New efforts needed to stop child sex tourism


In 2006 a report by UNICEF and the government of Kenya revealed the shocking extent of the child sex industry in that country, finding that up to 30% of teenagers in some coastal areas are involved in casual sex for money. More than a decade later, this scourge has taken on new dimensions, some of which are linked to the boom in East Africa’s information and communications technology sector.

A study released by Terre des Hommes last year links the involvement of children in the sex trade in Kenya to the growth of digital communications, and social media in particular. Additional analysis indicates that high levels of poverty also contribute to the rise in the child sex trade. Notably, UNICEF reports that Eastern and Southern Africa have the world’s second highest percentage of children involved in child labour (26% of all children between the ages of five and 17).  

In coastal towns, the increase in the child sex trade has also been linked to an influx of foreign tourists. In Malindi, expats – who, in many cases, are also foreign investors – have been alleged to run sex rackets in close cooperation with existing local networks. In places like Mombasa, the second-largest city in Kenya, the underage sex trade is highly visible, and it’s not unusual to see tourists soliciting underage girls on public beaches and in nightclubs. Tanzanian cities like Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Tanga are no different.

In places like Mombasa, the underage sex trade is highly visible

An interview with a former victim of child sex in Mombasa revealed that free-to-use social media apps are used to market underage boys and girls. The victim pointed out that clients include locals from Mombasa and their counterparts from Dar es Salaam. This is an indication that not only tourists are involved in the sex trade, but also Kenyans and Tanzanians. In some cases, parents are complicit and turn a blind eye to their children’s involvement in sex work, often using justifications such as economic hardship.

The practice of underage sex violates international law. For example, the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, strengthened by its 2000 Optional Protocol, commits states to put in place appropriate measures to combat and eradicate all forms of violence against children, including sexual abuse.

Kenya and Tanzania both ratified this UN convention, and later the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Under Article 53 1(b) of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, children have the right to be protected from abuse and other forms of violence. Under the 2006 Sexual Offences Act, anyone found guilty of committing an indecent act with a child will receive a prison sentence of not less than 10 years. Article 14 explicitly criminalises child sex tourism. The 1998 Tanzania Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act outlines similar penalties. It is clear, however, that implementation has been lacking.

A former victim of child sex in Mombasa explained that free-to-use social media apps are used to market underage boys and girls

In many instances, the law enforcement response has been limited to beach patrol police. While necessary, this measure is far from sufficient as sex crimes often take place in private spaces away from public view, including private villas and on boat trips. While national laws are in place in both Kenya and Tanzania, there is no bilateral implementation framework. Having such a mechanism in place could boost attention and resources, since local and regional authorities currently underrecognise this grave threat.  

Both Kenya and Tanzania ought to take far-reaching measures under national and international law to address child sex tourism. Bilateral efforts, such as the adoption of a strategy against child sex tourism, would be a good starting point. Such a strategy should include civil society, educators and healthcare practitioners. At the local level, government should prioritise working directly with communities in addressing this issue.

Mohamed Daghar, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS

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