[NOTE: The names of child sex workers have been changed to guard their identities.]
MOMBASA, KENYA — Bone-white crabs scuttle across the moonlit beach, and sugary rhumba melodies drift through the air from thatched-roof restaurants. This carefree ambiance is what draws many to Mombasa. But the sort of merriment some seek along Kenya’s azure beaches pulls many of the country’s most desperate into its undertow. Thousands of children have made their way to the coast to escape abuse or neglect. Once there, however, they’ve found little respite after being forced by circumstance into sex work.
Fifteen-year-old Batini didn’t admit to being a part of the sex trade when I met her on a white sand beach in September.
“Some people might be in their car and they’ll flash their lights to beckon me,” she said through a translator. “I go and talk to them and they give me money.”
When they tell her to get in the car, however, Batini said she tells them that she wants to buy some food first. She said that she assures them she’ll come back and then runs off.
“That’s what I do to hustle here,” she said. “I don’t have sex with anyone.”
Batini said she knows girls who do, though. She fixed her eyes on the hungry ocean’s waves as she recounted the story of a friend who she said was raped by the “beach boys” who roam the coast hawking keychains and coconuts.
She was bleeding from the behind.
“The first one raped her and then he let all the beach boys do it too,” she said. “They [gang-raped her] along the beach and then they put her in the boat.”
But that didn’t happen to Batini’s friend. It happened to her, according to Paul Nganga, who worked as a boatman on the beach around the time that she first arrived in Mombasa from the central city of Nukuru four or five years ago.
“I found her inside one of the boats. She was bleeding from the behind,” he said before he knew that Batini had already related this story as though it happened to a friend of hers.
“[Several men] raped her, and then she was thrown out of their car so she went to the boats.” Nganga found her there at six in the morning when he walked out to move the boats back into higher waters.
“I’ve known her since she came here. She was very young,” he said, when she started performing oral sex for money. He suspects she’s since moved on to having intercourse with clients.
Nganga moved to Mombasa around the same time as Batini to find work in its bustling tourism industry. He was surprised to find that prostitution was one of the city’s main attractions.
“In Mombasa, that’s the biggest business,” he said, “[and] it starts young.”
‘I’ll be miles and miles away’
Prostitution is illegal in Kenya, but a 2006 investigation by UNICEF found that up to 15,000 girls have been forced into the sex trade along the Kenyan coastline. Local organizations have put the number far higher. Trace Kenya, a nonprofit organization that modern-day slavery, estimated as many as 40,000 children have been trafficked into sex work.
Okoa Sasa is working to change that. The Mombasa-based organization seeks out children like Batini and offers them a fresh start at life.
“We’re here to make sure that children are not exploited,” Grace Odembo, who founded the organization, said in an interview.
It was on a walk along along the beach with her that I first connected with Batini. Such forays into “hotspots” for prostitution are a major part of Odembo’s work.
“We go out for ‘street work’ and we visit the brothels, the beaches, the nightclubs,” she said. “When we come across a child, we talk to the child and try to understand why they are there. We’re then able to rescue children from those dangers and bring them to a safe place and return them to school.”
Last year, Odembo’s organization “rescued” more than 100 children from sexual exploitation in their homes and at hotspots. Through working with the local government and law enforcement, she has won custody for about 15 children who live in a safe-house run by Okoa Sasa. She’s helped some of the older children gain admission into boarding schools or find work as cashiers and hairdressers. Some have even become nurses.
Having herself been forced into sex work as a child, Odembo knows well the risks, fears, and threats faced by such an incredibly vulnerable population. After being “rescued” from prostitution as a teenager by an organization called Solidarity for Women in Distress (SOLWODI), she paid it forward by working alongside the nonprofit to support women who had been sexually exploited and to provide a pathway out of sex work for those who wanted one.
The problem was that the man had HIV.
One of the first cases she worked on through SOLWODI involved a young girl who had been nine years old when she was first raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When the girl tried to tell her mother what happened, she turned on her, Odembo said.
“The mother said [to her daughter], ‘This man is bringing [us] food. [He] is bringing [in] money. We are living in a nice house because of him. What is your problem? Keep quiet.’” Odembo said. “But the problem was that the man had HIV and the girl got HIV.”
She fell ill only after she gave birth to her mother’s boyfriend’s baby and sold sex as a way to support herself and her daughter after leaving home.
