Employees in Kenya's tourism industry, police and government officials attended training sessions recently on how to work together to protect Kenyan children from being sexually exploited by foreign tourists and locals - particularly along the coast. The sessions highlighted obstacles to fighting the vice and a commitment by the hotel industry and others to stamp out the practice.
Not far from the sun, sea, and sand of Kenya's exotic coastline are pockets of poverty so deep that Kenyan children are being sold, or are selling themselves, to tourists looking for sex.
Most of these children are girls between the ages of nine and 14 years. But chief of child protection for the United Nations Children's Fund in Kenya Joanne Dunn says there are some shocking exceptions.
"UNICEF staff have met mothers who prostitute their two-year-old children and have actually said that the two-year-old child makes more money than she does. So in survival terms, it makes more sense to prostitute the child than herself," she said.
Ms. Dunn says conditions in Kenya fuel child prostitution, with almost 60 percent of Kenyans living below the poverty line; 1.8 million children orphaned by AIDS; and 10,000 children becoming newly orphaned every month.
According to official Kenyan statistics, some 30,000 women and girls in the East African nation are involved in prostitution of some kind. Ms Dunn calls this a "vast underestimation," especially at the coast.
Ms. Dunn says it is difficult to know exactly how many Kenyan children are being sexually abused by foreign and local tourists, but that sexual abuse of Kenyan children, in general, is a widespread and rampant problem.
At Kenya's coast, child sexual exploitation has become an underground economic activity that extends beyond what children earn.
Officials say tourists pay taxi drivers or tour operators to find children for them. Children pass along a cut of their wages to security guards and other hotel staff to look the other way. And, if offending tourists are caught and jailed, they often can bribe their way out of trouble or get off lightly.
If child sexual exploitation cases actually make it to court, there is the problem of evidence.
The children's officer for Kwale District, Stephen Gitau, says his office receives many complaints, but most witnesses are unwilling to come forward, which has resulted in some acquittals.
"I suppose people have the mentality of follow-up, because you know when you report a case you have to record a statement, [after] recording a statement you have to attend the courts," he said. "I think people are not ready to follow that kind of a tedious procedure. So, if people will accept to come out in the open and record a statement and be ready to stand before court, we'll have many convictions I'm sure."
Weak Kenyan legislation is probably the biggest impediment to justly punishing those found guilty of child sexual exploitation.
Parliament recently passed a motion to make rape a life sentence, under the Criminal Code. But, under the Children's Act, sexual abuse against children is given a maximum one-year jail term or a fine of around $700.
UNICEF's Ms. Dunn says this weak legislation and other factors actually motivate child sex offenders to come to Kenya.
"The primary motivation seems to be that they won't get caught. That's why there's been a shift away from places like Thailand," she said. "In Thailand they have really started cracking down, the strong legislation, the strong enforcement. In Kenya, there isn't. Kenya started turning up in pedophile websites, so there's that kind of sharing of information, as somewhere to go. It's poor, so kids will be much more freely available. The enforcement mechanisms across the board here are much lower obviously than they would be in places like Europe or the [United] States."
And, that has Kenya's hoteliers very worried.
Mohammed Hersi, the general manager of Sarova-Whitesands Hotel and chairman of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers' coast region, explains that his association and its member hotels are on the verge of signing a code of conduct to fight sexual exploitation of children in hotels and beyond, and that the association will monitor, de-register and call the police on association members who go against the code.
He describes some of the measures his hotel and others take to watch out for the presence of Kenyan children, who are usually picked up in neighborhood bars or other places outside of the hotel.
"Many of these exploiters are normally booked on single occupancy," he said. "They go out there and then come in with a partner. We have security placed in all strategic locations in the hotel. Our security guys know which room is double occupancy and they know which room is single occupancy. The best people who can actually blow the whistle are the guys on the ground: they are the room stewards; that waiter in the restaurant; that waiter around the pool; these are the people who say, I'm suspecting so and so."
Mr. Hersi says that if guests are caught smuggling in suspected minors who do not produce adult identity cards, then the guests are told to leave, the children are usually apprehended, and guests could be arrested. He says the problem occurs most in lower-end hotels and villas.
He says hoteliers, tour operators, taxi drivers, police, government officers, UNICEF, and others have been working closely during last week's training sessions and earlier this year to come up with measures to protect children against sexual exploitation.
There are international efforts to crack down on the vice. Christine Beddoe, director of the British office of the international lobby End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, explains.
"Many, many countries around the world now have extraterritorial legislation to prosecute sex offenders, even if the crime is committed when they're away from home," she said. "What I'd just like to encourage those destinations like Kenya is, don't think you're on your own, because there's a willing and able group of countries all around the world who can work towards supporting investigations [and] prosecutions internationally."
Ms. Beddoe urges Kenyan police to pass along the details of suspected child sex offenders to their counterparts in countries where the offenders live, for follow-up.