Kenya is hosting Africa's first-ever conference about the sexual abuse of children, a problem that has become one of the widest-spread and most troubling issues on the continent. Nick Wadhams has the story for VOA from Nairobi.

More than 400 delegates gathered here for the start of the three-day conference, which is meant to help governments and rights groups come up with ideas to fight the sexual abuse of children.

In a speech opening the conference, Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori said society is in a state of moral decay, and that children are increasingly at risk of being sold, or selling themselves, into prostitution. That's a frequent problem in urban areas and along the coast, which are destinations for foreign sex tourists.

Yet Mr. Awori also said that sexual abuse has some roots in traditional practices in Kenya. Some communities encourage children to marry very young despite national laws meant to stop the practice. And studies show that most children are abused by people they know well -- members of their communities or of their own families.

Delegates said that the problem must be tackled by the government first, but that it's the entire community's responsibility to protect children.

"The government has to start by legislation, and apart from the legislation, the society as a whole shall be committed," said Delegate Clement Ostinis, who attended the conference from Liberia. "We need to bring ourselves together to understand that the child of Africa need to be developed and we should not destroy their future. So the society, the family, the government and everybody we must put hands together to make sure that the African child is properly protected."

Recent studies have shown just how prevalent the sexual abuse of children really is across Africa. In Zimbabwe, for example, one study found that half of all rape cases involved children under 15 years old.

In one district in Uganda, meanwhile, one in three schoolgirls and one in six schoolboys reported having been sexually abused, many by teachers.

Ranya Sharawi of Sudan told VOA News that one problem was simply that some African societies do not understand what child abuse is, or how to keep it from happening.

"I think first there should be advocacy for what is child abuse awareness for what is child abuse," said Sharawi. "Second, I think the legislation it is very important, and third I think we should work together, all Africa in the same issue, so that we can raise and we can find solutions."

Some delegates at the conference say child abuse in Africa is linked to poverty. Children sell themselves for sex or move away to live with distant relatives, who abuse them.