Society has been known to have reliable support mechanisms and norms that govern day to day life. However, a few exceptions put this assumption to the test.
In Kwale County, for example, the community’s culture tends to push children to commercial sex and child trafficking, bringing to the fore negative social and cultural norms used to deny girls opportunities to education.
This minimises the girl’s chances for economic empowerment and exposes them to gender-based violence at workplaces and at the home setting.
In the case of Kwale, cultural practices and beliefs have influenced parents to discourage any further education of girls. Instead, they opt to marry them off in exchange for livestock and cash.
In a survey carried out by the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) in 2017, out of 200 people interviewed (180 men, women and girls and 20 key informants), it was confirmed that there were social norms that made girls vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation.
Belief in curses
Girls reaching puberty are considered a source of wealth through marriage to older men. Dowry paid in the form of cash or livestock is regarded as more valuable than spending money paying school fees for the girls.
In Kwale, it is widely seen to be of greater benefit to educate boys more than girls. Sadly, girls who are out of school are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation since they easily fall prey to people who take advantage of their economic situation.
The belief that there are inherent curses passed down to children from families where commercial sex is practiced has not helped the situation. Most parents in Kwale felt that it was okay for girls to be engaged in commercial sex as long as they brought some money home.
As part of social life in the South Coast, it emerged that weddings are highly regarded among the communities in Kwale.
The wedding ceremonies, on average, run for one week, during which time young boys and girls spend much time out of school to attend the ceremonies.
At the night parties, young girls are lured into sex in exchange for new clothes, perfumes, makeup and body lotions.
Worse still, they are the most likely of events where girls are prone to sexual exploitation, even as some of them perform erotic dances for pay to entertain guests.
Given the touristic nature of the coastal county, commercial sex work is a highly prevalent practice. Most girls and young women will frequent the discos with the aim of getting male clients with who they engage in commercial sex.
The survey noted that cases of exploitation and gender-based violence would sometimes reach the desks of law enforcement agencies, but cultural practices would compromise delivery of justice.
Parents or families of victims would go for informal justice. Up to 60 per cent of the respondents preferred informal/traditional justice system, 30 per cent preferred formal justice systems while 10 per cent was unaccounted for. This is because traditional justice system is easily accessible. It is also perceived to deliver justice and the process does not take long.
The danger here lies in the informal courts taking the responsibility of resolving criminal cases, which is not their mandate.
Whereas culture can be a repository of values and norms that hold society together, it is evident that some cultural and social practices can contribute to negative impact on society.
Social norms not-withstanding, strict measures like prosecuting parents who neglect their parental duties and responsibilities should be taken, while local administrations need to ensure attendance of traditional ceremonies is not detrimental to the young girls.
Therefore, there is an urgent case for awareness on the impact of cultural and social norms on children’s rights and the harm associated with some of the traditional practices to children and parents not just in Kwale County but in other communities in Kenya.
It is evident that for sustainable outcomes, there is a need for continuous engagement with community members, specifically the custodians of culture, to change their attitude towards involvement of their children in commercial sex exploitation, which exposes them to gender based violence.
Ms Muoki is the country manager-Kenya, Terre de Hommes Netherlands.
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