Like many holiday destinations, East Africa’s pristine shorelines, game reserves, abundant nightlife and cultural attractions are the stuff holiday brochures in the west are made of. Tourism is a major money spinner for many of the world’s poorest countries, but East Africa’s tropical paradise hides a dark, sordid secret: “child sex tourism.”
The rise of this trade is shocking and the speed of its establishment staggering. It can only happen under a culture of deep rooted corruption, poverty and lack of concern for the most vulnerable in society that prevails in East African countries, especially Uganda and Kenya.
“Child sex tourism” has a long history. However, the practice has developed substantially during the last few decades. According to experts, “child sex tourism” involves tourists who deliberately travel to foreign destinations solely for the purpose of engaging in sex with juveniles.
A 65 year old expatriate teacher from the United States of America is facing jail in Ghana after being arrested for abusing several African children by exchanging sexual favours for food. Patrick Ken Larbash is currently in custody whilst officials investigate his child abuse practices. His arrest followed the seizure of video recordings with up to eight Ghanaian children performing oral sex –Felatio– on him at his house in Adjomanikope.
In 2006, Alexander Kilpatrick, a 56 year old father of two, was arrested in Milton Keynes, England, and jailed for 17 counts of sex offences after making several trips to East Africa, masquerading as an NGO worker, when he was actually a paedophile. Kilpatrick made harrowing films of the abuses.
More recently, police in Gulu, in war-torn Northern Uganda, arrested and detained Peter Kets, a Belgian “tourist” for taking and being in possession of pictures of nude little girls from the area whom he lured to his hotel room. In his defence, he claimed he did not know he was committing any crime because the girls in the photographs were his girlfriends!
Whilst some expatriates make permanent bases in Africa as NGO workers, others make frequent visits with the sole purpose of grooming minors by using their comparative wealth to entice, exploit and ultimately abuse vulnerable Africans - often creating films of their abuse to sell and share worldwide with other paedophiles.
The problem is that, East African countries are doing nothing of note to prevent “child sex tourism.” In Kenya for instance, the practice has become part of the daily life along the shores of Mombasa. It is done with the knowledge of the police who always accept bribes –“chai” – to look the other way. African borders and immigration rules towards white foreigners are simply too lax.
In recent years, growing concerns about rising abuses of children has tested the resolve of governments to implement international agreements designed to end the exploitation of children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is already the most widely recognised of any international agreement. Concern over child labour, child prostitution and the civil rights of children are a benchmark by which any nation’s commitment to human rights and democracy can be judged.
But this has achieved very little in places like Northern Uganda, with its army of “lost children” and survivors who continue to face sexual exploitation by those who purport to help them cope. As experiences have shown from DR Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda, respect for children’s rights cannot be guaranteed by goodwill alone.
The pressures of commercial development, cultural diversity and a global economy that give easy access for a rich minority to regions where people are struggling under appalling conditions of war, poverty and exploitation, vulnerable, powerless and voiceless group like children become easy victims as their governments are fixated with attracting foreign investments more than protecting their own citizens.
Tourism is the world’s leading economic sector and all countries compete to lure visitors. The problem is that in many regions of Africa, particularly countries like Kenya and Uganda, sexual exploitation, specifically the exploitation of children is an unpleasant by-product of tourism. Equally the ready acceptance of “NGOs” whose credentials go unchecked is a major contributor.
It is an issue that should involve many players - journalists and media, travel agents and tourism companies, national tourist boards, airlines and travel services, hotels and restaurants and entertainment providers.
The exploitation of human beings in any form, particularly sexual exploitation of children, must never be part of the tourism industry. Any form of child sex tourism, child sexual exploitation, should be robustly combated and perpetrators and those who abet them penalised without concession. Some countries already penalise their nationals for such crimes, even when it is committed abroad.
The author is a human rights advocate