Teen prostitution on the rise in Kenya after election crisis

This time last year, Janet Kimani spent her days at school and her nights fighting with her little brothers over what to watch on the family's flickering TV set.

Now, she sleeps all day and sells her skinny, 14-year-old body at night for US$3 an hour.

"There are so many of us girls on the streets these days," Janet, dressed in a black miniskirt and white blouse, told The Associated Press in Eldoret, a western Kenya town that was a flashpoint of this year's deadly postelection crisis.

Prostitution and sexual exploitation are on the rise in the wake of the violence, which killed more than 1,000 people, eviscerated the economy and forced tens of thousands of children to leave school, doctors and human rights groups say.

Although no firm figures are yet available, medical experts say they fear the increase in young prostitutes - known here as "twilight girls" - will undermine the country's recent gains in the fight against AIDS.

"With time, we'll start feeling the impact of this conflict on HIV and AIDS," said Teresa Omondi, head of the Gender Violence Recovery Center at Nairobi Women's Hospital.

A report this month by gender-violence center sounded the alarm, saying "there is already great fear that the gains made to reduce the prevalence of HIV in Kenya would be lost." Kenya's National AIDS Control Council also has launched a study into the effects of the violence, when gang rapes and other sexual crimes were reported.

Several young prostitutes interviewed by the AP said they were having sex without condoms to gain customers now that so many more girls are on the streets.

"We use condoms most of the time," said Milka Muthoni, 17, who was nearly finished with secondary school when she dropped out this year. "I know it's a risky business. At times I have gone to the hospital with injuries and venereal diseases. But I have no other options."

Milka, who also lives in Eldoret, said her parents kicked her out when they learned she was a prostitute.

But now, she says, "I have been shopping for them so they no longer ask me where I get the money from."

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.

The bloodshed following Kenya's disputed presidential vote on Dec. 27 marked some of the darkest times since Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963. Much of the fighting degenerated into riots and ethnic fighting that exposed deep divisions over land and economic inequality.

A power-sharing deal between President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who was named to the new post of prime minister under the deal, ended much of the killing six months ago. But Kenya lost up to $1 billion because of the turmoil, a long-term blight even as the economy improves and foreign tourists hit the country's famous Indian Ocean beaches again.

Meanwhile, thousands of Kenyans remain displaced from their homes after fleeing communities that turned on them. Untold numbers of children have not returned to class or have dropped out because they cannot afford school fees after their parents were killed or lost their jobs.

Musau Ndunda, chairman of the Kenya National Association of Parents, said 40,000 secondary school students were out of school in February, the last figures available. He believes many remain out of school or simply dropped out again.

For Janet, returning to Kiambaa Primary School was not an option - it burned to the ground in the violence.

She had been living in Eldoret's vast displacement camp for a month when she noticed that her friend, Nyambura, always had food and neat clothes, even though she was living in the camp, too. Nyambura confided that she had been selling herself - and invited Janet along to the pub the next night.

"I was reluctant but Nyambura convinced me that the men would pay us," Janet said. "I had never even had alcohol before, but I was desperate for money so I followed my friend."

She was paid 1,000 Kenya shillings - about US$18 - and used the money to buy food for her parents and six siblings back at the camp. Now, she tells her family she has a job in town, but they don't ask her specifics.

"My parents were poor even before the violence, they could not afford everything we needed," she said. "Now that I'm on the streets, on good days, I get up to 2,000 Kenya shilling (nearly US$40) after sleeping with five or six men."

She has no hope of returning to school. Her parents remain out of work, and Janet's contributions are vital to her family's survival.

"At first, this job was torture to me," Kimani said. "Sleeping with these men is terrible, and sometimes they are rough and hurt me. But with time, I have gotten used to it."

Prostitution has long been a problem in Kenya, particularly on the tourist-friendly coast.

Agnetta Mirikau, a child protection specialist with UNICEF Kenya, said the increase is particularly noticeable now in towns where the violence was the worst, such as Eldoret, Naivasha and Nakuru. Eldoret was the site of one of the most horrific attacks after the election, when a mob torched a church filled with people seeking shelter, killing dozens.

"Adults are now preying on these kids," Mirikau said. "People have no income, children have been displaced and they want to help supplement their parents' income. If there is no food to eat and they're responsible for their siblings they go out and make money for food."

Eldoret Mayor Sammy Rutto recently ordered police to crack down on prostitution after hearing girls as young as 12 were spotted in bars.

"This is a business we cannot allow," he said. "They have to find alternative means of survival. "This prostitution will definitely lead to an increase in the spread of AIDS, and many parents will lose their children."

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