.
Child prostitutes are exposed to numerous dangers. Girls run serious health risks as a result of inconsistent condom use - in the survey only six percent indicated always using protection - and illegal abortions. In addition, child sex workers are often physically and sexually abused. Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, which often leads to harsh encounters with the police. Child sex workers are treated as criminals and placed in overcrowded cells together with adults. The psychological aspect of the work is hard: victims are suffering from huge fear and guilt, which can result in depression. If a girl gets pregnant, this often implies social exclusion by her family because she and her (future) baby will turn into a burden for the family rather than contributing to the household. That way they remain extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Together with our partners, Terre des Hommes Netherlands helps victims of sexual exploitation to return to school or enroll into vocational training for a better, more independent future. Where needed, they get temporary shelter, while solutions to find them a safe, permanent home are being sought. Households of these vulnerable children, receive support to improve their income. That way the vicious circle of exploitation can be broken.
To prevent child prostitution, communities are sensitised about the risks and dangers of sexual exploitation. Parents receive training in parenting skills while children learn about their rights in child rights clubs. Terre des Hommes Netherlands also organises large-scale awareness campaigns in Kwale, through street theater and radio, in which cultural traditions are also being discussed. Finally, police and judiciary are trained to better protect children and guided in treating child prostitutes as victims instead of criminals.