This blog was written by one of our RAV Fellows, Morgan Fangman about her coastal experience with sex tourism while serving with our ministry in Nairboi, Kenya for 3 months.
When it comes to sex trafficking, people tend to imagine it as something isolated and secret, something that happen in back rooms and dark alleys. People tend to say that prostitution is a choice, yet we stop short of thinking about how or why those women ended ‘choosing’ that lifestyle. Our thoughts on trafficking don’t extend so far as to think about what the reality of trafficked women actually look like.
As I have learned more and more about sex trafficking and exploitation, it has stopped being something that seemed far off and hidden, and started becoming something that I notice much more frequently than I was fully prepared for.
This past weekend, Emily and I took a trip to the Kenyan coast to celebrate her birthday. We found an Airbnb in an apartment complex that had great reviews, and we were excited to kick back and relax for a few days, after 3 weeks of some spiritually heavy work here with Ubani Trust.
Quickly we realized that this wasn’t going to be the weekend away like we imagined.
We arrived a few hours before our check in time, and spent the morning walking the beach and sitting in the hotel’s restaurant. Almost immediately we started noticing older white men coupled off with young, often very quiet and reserved, Kenyan girls.
I was reminded of the time that I spent in the Thai red light districts. That was the only other place I have experienced such blatant sex tourism and exploitation out in the open. In both instances, I was unprepared for how normal and middle aged most of the men looked.
Sex tourism is ‘the organization of holidays with the purpose of taking advantage of the lack of restrictions imposed on sexual activity and prostitution by some foreign countries’. Sex tourism drives up demand for prostitution in certain areas, which can and often does lead to an increased presence of trafficking to meet those demands.
The danger of learning about sexual exploitation and trafficking is that it is no longer invisible. It’s no longer easy to ignore or explain away as a problem somewhere else. It becomes a here and now problem, with real victims, real faces, and real trauma.
Our getaway wasn’t a getaway at all, because exploitation is happening everywhere. At least when we encounter victims at work, we know that they are receiving support and aid. On vacation, we don’t have resources or access to give these girls. We don’t have the authority or the ability to step into these situations, all we could do was watch, and pray for protection and conviction.
As part of my responsibilities at Ubani, I helped to create a presentation on the state of human trafficking shelters in Kenya, which is being used as part of a larger anti-human trafficking coalition effort to engage government aid and support in combatting this issue. What much of my research amounted to, was the acknowledgement that there are too few shelter to support the number of identified victims annually, and that shelters are not available in all areas of the country, including where we were at the coast.
We watched as these men talked and leaned close, and as the girls laughed and turned away, dropping their smiles and taking on a lifeless expression. The girls that seemed more experienced, carried a dead look in their eyes, the younger girls, fear. Someone recently argued that prostitution is a choice, and for some people, it is, but it cannot be a choice if it is the only option. For women trapped in poverty with no education or job skills, this lifestyle is hardly one of their choosing.
We spent a good portion of our time debating what could be done. In our time working with exploited women, one thing we have realized is that there are unhelpful ways to try and intervene. Confronting these men has the potential of making them angry, which could further expose these women to abuse, which is something that we would never want to do.
The fact is that many women in trafficking and exploitative situations are trapped economically, mentally, and on occasion, physically. If we were to go in and try to remove these girls from this situation, they might not be able to afford food that day, or be able to provide for their families.
This weekend we both walked away with a renewed urgency for the nature of our work. Around the world right now there are so many women and children trapped in dangerous and exploitative situations who feel like they have nowhere to turn. I am thankful that I get to partner with amazing organizations like Raising a Voice and Ubani Trust, who are actively seeking out women in difficult situations to provide physical and economical freedom, as well to share the life changing, earth shattering love of Jesus.