When my mother tells me to provide for myself sanitary towels, what exactly does she mean?” asked a 12-year-old girl at one of the 2018 sensitisation forums in Busia, western Kenya, organised by Equality Now.
Equality Now, a non-governmental organisation advocating against trafficking of girls and women for sexual exploitation was creating awareness on the prevalence of the vice and how to tackle it.
“It was a difficult question to answer but we understood her situation” said Ms Judy Gitau, Equality Now’s Africa regional co-ordinator during an interview in Nairobi.
Her dilemma reflects the socio-economic predicament facing thousands of girls and women in Africa. Women and girls make up 80 per cent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually according to United Nations Population Fund. They are baited with promises of well-paying jobs and trafficked out into the hands of strangers who convert them into sex slaves, says Ms Gitau.
The National Crime Research Centre notes that children, men and women who are trafficked fit into a certain profile: Low income, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and desire for well-paying jobs
Domestic sex trafficking has also become a lucrative business in Kenya, according to a baseline survey Equality Now conducted this year. It shows that in Nyanza in the west, cartels pimp girls from poor families to entertain visitors and revellers in the up-market suburbs.
Tourist destinations in the country’s Rift Valley and coastal regions are also demand centres for vulnerable girls and women, according to Ms Gitau.
She said human and sex trafficking is a complex and well organised crime, triggered by social problems such as poverty that law enforcers overlook when conducting investigations.
Anita Nyanjong, an expert in ending sex trafficking at Equality Now said thriving trade along Africa's vast coastline, mining sites and commercial plantations have created an additional market for sexual exploitation of the female gender.
“This is a worrying trend. African governments need to take urgent interventions to save the girls and women. Otherwise Africa will lose a generation vital to drive the growth of Africa’s economies,” said Ms Nyanjong.
She said there is a need for transnational co-operation in implementing international laws in order to end the crime.
Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania have ratified the Palermo Protocol which seeks to suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
These countries are either sources or destination of the trafficked women and girls.
In Tanzania, for example, girls are trafficked to as far as Nepal and India, a 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report by the United States Department of State notes.
In South Africa, girls are trafficked to Ireland, the Middle East and the US for sexual exploitation according to End Child Prostitution and Trafficking International
Recruitment of the victims is a cruel process in some countries. In Nigeria, a country that has enacted an anti-trafficking law since 2003, traffickers force girls and women to take a juju oath to ensure compliance, threatening them with death if they break it.
Ms Nyanjong said African governments should take urgent measures to address gender inequalities, discrimination and poverty that leads women and girls to sexual exploitation.
“Poverty is driving girls and women to sexual slavery and exploitation,” she notes. “In Nigeria many girls are captured as sex slaves and taken to factories to sustain sex slavery. Furthermore, girls are seen as perpetrators and not victims of the exploitation.”
Child prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation is illegal in Kenya.
Under Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act (2006), it is a criminal offence for any person to threaten or use violence to secure a child for any form of sexual abuse. The crime attracts a jail-term of not less than 10 years.
A person guilty of trafficking for sexual exploitation is also subject to not less than 15 years’ imprisonment or a minimum of Ksh2 million ($20,000) in fine.