Saida is a 16-year-old girl living in Mombasa, Kenya. She is in school but also works in a local bar, known as ‘’Little Carnivore’ as a waitress. Occasionally, she provides sex to her clients, mostly foreign tourists locally known as ‘mzungu’ at a fee, to supplement her family’s income.
Other girls also frequent “Little Carnivore” and hang around there at night until a ‘mzungu’ buyer identifies them. They then take them to cheap guesthouses within Mombasa town. The guesthouses charge as little as 5 USD an hour. Some of the girls are very young and from poor households and as such would not afford food or drink at the “Little Carnivore”.
In recent years, the sexual exploitation of children in Kenya has been on the rise. UNICEF estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 girls work year-round in the sex industry, and nearly half of the girls begin when they are as young as 12 or 13 years of age. Although sexual exploitation can affect children of any gender, the effects of gender inequality e.g marginalisation, limited access to education, and harmful social norms make girls particularly vulnerable.
Despite a growing body of literature and data on sexual exploitation, it is difficult to assess the true extent of the problem in Kenya. The sensitive nature of the subject, the stigmatisation and isolation of victims and survivors, as well as limited awareness among the wider population make it difficult to collect data and develop accurate statistics. The underreporting of incidents and ambiguous classification of various elements of exploitation present another challenge. Rather than being considered victims from a human rights perspective, the sexually exploited girls are viewed as criminals and thus labelled as part of the problem.
“ My ‘client’ beat me up because I refused to have sex without a
condom. The police did not arrest him because he accused
me of stealing from him’’ Saida
Poverty is the main driver of the sexual exploitation of girls in Kenya. For girls with few economic or educational opportunities, a perpetrator’s promises of gifts, money, or other types of support can be hard to ignore. Unfortunately, broad sections of the community often accept sexual exploitation as economic reality and normalise it.
This hinders girls’ ability to recognise signs of exploitation or abuse, and seek help when they need it.
Power imbalance and gender inequality between women and men contribute to the low status of women and girls in society. Lack of or limited access to education, the subsequent lack of knowledge and skills deny marginalized girls the opportunity and ability to change their situation. Sexual exploitation is not an issue only in childhood and can continue into adulthood. Most adult women in prostitution, for instance, were often also exploited in childhood. Sexual exploitation may become a vicious circle passing down from mother to daughter. These are key aspects of sexual exploitation that are common among many women and girls, and serve to perpetuate the challenges faced and hinder efforts to mitigate them.