With her sleeping six-month-old baby daughter under one arm, 17-year-old Alice [not her real name] explains why she moved to Mombasa from ‘up country’, and how she joined the growing ranks of young girls involved in the commercial sex trade on the Kenyan coast.
“When I was sixteen I became pregnant and my parents were very upset. They threw me out of my home and I dropped out of school, so me and my boyfriend at the time decided we would move to Mombasa to start a new life here. After three months he left me, and I had to find a way to make money. There are no jobs around here, and I had no money. I had to buy food to feed my growing baby. I just carried on from there,” she said.
Serving ideally mzungus [white] male tourists, but otherwise locals, she does not see herself as a prostitute, preferring instead to be referred to as someone who practices bangaisha a ‘Sheng’ [Kenyan slang] word meaning ‘soliciting for business’.
According a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, commercial sex tourism is growing rapidly on the Kenyan coast, and gaining increasing acceptance as a valid way of earning an income, spurred on by a flourishing tourism industry. According to the Kenyan Tourism Board, 1.68 million tourists visited Kenya in 2005.
The UNICEF report says that out of all the girls interviewed for its survey, 76 percent felt that commercial sex was an acceptable way of making money.
This opinion is backed up by Mathilda Katana, field coordinator for SOLWODI (Solidarity with Women in Distress), a Kenyan NGO which provides support to commercial sex workers (CSW) on the Kenyan coast. Katana operates the NGO’s branch in Mtwapa, a suburb of Mombasa, where CSWs are trained to learn new skills, are offered counselling, and the younger ones are encouraged to return to school.
“You see a lot of them around here. It’s a hot spot. They walk around and show themselves off. They have decided that is how they earn their living and they don’t care,” she said.
With so many tourists on the coast, and so few other jobs available, for some there is little option other than to join the sex trade.
“There are no jobs and to get a job is very hard. We look for jobs but we can’t get any because there are so few,” said Alice
Many other young women, however, are forced into prostitution by members of their family, according to Stella Muchiti Mulama, assistant programme manager and researcher for the Straight Talk programme. The programme runs youth-focused media events such as radio shows, monthly magazines, and a website. Its aim is to lobby decision makers, and enable youth to discuss issues affecting their lives, such as their involvement in sex work.
“Children are often coerced into prostitution by elder people […] Parents actually push their children to do sex work. It happens quite a lot. Sometimes mothers, who are also involved in sex work, bring their daughters into it too. We have had stories of mothers forcing their children to have sex with clients in order to earn their school fees,” she said.
Elizabeth Akinyi, the head of projects at the Coast Province branch of SOLWODI agrees with this view: “Parents play a big role. The children of sex workers are very much at risk. They are abused by the customers that come to see their mothers; sometimes the girls are also made to serve the men.”
There are however many other factors that bring young women and girls into the sex industry: peer pressure, financial and social circumstances, and low aspirations, added Akinyi.
“Peer pressure is also a big factor as well as a lack of basic needs. There are children who are staying in families that are very poor. There are parents who can’t even afford to give their children sanitary towels. There is also the issue of ‘this is what I want’. There was one girl who was saying to me, ‘I wanted to buy these hipster jeans, but my mother refused, so I did this [prostitution] so I could get the jeans’,” she said.
Although earnings in the sex trade can vary widely, potential income is much greater than if working in any other profession.
According to sex worker, Jane [not her real name], 22: “It [the income] depends on the competition, the season and where you are. It’s never specific. In the low season you end up offering yourself for 20 KES (Kenyan shillings) [US 30¢] if the tourists aren’t there. It can be 5,000 KES [US $70] if the tourists are there. House help is very badly paid. I used to go around and wash people’s clothes. But at the end of the day they give you 150 KES [$2], which is nothing. So you have to look for other ways to pay rent and buy clothes,” she said.
It is tourism, and more importantly the tourists themselves, that bring these young girls to Mombasa. Due to the tightening of laws in places like Asia, many of the mzungu tourists who go abroad to abuse underage girls are now flocking to Kenya, where laws are seen as lax.
However, it is with these mzungu tourists that the girls can earn the most money, so they have become their preferred clients.
According to Julia, 17, from Mtwapa: “My target is always mzungus, but I do appreciate the locals too. But the mzungus are the ones with the money.”
She added that because of her age, she was at a disadvantage when it came to negotiating with mzungus, who she described as ‘very arrogant’.
“Two nights ago, I was with a mzungu man in a local bar. He was buying me drinks and we eventually agreed that I would go back to his place. We had already agreed a price, but after I had sex with him, he refused to pay me. He said that he had been buying me drinks, and that was my payment. When I challenged him, he beat me,” she said, pointing to the bruises near her left eye.
AIDS and Condoms
HIV/AIDS plays a big part in the lives of young CSWs on the coast and in Kenya more generally. The US Census Bureau projected that there are currently more than 1.8 million children living in Kenya who have been orphaned by AIDS, and at least two of the young women in this feature said they had ‘no parents’.