When she went to see her on her deathbed at a local hospital, Odembo said the girl gave her a letter. “I think she knew she would die [when she wrote it]. She said in it, ‘By the time you read this letter, I’ll be miles and miles away.’”
In the letter, she begged Odembo to keep her daughter from falling into the sex trade. Odembo made sure to do so, and sent the girl to live with her uncles.
As she continued working with SOLWODI, Odembo came to see a pattern.
Girls were often left to fend for themselves as their mothers worked the streets. Some, especially those who were themselves trafficked into the sex trade when they were very young, offered their daughters up to clients who they knew had a penchant for little girls in order to keep the income in the family.
While organizations like SOLWODI or Trace offered support adult sex workers, Odembo felt that almost nothing was being done to save children from entering into prostitution.
“I would rather prevent them from getting into that,” she said, but with so many children involved in the area’s sex trade, much of her energy is devoted to offering alternatives. Okoa Sasa has come to be recognized by area aid organizations and government offices who transfer children into its hands.
‘They wanted to do bad manners’
Miriam was 12 years old when she ran away from the abusive home she lived in with her extended family, after some friends convinced her to live on the beach.
‘We are girls. We can make some money ourselves.’
“They said ‘[The abuse you face] is too much. We are girls. We can make some money ourselves.’ So we went out and we were going around looking for [ways to make] money,” she said from a seat at the large, glass dining table where she and other children draw pictures and eat meals.
“They wanted to do bad manners and I didn’t want to do bad manners,” Miriam said in a euphemism for sex work that betrays the innocence she’s managed to maintain.
“Because I am a Muslim, I didn’t want to go down a bad road,” she explained, but eventually, she saw no other way to survive.
“I changed my mind,” Miriam said in a torn whisper of a voice. “I started working alone in the streets.”
After several months, she decided she needed to find a way out. She saw a girl named Irene who seemed older. Miriam started to tell her about her life on the streets.
“After a few minutes, she told me, ‘Even me, I’m like you,” Miriam recalled. “Then we told each other, today we’ll sleep here outside of a hotel. When the morning came, we walked and walked, and then we saw a mother. She asked us, ‘You children, you’re going where?’ And we told her, we have problems. And when we explained [them to her] she told us, ‘I will help you.’ And then she helped us.”
The woman took Miriam and Irene to a local radio station, where they both shared their stories. From there, a nonprofit organization stepped in and eventually the two were sent to live in Okoa Sasa’s safe house. Both of them now spend their nights there and their days at school. They’ve come to see Odembo as a mother.
“In my heart, I knew there are some women who are better than my [own] mother,” Miriam said. Odembo easily makes the list.
When Odembo contacted her parents to seek custody of her, they said that they were fed up with Miriam and asked how many times she’d run away.
“They were so shocked [when] I said she has never run away,” Odembo recalled.
Okoa Sasa’s crowded two-bedroom safe house has high gates topped with barbed wire and a pair of German Shepards that patrol the yard. She said the precautions aren’t meant to lock the children in but to keep them safe. Some of the children’s family members have discovered the house and tried to take their children back — likely to return them to selling sex — Odembo said.
“This is not a prison. This is a home. This is more of a home than [what Miriam had before]. I send her to the shops and she comes back. We go to the beach and we come back,” Odembo said. “We live like a family.”
‘It’ll Be A Good Life’
Since she first encountered Batini along with me back in September, Odembo has visited many more times.
“I went to talk to her three times last week,” Odembo told me over Whatsapp. “She said she’d accept the offer” to join Miriam and the other children in the safe house.
In talking to her, Odembo said she’s learned more about the abuse Batini faced as the child of an alcoholic father and a negligent mother — and the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of men on the beach.
“Sex work is something that is very, very difficult to accept and to admit to doing,” Odembo said. If Batini agrees to leave the beach, it means admitting that she is in fact [was forced to be] a sex worker, and not just a clever swindler.
Odembo understands Batini’s reticence to talk about her past trauma — including the incident that left her bleeding on a boat — even though she’s offered the girl everything she dreams of having.
“I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger,” Batini said when I spoke to her. “But now all I want is just to be employed and to have my own life and somewhere to live. It won’t be much, but it’ll be a good life.”
Soon, Odembo hopes, she can help Batini have all that and more.
This story was reported with support from the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ).
This article was updated to acknowledge that children are not “sex workers” but rather, have been trafficked and abused into selling sex.