Like thousands of other Kenyans, Susan Wairimu, 17, was displaced from her home in the Rift Valley Province's Molo district during the violence that followed a disputed presidential election in December 2007 and sought shelter in the nearby town of Nakuru.
A cousin living in the coastal town of Mombasa offered to accommodate her until the violence ended, offering an escape from the single tent she shared with her parents at the displaced persons camp in Nakuru.
"I had no idea of the kind of work my cousin used to do in the beginning; I came to know some few days after my arrival, when she told me she operates as a call girl from the beaches."
Kenya's coast is one of its most popular tourist destinations: an estimated two million tourists visited Kenya in 2007, many of them heading for the Indian Ocean towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, where commercial sex work is one of the main ways many women earn money.
Before long Wairimu was introduced to the business of selling sex. "We now have the skills and have learnt that the amount of money a man parts with will determine the kind of pleasure we will offer him. For example, making love without a condom will cost a client more money than using one," she said.
"The killing in my village taught me a lesson and prepared me for a tough life, and now I do not fear death any more," she added. "I do not fear HIV and I believe that you will die when your day arrives, and the disease will not determine, but only God."
Wairimu accepts as little as 300 Kenya shillings (US$4.50) for an entire night, sometimes with two men.
Locals at the coast say sex workers in the region traditionally used to target wealthy foreign tourists, usually from Europe. Today, a fall in tourist numbers after the post-election violence and an increased number of sex workers means every man, old or young, black or white, is seen as a potential customer.
Wairimu is one of an estimated two hundred girls between 15 and 18 years of age who are now engaged in full-time sex work along Kenya's coast, according to Solidarity with Women in Distress (SOLWODI), a local non-governmental organisation that sensitises sex workers to the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
Increase in child sex trade
Child sex work is not uncommon along the coast; a 2006 study by the government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that up to 30 percent of teenagers in some coastal areas were involved in casual sex for cash.
Agnetta Mirikau, a child protection specialist with UNICEF Kenya, told IRIN/PlusNews that the organisation had received reports of an increase in the child sex trade since the election.
SOLWODI's field coordinator in Mombasa, Grace Odembo, told IRIN/PlusNews that most of the girls who resorted to sex work were high school drop-outs, which would make it difficult for them to find formal employment.
"The girls have opted to sell their bodies in order to get money for survival," Odembo said. "We try as much as we can ... to convince them out of [sex work]."
The 2006 study also found that 35.5 percent of all sex acts involving children and tourists took place without condoms, putting the girls at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The HIV prevalence in Kenya's Coast Province is 5.9 percent, higher than the national average of 5.1 percent.
SOLWODI runs counselling, return-to-school programmes and vocational skills training for girls who wish to get out of the trade. Since its formation in 1997, the organisation has managed to get 5,000 girls and women to leave the sex industry.
|The girls have opted to sell their bodies in order to get money for survival ... We try as much as we can to convince them out of [sex work].|
Hoteliers often turn a blind eye to residents bringing underage girls into their rooms, but some have a more strict policy regarding commercial sex on their premises.
"We never accommodate any visitors who try to check into our hotels with young-looking girls until we get some required details about the girl," Mohammed Hersi, general manager of the Mombasa's Sarova White Sands Beach Hotel, told IRIN/PlusNews. "[We usually] establish who the girls are, what they are up to and, most important, their ages."
SOLWODI also trains hotels to implement an existing code of conduct to prevent sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism sector, but by late 2007, only 20 hotels had signed the code of conduct.
The deputy mayor of Mombasa, John Mcharo, said keeping the girls off the streets was difficult. "Yes, we can arrest the girls but only charge them with loitering, just like we've done before, but this can't stop the girls from finding their way back to the streets and beaches as soon as they come out of our custody."
Girls at the beach generally wear bathing suits, so it is difficult to distinguish between sex workers trawling the beach for customers and girls who are simply enjoying a day at the beach.
Local law enforcement officers and religious leaders have called on the government to do more to stop underage girls selling sex in the area. "The government has to come up with a special programme that can get the girls not only off the beaches but off the streets," said Sheikh Mohammed Khalifa, organising secretary of the council of Imams and preachers of Kenya.
He added that his organisation frequently held workshops to urge underage girls to quit the trade, and provided them with spiritual guidance.
The government has a children's department in every district, which is responsible for the protection of children from exploitation and abuse. According to Patrick Wafula, of the Mombasa police department, much of the work of the department's special tourism unit consists of arresting the perpetrators of child sex abuse and exploitation.
"We usually carry out raids in areas we suspect to be meeting points for the girls and their potential clients," he said.
The government also recently expanded the child protection units at police stations, adding children's officers and improving judicial services, so that they are now better prepared to handle children's issues.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions