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Sex tourism thrives unabated

The Kenyan coast is sitting on a time bomb, with a number of tourists visiting the destination ostensibly to have sex with children.
31 March 2006 - Fred Oluoch
Source: NewsfromAfrica

Unlike most girls of her age, the 24-year old Mary Wanja is lucky to have a job as a secretary in a private firm dealing in curios in Kenya’s coastal town of Malindi. But like the rest, Mary cannot miss out in the action and often goes clubbing over the weekends with the aim of linking up with tourists looking for sex and good time. Mary is just but among thousands of young women who are responding to a growing number of tourists who visit Kenya specifically for sex, especially in Kenya's coastal towns.

While sex has always been part and parcel of the "feel good" tourism industry, new investigations revealed that there is a category of tourists who come to Kenya looking for virgins, buoyed by the universal myth that sex with a virgin could cure terminal diseases such as Aids. Most of them—between the ages of 45 and 65 are pensioners who are either divorced or seeking to rekindle their sexual lives by having sex with teenagers, who are also perceived to be safe from HIV.

As a result, child sex is slowly blossoming in Kenya. While the Child Welfare Society of Kenya says that Coast province is under threat of sex tourism, authorities keep quiet due to the sensitivity of the tourism industry. While the data on the nature and scope of child sex market is scarce and disputable because of its discreet nature, it is estimated that up to 30,000 girls between 12 and 14 years are being lured into hotels and private villas where they are sexually exploited with promises of riches and trips abroad.

The facts are under the eyes. Father Kizito Sesana, an Italian Comboni missionary who has started houses for former street child in Nairobi, says: “Some time ago, with a friend, I was visiting the Mombasa North Coast, normally dubbed “the German Coast” because of the strong presence of tourists from that country. It was March and only a few tourists were around. In a late afternoon we entered a bar to get a cold beer, and we were struck by the odd couples sitting at the tables: elderly white men with very young girls, or with teenager boys; elderly white women with boys that could be their sons or grandsons. Before we could get over the surprise we were approached at first by a series of girl and then by boys. We left without finishing the drink”.

The trend, if left unchecked, could have a negative impact on up-market and family tourists, who are feeling uncomfortable mingling with open paedophiles. Could Kenya be rivalling Thailand—known as the world's sex capital—if only to maintain its status as a leading tourist destination?.

Tourism officials admit that Kenya's role as a child sex destination has been downplayed for fear that it would undermine the crucial tourism industry that is already reeling from negative travel advisories from the US governments. Besides, Kenya's supremacy as the ultimate tourist destination in Africa is threatened by emerging destinations such as South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia. Tourism is Kenya's third largest foreign exchange earner after tea and horticulture.

A Ministry of Tourism report recently revealed that paedophiles were leaving child sex tourism centres in Asia because of tough new laws and were headed for African countries like Kenya, where laws are lax. Besides laxity in the enforcement of laws, Kenya is yet to ratify international protocols, on Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking, and Children Involved in Child Conflict. The Children’s Act does not specifically address the problem of child prostitution nor provide stiff penalty for offenders.

Sex tourism is operated by a complex web, shrouded in secrecy and underworld dealings. Havens include closely-guarded and secluded villas, hair salons, massage parlours and lodgings. It involves some tour operators, hotels and well-connected agents.

Campaigns against sex tourism is even made worse by the fact that most hotel management lack the knowledge on how to deal with tourists who engage in the vice. Leading the pack is Mombasa – Kenya’s second largest city, and a major port of call by seafarers, known for thousands of sailors and marines, whose vessels usually dock at Kilindini Harbour.

For instance, when an American Navy Aircraft carrier docks in Mombasa, girls come from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. The sailors who have a few hours on land pay as much as $ 100 per session. But of late, big aircraft carriers are rare in Mombasa in the face of the increased terrorism threat.

Other sex havens are Malindi , where young girls could be seen by the beach of the hotel fronts but position themselves in strategic places, especially for the poor ones who cant afford or are too shy to enter hotels. The 12th century Lamu town—that was three years ago enlisted in the Unesco's World Heritage List—is slowly gaining reputation of attracting homosexual tourists looking for young boys.

