Mercy Akinyi, a 27-year-old mother-of-three is a bartender in a Kondele bar on the outskirts of Kisumu town at the same time a sex worker. Her bartending job starts in the afternoon, leaving the whole morning to engage in her sex work. Most of her clients are those that she serves alcohol and seduce her during their drinking hours – she directs them to her one-bedroomed house a few meters from the bar to show up when she is not working.

On a good morning, she makes approximately Ksh 3,000 if she is lucky to get three clients before going to her regular job. Her salary at the bar is a paltry Ksh 10,000. She says she has been on this same routine since she was 16 years of age.

Akinyi’s story is that of being forced to survive by whatever means after finding herself with children and no one to fend for them. “I was forced out of school to marry when I was just 15,” she told Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) outside the noisy bar where she works.

“I gave birth the same year I got married and the following year but the man, who was 20 years older, started going out with other women. When I confronted him, he left me and the babies. Sex work was the only option I had to care of my children and myself.”

Akinyi now has three young children who go to school and live with her in her one-bedroomed house. She tells BHESP that she hides from her children the fact that she also earns from sex work. “There was a time a child abruptly returned home from school while I had a client in the house, I had to deal with the child without letting him come to the bedroom, good thing he had just forgotten his textbook”, said Akinyi.

Akinyi’s story represents the experiences of many teenage girls in Kenya who are forced into sex work out of life’s frustrations and need to provide for children they got very early in their teens. Experts say early marriage not only destroys a girl’s future but also perpetuates intergenerational poverty – children of parents with no education or skills are unlikely to break out of the poverty trap.

Earlier this year, Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for gender Jebii Kilimo, described child marriage as “a huge threat” to the country’s economic and social development.

She said factors exacerbating the high child marriage rate included poverty, low literacy levels among parents, a lack of female role models, peer pressure, and harmful cultural practices that expose children to sex early in life.

“All my colleagues here and me were married off and had children before the age of 18,” said Akinyi, referring to the other women who work at the bar.

“When I look back I don’t think I should have been married off so young, but that’s what everybody was doing. It’s embedded in our culture.” She added.

Kosovo estate is located in one of Kisumu’s largest slums, Nyalenda. During the day, the area looks normal but when night falls in, girls as young as 12 years can be seen walking the streets.

“I started by smoking marijuana,” says Natasha. That’s is not her real name and she is just 14. “That’s when I started knowing about these things. The day I started drinking alcohol was the day that I started sex work.” Her clients are men who live in Kisumu and the surrounding areas.

Natasha’s parents died of HIV/AIDS when she was very young. She was HIV-negative at the time but was infected through sex work. Her aunt acts as her guardian and is trying to get her off drugs. She even sent her niece to a rehabilitation center.

“I have tried rehabilitating her but she always goes back to sex work,” says her aunt. “I think that is because she is a drug addict. Also, her peers, her only friends, are sex workers.”

“This is my life and I have accepted it the way it is,” says Natasha. “I dropped out of school so there is nothing else. I am not looking for any help – that is what my guardian doesn’t understand.”

Many of the girls are introduced to sex work by their peers or relatives. “A lot of times the victims don’t have any protection from their immediate family,” says Peninah Mwangi, the executive director of BHESP. “Either the parents died or maybe the parents are the ones pushing them out to find some kind of livelihood.”

In Nairobi, the girls sleep with men for as little as 100 Kenyan shillings.

Child sex work has been blamed for an increasing school dropout rate, poverty, and illiteracy as children skip class in pursuit of money. Although there are no recent figures on the number of children involved in sex work in Kenya, a report released by International Organization for Migration (IOM) in May 2018 said an estimated 15,000 children aged 12 to 18 live in the tourist hubs along the country’s coast.

That sex work involving girls and boys is not only a result of poverty, but an organized business becomes apparent at the coast, where so-called “pimps” run child prostitution rings. One of them, Agnes – a former sex worker herself – explained how the business of child prostitution works. “Most of them come to me when they are around 12 ,13, or 14 years of age. If they earn around 5,000 Kenyan shillings, I take around 1,000 shillings,” she told BHESP. “When they come to me, I never turn them away. I stay with them.”

Sex workers who are part of this ring have to be under 19 years of age. Their clients are mostly men from Europe or the Americas.

“I normally start my day at 5 pm. I start by taking a shower, dressing up, finding something to eat,” one of the child sex workers said. Orphaned at an early age, she was introduced to sex work by her cousin at the age of 14, she told BHESP.

Now 16 and HIV positive, she works for a “pimp.” “By 7 pm, I go out. Sometimes you can spend the entire night outside but you don’t make a single coin.”

According to the IOM report, many victims of child sex work are also victims of human trafficking who are brought to the coast from other parts of the country. The tourism industry keeps the business going and some of the older sex workers double up as bar or hotel personnel.

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