A lack of parental guidance and the poverty that the majority of AIDS orphans face in Kenya, forces many into becoming CSWs.
Astrid Winkler is project manager with Respect, an Austrian NGO which is a member of ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). Respect is a key implementing partner of the ‘International Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism’ within Kenya.
Winkler said, “Many children […] are orphans because of HIV. This often leads to them dropping out of school, and lack of education. I see it as a kind of ‘vicious circle’, starting with poverty, HIV, neglect, and ending in the sex business at the [Kenyan] coast.”
Most young sex workers are knowledgeable about AIDS. However, in many cases, their circumstances often force them to have unprotected sex, as sex tourists offer more money for sex without a condom. The UNICEF report of 2006 found that more than 35 percent of girls did not use condoms at their client’s request.
“I try to use condoms every time, but sometimes they refuse or offer much more money if we don’t. If I am offered 200 KES [$3) by a mzungu for sex with a condom, or 1,000 KES [$15] for sex without, then I don’t use condoms. I have to feed my baby,” said Alice, 17.
Some, more experienced, CSWs use the threat of AIDS as a defence mechanism, in order to force their male clients to use condoms.
“We use condoms as much as we can. But we don’t have any other means to survive, so if they refuse then we have to go with that. Sometimes I lie and I tell them that I have AIDS to force them to use condoms, but I don’t have AIDS. But AIDS is a big worry,” said Tia [not her real name] a 23-year-old CSW in central Mombasa.
According to the UNICEF report, Kenyan clients represent 40 percent of the total number of clients the girls have. However, the girls are not accepted in the local community, making their lives even harder.
“People abuse you and call you names and make you feel like nothing. It has forced me to move three times in two years,” said Tia.
Others however, including Alice, regard the negative attitude of the local people as merely an occupational hazard.
“I do get in trouble [with the locals] but I don’t really care what the community think; my life is hard enough,” she said.
Figures on the number of young women involved in prostitution are difficult to calculate accurately because of the subversive nature of the industry itself. However, the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are some 30,000 girls under the age of 19 engaged in prostitution within Kenya.
The Kenyan government has introduced measures which are meant to protect young girls and boys from prostitution. They have however been harshly criticised in the past for being lax in their approach to implementing the laws. Some think the law is mainly to protect the reputation of the government rather than the women themselves. Kenya’s tourist industry generated US $680 million in 2005.
Nevertheless some laws and acts have been passed through parliament. These include the ‘Children’s Act’ of 2002, which protects those aged 18 and under from sexual exploitation, prostitution and pornography. There is also the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2003, which penalises rape and attempted rape with life imprisonment, and states that ignorance of the age of the female victim is irrelevant in establishing culpability.
Furthermore, the Penal Code includes offences such as child abuse, sexual exploitation and child prostitution, with sentences for those convicted rising to life imprisonment.
In 2006, the Kenyan Tourism Ministry, along with the Kenyan Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC) and RESPECT, introduced the ‘International Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism’ (‘The Code’ – www.thecode.org).
The Code is an ECPAT project, funded by UNICEF, and supported by the World Tourism Organisation. Those who sign up to the Code in the tourism sector commit themselves to “establish ethical policy regarding the sexual exploitation of children, introduce a clause in contracts with suppliers stating a common repudiation of commercial sexual exploitation of children, and provide information to travellers by means of catalogues and brochures”.
According to Winkler, “the Code is a preventative measure for the tourism sector to become more proactive in prevention, rather than struggling with the negative impacts on the destination due to increased sex tourism.”
The Code is proving a success and has been backed by 20 Kenyan Tourism districts, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, and the Ministry of Home Affairs/Department of Child Services.
Yet despite this progress Akinyi feels that there is a lot more the government could do.
“The government has signed the Code, but so what? They have to put pressure on the hotels and tourism organisations that have not signed, monitor the hotels that have; and law enforcement has to be committed to enforcing the laws,” she said.
She added that more needs to be done to spread awareness of the Code and the sexual offences act, which stated that a person can be prosecuted for a crime that is viewed as an offence in two countries. The Act means that the sexual offender can be prosecuted in Kenya and in his home country.
“We need make sure that everyone has information about the Sexual Offences Act and the Code of conduct, so that people can be monitoring and reporting, but they are not aware. So we need to raise awareness,” she said.
The girls themselves do hope one day to move out of the bangaisha business. However, the competitive nature of the work means that most of the money the girls earn goes on attracting clients.
“I would like to have a salon because I am good with hair. The problem is the money you earn, you end up spending to buy clothes to look good, and on doing your hair. It’s very competitive, so it’s hard to save enough money to get on with the future,” said Tia.
Organisations like SOLWODI, which since 1997 and despite limited funding, have managed to rescue more than 5,000 young women from the commercial sex business.
Nevertheless, without further implementation of programmes like the Code, and with the ever-present pressures of poverty, unemployment and AIDS, coupled with the relatively high earnings to be made in commercial sex work, the road to the abolition of youth commercial sex workers on the Kenyan coast appears to be a very long one.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]