What you need to know:
- Some of the girls initially said they could not stop the commercial sex work, because it gave them money for their basic needs.
- Child sexual exploitation has been rampant at the Coast and is a worrying situation.
Maria* and Anna* beam with pride whenever they are at their work stations in a hairdressing shop in Kilifi, working and earning a living. Life had not always been rosy for the sisters in Kilifi County, but they worked hard to turn their lives around.
Like many children living in poverty in the county, they suffered exploitation from a young age and they ended up being child commercial sex workers, mainly operating from Malindi Town.
However, they are the lucky few who were spotted by community health workers who work with several non-governmental institutions in Kilifi and were referred to Kesho Kenya, a local child-focussed non-profit organisation, for assistance.
Having expressed their desire to leave the commercial sex work behind to earn a living differently, Kesho Kenya, supported by Wasichana Wetu Wafaulu, a project funded by the Education Development Trust, offered them an opportunity in a programme they run that offers children and young adults a chance to go back to school or enrol in vocational training. The sisters chose hairdressing school.
However, they kept to themselves while in class and hardly participated or interacted with the other students, and began skipping some classes. Loise Waribu, their teacher at Jadia College of Hairdressing in Kilifi, began getting worried about their behaviour, lack of participation and slow progress in class.
She went back to Kesho Kenya to find ways in which she could better help not only the sisters, but also other students with almost similar backgrounds in her college, most of whom were being supported by Kesho Kenya and other NGOs.
After close assessment, the school and the NGO realised the girls required more counselling support than they initially received and alerted counsellors in the region that they consult.
“We needed to change their way of viewing their life so that they could change, and take the course and their life seriously. They needed more help and we got them more counselling,” Ms Waribu said.
“When I was told about the girls’ [situation], I decided on a different approach. Instead of isolating the sisters in counselling (where they would feel segregated), I decided to counsel the class as a whole,” said Benicah Andayi, a psychological counsellor at Open Arms Counselling and Training Centre, an organisation that partners with schools and other organisations to provide psychosocial support within the institutions or in the communities where the organisations work.
Sometimes, approaching the person with a problem in such a circumstance can make the person feel isolated or that they are being picked on. But within a group, where peers share their challenges and they learn from each other, more people will open up, Ms Andayi explains.
“From there [the group counselling sessions], several girls, including the two sisters, approached me for one-on-one sessions,” she adds.
Following the counselling sessions, it was found out that the girls would skip some classes as they were still practising commercial sex work, mainly in Malindi Town of Kilifi County, a major tourist spot. But once their basic needs were catered for, they stopped the commercial sex work and concentrated in school.
“We had to be very patient with them,” said Sophie Kwamboka, Kesho Kenya’s Safeguarding Lead. “It took time but they are now doing well.”
Ms Waribu echoes these sentiments, saying that with the counselling, the sisters were able to change their behaviour, complete their course, get an internship and are now employed . "I am proud of our efforts because they changed and are now earning a living."
Ms Andayi adds that by talking to the students in the college, they realised that they all want to change and have better and more fulfilling lives. In addition, when the young women at the college understood the cycle of abuse, they even went further to inquire on how they can be part of the solution and help other girls going through similar hardship.
Child sexual exploitation
Like *Maria and *Anna, many other children are exploited at the Coast and in Kenya at large.
Every two out of five children living in the Coast of Kenya have experienced commercial sexual exploitation of children, mainly in the forms of child prostitution, child sex tourism, trafficking, domestic servitude and child marriage, Kesho Kenya says boldly on its website.
Child sexual exploitation has been rampant at the Coast and is a worrying situation, and many children are involved in child commercial sex work, asserts Ms Kwamboka.
“It is one of the areas in which we work to end exploitation,” she adds about Kesho Kenya, an NGO with offices in Kilifi and Kwale, which focusses on child protection.
According to Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act sexual exploitation of children and any physical sexual contact between an adult and a child is a criminal offence.
A 2017 study by Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART), titled “Exploring Attitudes towards the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Tourism and Travel along the Coast of Kenya”, found that in the major tourist hotspots along the Kenyan Coast, children exploited in prostitution operate clandestinely.
While a November 2021 report by Gfems Kenya Research Program titled Commercial Sexual Exploitation Of Children (Csec) - Prevalence Estimation Report states that an estimated 6,356 children in Kilifi, Kwale, and Mombasa, mainly girls but also some boys, are currently engaged in commercial sex, "accounting for 1.6 percent of the total population of 13-17 year olds across the three counties".
“Most [of them] are forced into it by circumstance…poverty,” Ms Kwamboka says. “It is a major problem at the Coast.” Many of the girls Kesho Kenya has worked with were exploited from when they were as young as 14 years, she adds.
“Many girls are lured by boda boda riders with promises of gifts,” says Ms Andayi.
According to an article titled Sexual exploitation of girls as young as 11 during Kenya’s drought, published on Plan International website, girls as young as 11 years in Kilifi “are exploited by older men. Predatory boda boda riders prey on vulnerable young girls, offering them money to abuse them sexually. Teenage girls are particularly at risk, as they lack the knowledge to protect themselves, often ending up pregnant or catching diseases.”
Most of the boda boda riders are also school dropouts, and when they have sexual relations with these girls and leave them pregnant, they continue the cycle of poverty. Some of the girls are then told by their parents ‘enda utafute unga (go and look for food)’ to feed the family and young children, and some are forced by circumstances to fend for themselves. That’s how most of the girls are influenced into commercial sex work to get money for basic needs, adds Ms Andayi.
