It is the collective fear of all girls living in the fishing villages at the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. From the moment they become teenagers, they are all terrified of getting pregnant by a fisherman. A realistic scenario, because many girls of about fifteen years old can be seen around the villages with a young baby on their back. Sex for fish is a common transaction, resulting in many teenage pregnancies. For the young mothers, this means the premature end of their education career.
Ten-year-old Sophia* saw it happen to her two older sisters. Since their father went fishing four years ago and never returned, their mother struggled to feed her family. The older daughters were therefore forced to engage with men in exchange for money, fish and other basic necessities. Both became pregnant: Immaculate* became a mother at sixteen, Winny* when she was only fourteen.
In the tiny villages in Busia on Lake Victoria everyone lives off fish: fishermen, fishmongers, fish dryers, transporters, boat owners, net makers. Children scavenge for a meal by picking out omena, small silverfish that are being dried. What is not suitable for sale, they take home, a welcome addition to the one basic meal they’ll have per day. Sophia also had to work from an early age: "I was seven years old when I started sorting omena."
Children also accompany the fishermen on their fishing trips. Especially when fishermen go for a multi-day trip, where they spend the night on one of the small islands in the lake, they take company with them. Young boys, officially on board as helpers, are sexually abused by both fishermen and ladies who offer shelter on the islands. That's what happened to fifteen-year-old Brighton*, who became breadwinner after his father died and his mother got bedridden due to illness: “Every night the fishermen turned me into a woman. I felt terrible, but I had to go on these fishing trips because I had to feed our family.”
Girls are taken on fishing trips purely for sex. When a boat with fishermen departs for a multi-day trip, another boat full of girls follows a few minutes later. “Girls go with passenger boats so they are not seen with the fishermen,” said Jemimah Kaywa, social worker at the Terre des Hommes project in Busia.
Sexual exploitation of children in Busia is enormous. But it is also a big taboo, despite the fact that parents turn a blind eye and sometimes even actively encourage it. “Rarely are questions asked about the origin of the money their children bring home,” explains Jemimah. "In fact, parents often tell their children when they are about ten years old that they have to contribute from now on, and that they can get money from the fishermen."
Together with our local partner ANPPCAN, Terre des Hommes runs a project to eliminate the sexual exploitation of children in Busia. The project helps children who are victims of sexual exploitation return to school, such as Immaculate, Winny and Brighton. The families of these children receive help to improve their income. For example, Quinter's mother weaves ropes from old fishing nets, which she sells at a good profit. In addition, the project works to raise awareness in the community about the dangers of sexual exploitation of children. “We work with the Beach Management Units, the local committees that each manage a stretch of coastline, to ensure that children do not come to Lake Victoria but go to school,” explains Jemimah.
Child rights clubs have been started in schools to make children more resilient to sexual exploitation. “In the child rights club at school, we get practical tips on how to protect ourselves against sexual exploitation. For example, by not accepting gifts, because men always want something in return,” explains 15-year-old Metrin. Sophia raised the alarm in the child rights club of her school about the situation at home: “I told Jemimah about my two sisters, and that I was very afraid that the same thing would happen to me. Then Jemimah talked to my mother and we got help.”
Winny is very happy to be back at school: “I am now getting an education just like other children. And I learn how I can help our mother with her business.” For her younger sister, she finds it very important that she stays away from the fishermen: “When Sophia goes to school, she doesn't have to go to Lake Victoria. In this way, she cannot be abused, and her future is safe.”
*To protect victims of sexual exploitation, we do not post recognisable photos of them and we don't use the real name.