Sixteen-year-old Judy (not her real name) sits in a nightclub sipping beer with two other girls in this coastal resort town popular with foreign tourists thanks to its numerous beach hotels and villas.
She is one of a rising number of under-age girls who have taken to commercial sex due to poverty or the allure of easy money from tourists. "I had no choice, I had dropped out of school, I had no job and my parents have four other children to take care of," said Judy. Her 58-year-old European boyfriend has bought her a car, pays her rent and gives her money to support her family.
Malindi, a Swahili settlement in existence since the 14th century, is one of the oldest towns in eastern Africa. It is clearly experiencing a tourist boom, primarily due to its spectacular white sandy beaches and considerable investment by foreigners, mostly Italians, in the tourism industry.
The opulent beach hotels, however, belie the poverty and squalour with which residents of the surrounding villages have to grapple. Many of the girls who loiter in the streets or sit in the bars drinking and smoking as they wait to be picked up by tourists come from very poor backgrounds. For them, 'hooking up' with a seemingly wealthy white man means escape from want.
Jan Ireri, Malindi District Commissioner, acknowledges that the problem of child prostitution is rampant in the town and blames it on poverty, ignorance, peer pressure and sometimes sheer greed. "Some [of the girls] are single mothers and want a means to sustain their children. But some have this mentality that having a white man [as a boyfriend] raises one's status," said Ireri.
Claudette Jollebo, head of the Malindi office of an NGO, Solidarity with Women in Distress (SOLWODI), said her experience was that many parents in Malindi town and the surrounding villages appeared to give tacit approval to their daughters having relationships with older foreigners, probably because they were aware that there was money to be made. "Parents have played a role in the whole scenario," she said. "Girls and boys are often encouraged to go and beg from tourists on the beaches and the girls usually end up as commercial sex workers," she added.
"For many girls in Malindi, as soon as they have breasts, they find European boyfriends. It has become a culture," claimed Philip Jagero, a volunteer children's officer with Kenya Legal Defence Fund, an NGO. He had investigated several cases of children's sexual exploitation by foreigners in Malindi and found it difficult to get the police involved because suspects are able to "bribe their way through".
SOLWODI encourages young commercial sex workers to get out of the trade by sponsoring them to acquire skills, such as hairdressing and dress making, to enable them to find alternative employment or start small businesses. Those too young are encouraged to go back to school.
"Because of poverty the community has embraced commercial sex as a way of improving their living standards. The solution lies in empowerment," said Jollebo.
Ireri lamented what he called "general moral decadence", complaining that prostitution, which used to be frowned upon by the local communities, was now being tolerated, probably because it appeared to "pay some dividend" to those who engaged in it. On average a girl can make 6,000 shillings (US $ 80) in one night at the peak of the tourism season, according to a former pimp.
According to Ireri, the tradition of early marriage among many Miji Kenda, the nine linguistically related ethnic groups who inhabit the Kenyan coastal districts of Kilifi, Kwale, Malindi and Mombasa, could be contributing to the problem of teenage prostitution. "When a girl is married off at 14, then gets divorced, gets married again and divorced again and has children, what is to stop her from ending up in prostitution?" he asked.
Janet, a 36-year-old commercial sex worker who left her native Central Province to ply her trade in Malindi in the 1990s, said most prostitutes in the town in those days came from the hinterland and only rarely from the local community. "Now there are so many children in the [night] clubs and the wazungu [white men] are only interested in them. Competition is stiff especially during the low season [the months preceding the European summer when tourist numbers are low]," she said. "These kids [young sex workers] ask for peanuts. When I get a white man I want to get as much money from him as possible because I have a son in high school, but these girls have no dependents, they just want to have a good time," said Janet, who spoke on condition that a copious supply of beer was made available.
To address the problem of juvenile commercial workers, the government is striving to ensure that hotels, lodges and nightclubs do not allow entrance to people under the age of 18, Ireri said, acknowledging that it was a challenge.
"We have issued orders that any hotel that allows under-age children in for those immoral activities will be closed; however, we still receive reports that this malpractice is happening in private villas and other secret hideouts. Last year we registered 400 villas and will reactivate registration because that is the only way we can make a breakthrough," said Ireri.
"Our people must also stop colluding with pimps to provide children for sex with older men," he said, adding that the provincial administration was trying to make the public aware that anybody under the age of 18 was a child and should be treated as such.
The head of SOLWODI's projects in Coast Province, Elizabeth Akinyi, called for greater government involvement in efforts to rescue children and women from prostitution.
"The government is earning huge revenues from tourism, but at what cost?" she asked, noting that child sexual exploitation was a common problem nationally and not just along the coast, where the problem was more acute because of the influence of tourism. "There is child abuse by both foreign and domestic tourists. There are pimps everywhere seducing children for brothels, small lodges and bars," she added. Her organisation has managed to rescue 5,000 women and girls from commercial sex and supported them to find alternative livelihoods since 1997. Limited funding, however, made it difficult for SOLWODI to reach more people in such circumstances, Akinyi said.
Kenya earned US $648 million from tourism in 2005, a 15 percent increase on the previous year, according to the Kenya Tourism Board, which put the total international visitor arrivals at 1.7 million, 21.4 percent higher than in 2004.