Robert Nyagah, a former journalist who is now a tour operator in Malindi, admits that Malindi relies purely on tourism, and the pool of sex workers is quite big compared to the size of the town. According to him, the Kenyan coast is known as a tourism haven where everything goes. Even the NGOs who purport to fight sex tourism are only interested in attracting the attention of potential funding. Besides, there seems to be no co-ordination between parents, the government and NGOs who have been raising this issue.

As he put it: "Once we market ourselves as a free country offering freedom of movement and association, how then do you go about curtailing the freedom of tourists? How do you differentiate genuine tourists from those simply out for sex, and how do you again differentiate a young girl who is looking for a life partner-be it a tourist or not-from a prostitute"?

But Roberto Macri, the Italian honorary counsellor in Malindi, believes that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. "If tourists want sex, then they can easily go to Thailand and Brazil that are known purely for sex. Of course, just like any destination in the world, a visitor to Kenya, while strolling on the beach would not mind talking to willing girls. However, it is difficult to differentiate whether such a tourist came purely for sex or opts to engage in sex because of its availability,” he argued.

Still, the allure of sex tourism is real and growing. Easy money, unemployment is driving more and more girls into the trade. The girls, some of whom are married are following the allure of easy and big money, without terming it as prostitution but simply “offering hospitality” to the visitors. There are cases where poor parents encourage their children to go out on the streets in order to put food on the table.

Some women who started as children have had success, getting into fruitful relationships that change their fortune. They own houses and drive decent cars, and act as role models that lure more young girls into the trade. Apparently, a mixture of Islamic and African culture try to hide the extent of the problem, even as mainstream tour operators would like to deny its existence.

Not every tourist does it but quite a number have the temptation to let go once in a foreign land. For the girls, it is about security, trying to make a future, after dropping out of school because of pregnancy of lack of school fees. Most of them have at least one child, and are struggling to survive after being thrown out of their homes by their religious families.

But the trade is not confined to girls, as more young men join the practice in search of fortune. It is not without precedent as many young men (most of them primary school dropouts) have changed their lives dramatically by befriending the middle aged European women. The Kenyan coast is known to attract elderly or divorced tourists looking for sex, mainly from Germany. Most of them are driven by the myth of the male African sexual prowess and come promising young unemployed men marriage and a trip to their countries.

Yet, tackling the issue of child sex is complicated owing to some traditional practices. While activists look at it from the Eurocentric perspective and are lobbying for the ban, among the Miji Kenda—the nine communities that inhabit the coastal region—a 13-year old girl is traditionally of marriageable age. The locals do not understand what the fuss is all about.

But it is the growing number of young girls joining the trade—some of whom are tricked into the trade— that is worrying the authorities. Agents lure poverty-stricken underage girls from upcountry with the promise of jobs as salesgirls in boutiques, but end up being forced into prostitution to survive in far-flung lands, if only to earn their meals and get transport back home. They are locked in a room and forced to have sex with customers under the supervision of their "guardians". But some end up getting hooked forever after tasting the quick bucks.

As a result, some of the girls have had to endure unorthodox sexual activities including sodomy, gang rape, drugging and beating, most of which go unreported, given that the activities are done in private. Those that come out in the open hardly make any difference because the tourists can bribe their way out or buy the victim’s silence. And in cases where such cases are brought to the attention of the authorities, the government would rather cover up for the sake of protecting the country’s image and the fear of upsetting the flow of foreign exchange.

The authorities argue that sex is carried out on willing-seller, willing-buyer basis and cannot do anything unless it involves cases of abuse. A penalty of Ksh 50,000— if caught at all— for offenders is not severe enough to deter paedophiles who could make millions trafficking children. The law does not include extradition of suspects who have left the country.

