Sexual exploitation of children along the East African coast has become a subject of concern. Its sun, sand and sex attract tourists like nectar does bees. Why should it surprise anyone, then, poses BETHSHEBA ACHITSA, that the international media publicise Malindi, one of the oldest towns along the Kenyan coast, as a centre for child sex tourism?
Sex tourists travel to Kenya because of her lenient laws and the readily available cheap sex offered by young girls and boys.Â Tourists, it is said, take Kenya as a destination not only for watching wildlife but also a place that offers cheap sex. This explains the reason why many British, French, American, Japanese, Indian and Austrian nationals are counted as the main clients in the tourism sector.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) some 30,000 children in Mombasa, Kilifi, Malindi, Ukunda and Kwale areas along the Kenyan coast are being exploited in the sex industry and this is likely to be an underestimation due to the lack of monitoring and the social stigma that inhibit children from reporting some of the cases.
According to a survey in 2007, some 30% of children between the ages of 12 and 18 along the Kenyan coast were involved in the sex-for-cash industry. An estimated 15,000 girls and boys are engaged in the sex industry.
Poverty has been cited as the main reason why many children get involved in this business. Though tourism may be a booming business along the Kenyan coast, 66% of the populationÂ in this region wallow in poverty as an estimated two-thirds of revenues flow back to foreign-owned tour operators and airlines, with local communities gaining little. Parents here not only accept that sex tourism is the only way to earn quick money but also consent to their children’s knack to sell their bodies.
From interviews conducted along the coast, commercial child sex is condoned by the people from the region; 76% of the inhabitants say that under age sex as a source of income is acceptable for girls while 60% contend that nothing is wrong if boys do the same to earn a living. To the youth themselves, there is nothing wrong with this trade as, to them, it is simply socialising for business.
Barely adolescent children make endless trips to the beaches in search of white men and women who are ready to part with cash in exchange for sexual gratification. Others are taken in by the hotel staff who demand sex before the children are allowed into their establishments in search of tourists. Foreigners seek children under the guise of their domestic workers and such children are taken to private residential homes where it is hard to know of such incidences.
People who pose as potential employers have also contributed to the rising numbers of children involved in sex tourism. They transfer children from other parts of Kenya and employ them in the sex industry along the coast. Other child, hungry for easy money they believe tourists will give them, run away to the coastal region on their own volition. This has led to the burgeoning numbers of girls and boys engaged as full time sex tourism.
Though the government of Kenya has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and signed the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, child sex tourism carries on unabated. Not even the Children’s Act which defines a child as anyone who is under the age of 18 and provides protection from sexual exploitation, including prostitution and pornography, appears to have teeth. It appears all the government of Kenya does is to enact laws in order to conform to international obligations without the will to enforce them. Otherwise how does one explain the fact that despite the laws it has enacted thousands of children continue to be defiled and exploited in commercial sex tourism along the coast?
In 2006 a UNICEF report showed that Kenyan citizens topped the list of abusers, accounting for 38% of paedophiles; Italians, Germans and Swiss were the worst culprits among the tourists, representing 18%, 14% and 12%, respectively. British, French, American, Ugandan, Tanzanian, Congolese, Japanese, Indian, Austrian and Arab clients were also recorded.
Najib Balala, the Kenya’s current minister for tourism, on December 24, 2008, “warned” that hotels that allow child prostitution risked losing their licenses. Morris Dzoro, his predecessor, had in 2007 echoed similar sentiments as did his justice and constitutional affairs counterpart, Martha Karua. At this juncture hotel keepers should not be warned about the vice as they, together with the tourism ministry, in 2006, introduced the International Code of Conduct for Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. The code sought to withdraw the licenses of any hotel that was found promoting child prostitution. Three years later, little has changed and all the government does is to issue empty threats.Â Perhaps the government can be likened to a “debe”, an empty vessel that make a lot of noise.
While warning hotel keepers, Balala added that the government he serves cannot take action against tourists who assault children because they are among the best stakeholders in tourism besides their enormous contribution to community development projects such as schools.
Perhaps the government does not really care about the children of this country. As long as the government, hotel keepers and parents themselves look away as tourists defile the children of Kenya in return for their contribution to “community development projects”, child sex tourism is here to stay.
Though child sex tourism in Kenya is officially acknowledged as a problem requiring greater awareness, implementation of new legislation and a coordinated effort to protect and promote the rights of children, the government, like the proverbial ostrich, appears to have buried its head in the sand.
However sexual exploitation of children is not confined to Kenya. In Tanzania, for instance, the coastal towns of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia and Bagamoyo are greatly affected by the many tourists who flock there in search of adventure. The children of Rwanda and Burundi are trafficked to the East African coast to work in the sex tourism industry.
Indulgence in early sex not only leaves children exposed to greater risks like contraction of HIV/AIDS, early pregnancies and other sex related disease, but these children, whose lives and opportunities are wasted lying on their backs with tourists instead of going to school, cannot grow into anything else.