Women and girls suffer the most during times of civil unrest, war, famine and political turbulence, particularly from gender-based violence (GBV). And poverty, where economic exclusion and harmful sociocultural practices play a role, is a key contributor to GBV and exploitation. In many cases, girls and young women suffer sexual exploitation to earn a living.
A Coalition on Violence Against Women (Covaw) study in Kwale County shows young uneducated girls as being more susceptible to commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and cross-border trafficking. Recruitment normally takes place in rural areas towards an urban destination with recruiters enticing the parents and children with promises of education or jobs.
CSEC is defined as sexual abuse of a child by an adult with remuneration in cash or kind to the child or a third person(s).
In three sub-counties — Matuga, Lunga Lunga and Msambweni — more often than not, when the girls get to the urban areas they are subjected to sexual exploitation and, in some cases, violence. The sub-counties are strategically placed in proximity to the hospitality industry and tourism activities on the South Coast, thus increasing the risks.
A 2013 study by Terre des Hommes Netherlands showed a prevalence of 37.6 per cent for self-reported CSEC at the Coast. Kwale led with 79.2 per cent while Mombasa had 30.8 per cent and Kilifi 26 per cent. According to the KNBS, Kwale has a child-rich population with 48 per cent of the residents aged 14 and below. Age-specific rates showed a consistent increase as the age increases.
Research by Build Africa Kenya (Kwale Girls Education Project) showed girls in Kwale were significantly disadvantaged and their education attainment among the poorest nationally. Over half were not in school while those who were would most likely drop out by age 12.
While economic activities at the Coast, and especially the tourism industry, has a great influence on many facets of the coastal lives, social norms also play a critical role in influencing lives in Kwale. The patriarchal society gives more premium to boys, leaving the girls vulnerable to GBV and exploitation.
In a 2017 COVAW survey on 200 residents (58.9 per cent male and 41.1 per cent female), 40 per cent thought poverty was the leading cause of CSEC with some girls being paid as little as Sh20 to sleep with a man. Though aware of it, parents were helpless as the money is often spent on family needs.
A quarter of the respondents blamed peer pressure to get into sexual relationships with white male tourists seen as economic benefactors. Besides payment, the girls hope that the men will marry and buy for them homes and property. Domestic tourists greatly contribute to the vice.
Low level of awareness on the impact of CSEC among the community, weaknesses in law enforcement, limited allocation of resources towards child protection by the national and county governments and lack of concerted effort by duty bearers has given perpetrators of child sexual exploitation a fertile environment to practice.
Advancement in digital communication technology puts a lot of uncensored pornographic content within the reach of many young girls goading them into experimenting on their findings on Internet-enabled phones.
To address the relatively new but rapidly growing phenomenon of online CSEC, the government should enact or amend the relevant laws and policies on cybercrime.
To end CSEC, the community should change their negative attitude towards girls, adopt community policing and embrace positive social norms.
The Kwale case brings out the urgent need for economic empowerment of the community and greater emphasis on education for girls, which would give the girls and young women a better chance in life. Also, heavily penalise offenders and address the lengthy and bureaucratic judicial procedures.