While the government disapproves sexual exploitation, it is afraid to come out strongly for fear of turning away tourists. Instead, the government has resorted to directing hotels not to admit children below 18 unless accompanied by adults, which is rarely enforced. Activists are now calling upon the government to invoke relevant machinery to stop the trend. Trends shows that people who engage in sex tourism already have bad records in their home countries.

Ms Christine Beddoe, who heads the lobby End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT) argued that most sex tourists prey on Kenya and other African countries because of tight laws in their home countries and tougher ex-territorial laws within Europe. Besides, bureaucracy has made it difficult to nail child molesters, since people who report sex crimes are tossed from one office to the other because of lack of a clear procedure on arrest and prosecution of suspects in such crimes.

A recent seminar to discuss global code of conduct to fight commercial sex and exploitation of children suggest that immigration authorities should keep a data base of people convicted of child molestation in their countries to ensure that they don't enter Kenya as tourists. Without such list, paedophiles could easily slip into the country for sex tourism.

But hotel owners interviewed say they are not entirely to blame. Okoth Waudi, the proprietor of Casablanca Night Club in Mombasa— one the famous joints where girls hung around in search of tourist clients—argued that tourists don’t necessarily need the ladies for sex but to interact and for companionship. "With the presence of Aids, sex tourism has gone down. The tourist behaviour is a bit more careful. It is not not easy for the girls to hook tourists nowadays. They just entertain them and leave," he claimed.

He, however, admits that his club—that has cut a niche as the meeting ground—would attract very few tourists and locals if it were not of the girls. As a result, he offers some privileges to the girls that have been a major boost to his business. Regulars don’t pay at the gate, while the girls are allowed to take meals at the canteen at subsidised rates because they can’t afford food in normal food outlets.

On the other hand, Geodfrey Karume, the proprietor of Baobab Restaurant in
Malindi, blames the problem on the non-enforcement of the Liquor Licensing Act, which prohibits underage people from taking alcohol. He narrated that hotels have been trying to restrict intake but it is difficult because one has to balance between profits to remain afloat and the moral responsibilities as a member of the society. “Sex is the oldest trade, and if somebody is determined to get a woman, you cannot stop him unless you are telling him not to visit Kenya again. The friendly talk and sex is part of the package and selling point. There is no way you can separate them. But some tourists are not after sex but companionship by a younger person,” he said.

True to his sentiments, most hotels are known to look the other way when it comes to sex tourism. This is because they make more when tourists bring girls to the hotels and pay extra for their guests, despite the existence of the code of conduct which requires hotel operators not to allow underage girls in their premises.

But help could soon be on the way. Some key players in the tourism industry, that include hoteliers, tour operators ,NGOs and government departments, last year launched a campaign to stop sexual exploitation of children for commercial purposes. In an elaborate initiative funded by the Australian Development Corporation, Hotelpan Switzerland, the City Council of Vienna, the Australian Federal Ministry for Economy and the End Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, they have come up with a Code of Conduct to protect children from the vice, mainly by tourists.

Already, some leading European tour operators have already implemented the code, where clients are provided with information on the issue. The tour operators have clauses in their contracts with suppliers which show common repudiation of sexual exploitation, especially in hotels. The initiative that was meant to start operating this year, has seen foreign tour operators who have already signed, skipping some hotels that entertain sexual activities involving children.

But Ms Roni Mwaluma, the co-ordinator for the Society for Women and Aids Kenya (SWAK), Malindi branch, believes that the problem will continue unless the government comes out and requests the embassies, to furnish it with a list of sex offenders, because most paedophiles already have bad records in their countries, but pass off as tourists. SWAK, is an NGO fighting for the rights of the girl child, funded by a German group and offers alternative skills such as tailoring and hairdressing. It operates 12 rescue centres and has since 2000, managed to take 25 women to tertiary institutions, while others have been persuaded to go back to school.

"The main problem lies in those who have retired but still influence others that one needs not to go to school to lead a good life. It is fine for tourists to go looking for girls over 18. But it is unfortunate that most of them are attracted to girls between 12 and 13," said Ms Mwaluma.

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