Asia is not alone: Sex tourism in Mombasa
Mombasa, Kenya, has long been world-renowned for its pristine shorelines, abundant night life and cultural attractions dating back centuries. I took my family there for vacation last week. It’s a lovely (though desperately hot) place where I cut my teeth in high school as a volunteer at what is now called Haller Park (after the Swiss agronomist who started it, Rene Haller), famous among children the world over for the unlikely relationship that sprouted there between a hippo and a tortoise a few years ago. Over the last four decades, Haller transformed desert-like limestone quarries into beautiful wetlands and park space. The area where I worked 21 years ago was completely unrecognizable and loaded with animals that my family loved seeing. Sadly, much more than Haller Park has changed in greater Mombasa.
I hadn’t a clue about the city’s thriving sex business until I noticed dozens of women and several girls and boys, no older than age 10, dressed for sale on the narrow road heading north from the city. Go-go bars and clubs frequented by sex workers form a patchwork of poverty along the road that is highly trafficked by European sun-seekers. According to my Kenyan friends, they’re seeking more than sun. When I inquired about the phenomenon, everyone told me that tightened restrictions in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia had pushed the trade to Mombasa, where dozens of weekly flights from Europe fuel its existence.
But I suspect there’s more to it. This situation is just the latest example of malfeasance and human rights misery that follows the weakest governments. Child sex tourism in Mombasa is the direct result of lax local laws and corrupt public officials, including police. The police tried on five occasions to take my driver’s license and hold it for a bribe; one can only imagine how they engage in the finances of sex work and childhood sex slavery. While the core of the problem is poverty, it’s clear that poor governance plays an enormous role in it.
Mombasa’s child sex trade is a disturbing thing to watch, but I found that it’s exploding everywhere in this scenic city, one of Africa’s major tourist destinations. Officially, the problem doesn’t exist, but according to one estimate, up to 30,000 girls between 12 and 14 years old are currently being lured into hotels and private villas along Mombasa’s north and south coasts where they are sexually exploited with promises of riches and trips abroad.
In Malindi, impoverished children of both sexes looking for a new life sell their bodies to tourists along the historic town’s white, sandy beaches, and Lamu Old Town – which five years ago was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site – is now known as a place that attracts men looking for young boys. These days, many visitors to Mombasa travel there specifically for illicit sex.
So how did poverty and corruption create this situation? The growing number of children joining Mombasa’s sex tourism trade is in part attributable to the lack of opportunity and further displacement caused by the violent outcome of 2007’s disputed presidential election. It may have been kicked off in part by the dramatic fall in tourism receipts following 9/11 as well. The Kenyans I spoke with said that the situation appeared to sprout from nowhere during the last six years. With few, if any, economic prospects at hand, unscrupulous agents are able to entice boys and girls with the promise of legitimate jobs.
Often, however, the kids end up being forced into sex with strangers under the supervision of their putative sponsors. Seduced by the fast cash, many may end up becoming life-long sex workers, with lives cut tragically short by AIDS and violence. Most child prostitution incidents go unreported, but when they’re brought to light, authorities mostly do nothing. They downplay Mombasa’s role as a child-sex capital for fear that its already fragile tourism industry would be further affected. The laws don’t help either, since they don’t specifically address child prostitution or provide for stiff punishment of offenders.
Even Kenya’s Liquor Licensing Act, which prohibits underage drinking, is never enforced. Bars that depend on tourism end up allowing underage drinking, fueling the illicit industry. A further byproduct of corruption is that offending tourists are ultimately able to bribe their way out of any crime or buy the silence of their young victims. The rise of this trade is shocking, and the speed of its establishment is staggering. It could only have happened under the circumstances that now persist in Kenya: a culture of corruption that increases poverty and speeds decay.
In countries with better (but by no means perfect) governance like Uganda, Tanzania and here in Rwanda, child sex tourism is virtually non-existent (but there are signs that the child sex trade is growing). Strong families are a key to avoiding the phenomenon of poor children set adrift to make their own way in the world. Here in Rwanda, families remain strong because there is hope, stability and a relative lack of corruption. When parents can make enough money to feed and clothe their children, look out for their health, and also keep them safe, that makes an enormous difference. Combined with the knowledge that the hand of the law will come down on them if they consider selling their children for sex, the industry simply cannot lay down its roots here.
I don’t know what the prescription is for curing Mombasa’s disease. It must begin quickly with aid programs that save these children from the abyss, but that will help treat only a symptom. The real cure lies in a change at the top, the creation of a culture that values transparency and puts future opportunity in the hands of all citizens. Based on Kenya’s current political situation, the cure seems hopelessly far away.
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