In the Nairobi slum of Korogocho, underage girls as young as 15 are turning to prostitution to eke out a living. But an organization that rescues child prostitutes says it is achieving positive results.
Some 200,000 people live in Korogocho, and most here eke out a living by working in industries nearby.
But for others, the choice is tougher. Susan Muthoni,19, became a prostitute at 16. Her parents died when she was just 10 years old and the relatives who took her in mistreated her. She said she escaped to the streets only to find more despair.
“There’s the harsh weather to contend with -- especially the cold -- plus the money that clients pay is too little," she said. "I have to take care of my body and there are those customers who prefer not to wear condoms. Also, some beat you and refuse to pay. I would like to stop what I’m doing if I get a place where they can advance me some money to start a business.”
Non-governmental organizations say underage prostitution in Korogocho accounts for 40 percent of the area's sex trade, and the young girls are the most vulnerable to sexually-transmitted diseases. Kenya’s Ministry of Health says 12 percent of people living with HIV are children 15 and under.
A group called "The Miss Koch Initiative" is working to change this. It was formed in 2001 to stop the high incidence of rape in the slum.
“Basically it was started to curb the rape cases and to ensure that girls would stand up for their own rights,” said coordinator Rukia Nyambura, who noted that empowering girls is the best way to combat the sexual exploitation.
Through mentoring, she said Miss Koch has successfully helped 15 girls leave the life of prostitution, and these girls now counsel others on how to avoid returning to the streets.
Linda Morgan, 25, is one of the success stories. She said Miss Koch helped her acquire the skills to make money so she could quit prostitution.
“After I have gone through their sessions and their training I was in a position to at least change and be able to communicate to be aggressive and also to be confident in myself and know that after [the] streets there’s something else better to do that you can sustain yourself and have a better livelihood,” she said.
Morgan and the others make handbags, sandals and necklaces, which are sold at exhibitions and trade fairs. They make about $1,000 a month that provides both an income and money to invest in raw materials.
Some of the money also is used for training. They have set up a computer lab and offer courses to slum residents for a small fee.
The Miss Koch Initiative has plans to reach out to even more young women and girls to help them get a new start on a life with hope and dignity.