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Sexual exploitation occurs on a continuum that includes many forms of coercion and predatory actions including trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, commercial sexual exploitation, survival sex, etc. It is rooted in sex and gender inequality and discrimination and constitutes gender-based violence. Traffickers use coercion and physical and psychological violence to manipulate and control vulnerable women and girls. 

According to a UNODC report, sex trafficking is the most rampant form of human trafficking amounting to 79% with sexual exploitation being predominantly among women and girls.

While women and girls can be trafficked between countries or even across continents, trafficking also takes place within countries, and Africa is no exception. Equality Now’s work to end sexual exploitation in Africa is currently focused in Kenya and Malawi.

Trafficking and sexual exploitation in Kenya

In Kenya, trafficking in persons is prevalent with the most common forms being trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and forced labor. Vulnerability to trafficking could be exacerbated due to a variety of factors including; vulnerabilities associated with child-headed households, poverty, drug abuse, limited education, and harmful cultural practices. 

Sexual exploitation is prevalent in international and local travel and tourism, an impacts  young women and girls in particular who are trafficked to and within the coastal region. Nairobi is the main destination for rural to urban trafficking within Kenya and neighboring countries, as well as a major transit hub for trafficking to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. 

Kenya has a robust legal framework which includes the Constitution of Kenya (2010),  the Counter Trafficking in Persons Act (2010) and the Sexual Offences Act (2006). The Counter Trafficking in Persons Act prescribes a jail term of not less than thirty years imprisonment or a fine of not less than thirty million (KSH) or both and upon conviction, to imprisonment for life. However, conviction rates for trafficking for sexual exploitation remain low amid challenges such as underreporting and few prosecutions.

Trafficking and sexual exploitation in Malawi

Malawi is a source, destination, and transit country for trafficking. Women and girls are often trafficked within Southern Africa, and to Europe, and the Middle East. Malawi is also a  destination country for women and girls trafficked from other parts of Africa. Traffickers often lure women and girls from their families under the pretense of prospects of job opportunities, education, or marriage. Sexually exploited girls and women may be put to work as “bar girls” at local bars and rest houses and then coerced to have sex with customers.

Trafficking in Malawi manifests in various forms including exploitation through child marriage, exploitation of children in the agricultural and tourism sectors, and domestic work. In Malawi, poverty in many communities increases vulnerabilities to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Women and girls are also trafficked along major transport routes by truck drivers who falsely promise them schooling, marriage, and jobs in South Africa, which is a final destination but also a transit point for trafficking to Europe. Such criminal activity generates high profits and comes with a low risk of being prosecuted because of its clandestine nature and it is often underreported.

Malawi enacted its Trafficking in Persons Act, 2015 to make provision for the prevention and elimination of trafficking in persons, and prescribes punishment of up to 14 years imprisonment for offenses involving an adult and up to 21 years imprisonment for those involving a child. However, very few perpetrators are held accountable – many cases are not properly reported, investigated, and prosecuted.

Online sexual exploitation and abuse in Africa

The online space has become a new frontier for sexual exploitation which is growing at an alarming rate globally including in Africa, especially because of its multi-jurisdictional nature and limited regulation of the digital space. Camera-ready technology and increased access to the internet have made it easier for sex predators to groom, recruit and sexually exploit with limited fear of prosecution. Traffickers are using social media platforms to lure women and girls.

Learn more about online sexual exploitation and abuse in our report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards

Regional and International laws covering sexual exploitation in Africa

Both Kenya and Malawi are party to several regional and international human rights instruments which call on all State Parties to put in place appropriate measures to protect women and girls from all forms of violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation and trafficking. These include: 

  • The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
  • The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
  • The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa
  • The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child 
  • The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

How does Equality Now work towards ending sexual exploitation in Kenya and Malawi?

In Kenya and Malawi, we are:

  • Working with grassroots organizations to ensure that sexual exploitation of women and girls in its various forms including sex trafficking is identified and appropriately addressed.
  • Advocating for the adoption of strong legislation and policy directives for protection and victim services.
  • Advocating for the implementation of the law and policy framework alongside the adoption of relevant regional and international norms and standards within that framework.
  • Highlighting the gaps that exist in the referral pathways and justice system and advocating for the ecosystems approach for ending sexual exploitation in its various forms.
  • Engaging in conversations with stakeholders at international, regional and national level to raise awareness on sexual exploitation in its various manifestations.

What progress has been made?

Equality Now in collaboration with its partner Trace Kenya was involved in a case which involved the trafficking of 12 Nepalese women and girls by a prominent businessman who holds Canadian and UK passports. They had been brought into Kenya to work as dancers but were later arrested by the police as part of their investigation into trafficking and sexual exploitation. The police later recognized the women and girls as victims of sexual exploitation. On November 26, 2021, the court delivered a landmark ruling sentencing the trafficker to 60 years imprisonment.

Equality Now also actively participated in the Generation Equality Forum where it convened a working group on sex trafficking and economic crimes in Kenya, discussing the linkages between gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. The working group developed key recommendations that were shared with Kenya’s State Department of Gender. Many of the key recommendations are reflected in the commitments adopted by the Government of Kenya.

In Malawi, Equality Now in collaboration with its partner People Serving Girls at Risk successfully lobbied for the inclusion of recommendations on sex trafficking as part of the 3rd cycle of the UPR Process where Malawi was under review. Some of those recommendations such as the need to address gender inequality, discrimination and poverty, and prioritize prosecution of sex trafficking cases were accepted by the Government of Malawi and there are current efforts at a national level to disseminate these recommendations for effective implementation.