There was recently a public outcry in the Kenyan coastal town of Mtwapa after a bar owner was arrested for running live sex shows. The story hit the headlines and religious and women’s groups come out on the street to demonstrate, angry at increasing ‘promiscuity’ in the area. But every day, a grimmer story is unfolding behind closed doors as Kenyan children are forced into a life of sex work.
In 2006, a hard-hitting report from UNICEF found that up to 30 per cent of girls in some Kenyan resorts – aged from 12 to 18 years old – were involved in the sex industry. Seven years later, child rights advocates say little has changed. Residents of Mtwapa, which is located 15-kilometres north of Mombasa – a holiday resort popular with British and European tourists – say that, if anything, the area is attracting more wealthy locals and tourists than ever, with young boys sought out as much as girls.
Beka* is a 12-year-old boy who combs the beach with other children every day, looking for white men – nicknamed muzungus – who will pay them for sex. Sometimes he also has sex with local fishermen at the marina, in exchange for fish. A student at the local school, he says the work stops him from regularly attending classes and that his parents turn a blind eye as long as he continues to help support the family.
‘My mother knows I do odd jobs like collecting scrap metals for sale and I sometimes go to the beach to “look” for muzungus but they don’t ask what I do with them in exchange for the money and the things I’m given,’ he says. ‘She gets angry when I don’t bring fish back home especially after she has given me a packet of groundnuts to give the fishermen. It is well known that the fishermen are generous to children and they give them fish to take home in exchange for a packet of groundnuts, but what is not said is that we are given fish in exchange for sex and not the groundnuts.’
Beka asserts that he is not gay but is ‘hustling’ to help support his family and that he has also been involved with elderly white women. Another Mtwapa child sex worker is Sele* who will only go with clients given to him by his uncle, who acts as his pimp. ‘My uncle brings the men to me, though sometimes we go to where they are,’ he explains. His uncle takes most of the proceeds which he spends on groceries and drugs. Sele does not go to school.
When questioned, Beka and Sele are not aware of the health risks they face. Many children their age do not know how to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the course of their work, they do not always practice safe sex and forego condoms if the client pays more.
Sele has twice been treated for STIs. ‘When I went to hospital for treatment I was advised to use condoms, but some of the men don’t want to,’ he shrugs. Child pornography is burgeoning in the area with young girls taking part in stripping, dancing in the nude and live sex shows in local clubs. Many have travelled to Mtwapa from elsewhere in Kenya with the hope of finding a better life but find the only option is transactional sex.
While tourists are often blamed for the escalation of child prostitution in the area, UNICEF’s research found that locals encourage young people to get muzungu partners; a Kenyan girl seen walking with an elderly white man is accorded respect and honour.
Although Kenya has laws and legal provisions addressing the sexual exploitation of children, child prostitution continues unabated and many say the government is turning a blind eye.
*Names have been changed.
Sidi Sarro is a reporter with Radar (@OnOurRadar).