A girl from a more remote part of Kilifi, whom Ms Andayi counselled, found herself in an almost similar situation.
The girl came from a poor family and her father abandoned the family for the traditional alcoholic drink, mnazi. The mother had to support the family singlehandedly, and when her daughter, *Amina, began maturing physically and biologically, she told her to go out and look for ‘unga’ (directly translated to mean 'flour', but it is used in this context as a euphemism for food and basic needs).
Amina went out and sat at the nearby shopping centre and began crying as she did not have money for flour. She was approached by a boda boda rider who asked her why she was crying and she responded that her mother had asked her to buy unga but hadn’t given her money; and had told her to find a way of getting the unga. The man bought a few groceries for her and sent her home after they agreed to meet again.
It became the norm for some time that he would buy her groceries and some personal effects, and one day he asked her to accompany him home so ‘she can know where he lives’. Innocently, she did so, and even cooked a meal in his house when he asked her to. After the meal, he defiled her and she got pregnant.
Amina is currently getting counselling and skills training.
“Such cases are rampant here…it is a sad state,” Ms Andayi says.
The people’s circumstances make this harder to deal with, she adds.
“Within Kilifi County, many women and children are silently suffering from structured cultural gender-based violence (SCGBV)”, often due to absentee husbands and fathers, which often leads many of the girls into desperate situations, says Ms Andayi.
“The root cause [of the structured cultural gender-based violence] is from the family”, and in many circumstances, the parents' priority is not education but income such that not only girls, but also boys, often drop out of school.
Structural gender-based violence is a situation where the social structures, community set-up or family set-up harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
Bridging the gap
While working with several organisations in the area, Ms Andayi says they found that in many of the situations, fathers leave mothers to be sole breadwinners and sometimes even leave the homes, and the mothers are then forced into desperation, leading them and their daughters to find ways in which they can earn more money. Due to the poverty in the area and in many instances, the high level of school drop-outs, most of them turn to brewing traditional alcohol, mnazi, or turn to commercial sex work.
Due to “issues of irresponsible and absent men, women are left to hustle for their children and live in fear of the unknown,” Ms Andayi says.
“There are instances where the mothers even push the girls into commercial sex work, from as young as nine years. And this cycle continues, leading to this structured cultural gender-based violence.”
The worrying situation in the area led the child protection organisation, Kesho Kenya, to find ways of helping the girls who would like to leave behind commercial sex work and find a different way out of poverty and exploitation. Most of the girls they were able to reach through the community health workers had begun sex work as young children and were now young adults or in their late teens.
Thus, in 2019, they began a project funded by child relief agency Terre des Hommes Netherlands, to re-educate the children, mainly girls, and take them back to school or train them in skills-based work from which they can earn a living.
However, with the rise of exploitation and teen pregnancies, especially during the Covid lockdowns in 2020, Kesho Kenya sought to do more to fight child exploitation in Kilifi and Kwale counties where they work.
With the help of community health workers, the NGO identified more girls and their families and opted to start the re-education and building awareness at the family level.
Some of the girls are forced into commercial sex work by being lured with gifts and promises of being taken care of, while many others are pushed into it when their families ask them to go fend for themselves, or when they get pregnant when still very young, or even when their families push them to get married and they refuse, Ms Kwamboka shares.
For the programmes to work effectively, Kesho Kenya felt the need to begin supporting the family as a unit by not only offering the exploited girls the options to go back to school or get vocational training, but by also offering their caregivers the same options and giving a small stipend to see them through as they train.
Some of the girls initially said they could not stop the commercial sex work, because it gave them money for their basic needs. But with the stipend to cater for basic needs as they train, they agreed to join the project.
“Most of the girls get into commercial sex work to be able to afford basic needs…so we thought, ‘why not empower the whole family?’” Ms Kwamboka says.
The reasoning was that if the whole family is able to earn a living from each individual's skills and they were also guided by counsellors on the benefit of such work vis-a-vis the consequences of commercial sex work on the girls and the community at large, then the girls would not be pushed again into sex work.
“Culture has been a hindrance in involving the fathers [in behaviour change], but we still try to reach out to the fathers” because through them we will also see a behaviour change in the whole family, Ms Andayi says.
“Through individual and group counselling sessions, we have been able to create self-awareness which has led to openness, forgiveness, self-acceptance, development of self-esteem, psychological and emotional healing.”
In addition to the counselling, instilling family values within the family set-up, and especially to the children from a young age helps change mindsets and prevent the cycle of abuse. Catering for their basic needs will enable them avoid looking for money through other means, including commercial sex work, Ms Andayi says. In counselling, they also urge the parents to take their children to school while stressing the importance of education and how it can change their lives, she adds.
Following this, Kesho Kenya established the Street Business School, mainly for the parents and guardians to learn skills that can help them earn a living.
“The caregivers are trained in financial literacy, general life skills, mat making, beadwork, or any craft they have interest in,” Ms Kwamboka says.
After they complete their courses, the NGO, with help from other donors, give them financial support to start their businesses.
As a result of the family-centred approach, the girls, especially the teen mothers, have positively responded to actively taking up the training offers.
“The girls who graduate…their self-esteem has been boosted, they have become so confident, and are also now sending the same positive messages to other girls. Some of them have become agents of change in the community”, and, like Maria and Anna, even take lead roles in advising other children on the dangers of commercial sex work and other forms of child abuse, Ms Kwamboka adds.
“It makes me happy to see a girl who has been in commercial sex reform, and start doing her own business or going to school and even advising other girls.”
*Names changed to protect their identities.
This story was updated with comments from additional voices.