Kenya’s pledge to end gender-based violence must prioritize sex trafficking

By Yvonne Oyieke, Equality Now

Today marks the ninth annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a day designated by the United Nations in 2013 to raise awareness about the impact and scale of human trafficking around the globe. In Kenya, there have been positive advances in preventing trafficking and providing appropriate support to survivors. However, there are still considerable gaps, especially when it comes to trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation.

The Government of Kenya recently affirmed its commitment to fighting gender-based violence through its position as a co-leader on the Generation Equality Forum (GEF) Coalition on Gender Based Violence. Convened by UN Women, the Forum culminated in a global gathering in Paris climaxing with the launch of a 5-year plan containing a series of concrete actions to advance gender equality, underpinned by $40 billion in financial pledges.

Part of the GEF commitments outlined in Kenya’s Roadmap for Advancing Gender Equality is a plan to “end all forms of gender-based violence and female genital mutilation by 2026”, and this includes concrete actions in relation to financing; leadership and accountability; laws and policies; data; and service delivery.

Gender-based violence takes many forms, including domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. However one prevalent manifestation not often spoken about is sex trafficking. Due to its clandestine and criminal nature, cases frequently go undetected or unreported and it is a crime often neglected in national and global discourse.

Sex trafficking is however, extremely prevalent and on the increase. Women and girls make up the vast majority of victims, with sexual exploitation deeply rooted in gender and sex-based inequality and discrimination.

Kenya has a robust legal framework with targeted laws and policies designed to protect women and girls from sex trafficking. However a series of challenges render this framework ineffective in providing protection and survivors rarely receive the access to justice and support they deserve and are entitled to.

Through a series of GEF convenings bringing together Civil Society Organisations in Kenya, including a Working Group to End Sex Trafficking and Economic Crimes, a general lack of knowledge around sex trafficking was revealed, including about what legal and policy provisions are in place and what duties rest with various actors to address the issue.

This lack of knowledge has a spiral effect, fueling poor implementation of laws and policies, which causes a failure to identify and address gaps and shortcomings in legal frameworks and application. An example of how this manifests can be seen in Kenya’s travel and tourism industry, where commercial sexual exploitation is extremely prevalent but is only generally treated as a crime of concern when a child is involved.

There is also a lack of sufficient, relevant data on sex trafficking which makes it harder to measure and track the scale of the problem and develop effective responses. As a consequence, social protection mechanisms currently in place are inadequate when it comes to preventing or addressing the vulnerabilities that expose women and girls to trafficking for sexual exploitation in the first place.

Perhaps the most resounding repercussion of this resides in the lack of accountability benefiting perpetrators of sex trafficking, evidenced by the inordinate delays in securing convictions in sex trafficking cases. Challenges include problems with locating victims, collecting evidence, laying appropriate charges, and prolonged trials. All this can lead to weak prosecutions resulting in lesser sentences for perpetrators or the collapse of cases leaving offenders unpunished.

There is a general lack of support for survivor/victims of sex trafficking, including a porous witness protection system that does not secure their safety. This further hinders victim/survivors access to justice as there is a hesitation to interact with a system that does not ensure their physical and emotional wellbeing and can put them at risk of further harm, such as from reprisals by criminals, and traumatization within the criminal justice system where court cases can drag on for years.

The GEF provides an important platform to hold the Kenyan government accountable on its commitment to end “all forms of gender-based violence” by 2026. This must include a focus on human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation, as a particularly prevalent human rights violation which requires the necessary resources invested to address the root causes and ensure justice is served. If the government’s pledge is actually honoured, this has the potential to positively impact women and girls across Kenya.

Highlighting sex trafficking would foster better understanding and engagement with the problem and improve responses. Alongside enhanced visibility, there should be greater efforts to gather data on the prevalence and nature of sex trafficking. This requires close cooperation amongst key stakeholders including the police, prosecutors, community leaders and civil society organisations, helping all to stay abreast of emerging trends, coordinate responses, and adjust approaches as required.

All this must happen in tandem with government action based upon developing and implementing impactful policies that are adequately funded, including through the National Assistance Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons which has responsibility for compensating victims and prosecuting perpetrators, amongst others.

The government and its designated institutions need to show leadership and be accountable for preventing sex trafficking, and when violations have occurred, they must ensure survivors receive protection and access to justice. Adequate support services are required, including the provision of suitable shelters, specialized healthcare and legal support. Moreover, laws and policies relating to sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking must be well implemented, and where found wanting, must be adequately enhanced to ensure maximum protection.

The bottom line is that Kenya’s government must not pay mere lip service to its GEF commitments. Every day, women and girls are being harmed and many more are at risk. The time to start acting is now.

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