One woman's battle to help Kenyan girls who trade sex for food

Brittanie Richardson is one of a growing number of activists running grass-roots campaigns to stop children in the slums from entering the sex trade.

Courtesy of Maria Caspani/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Brittanie Richardson (left) is seen at a fundraiser for her organization "Art and Abolition" in Brooklyn, New York, in October. She is campaigning against the child sex trade in Kenya.

The alcohol lining the 12-year-old Kenyan girl's stomach did nothing to quell her hunger pangs.

So when one of her mother's drunken customers, in the one-room drinking den that doubles as their home in Nairobi, offered her a boiled egg in exchange for sex, she agreed.

Brittanie Richardson, a 27-year-old American campaigning against the child sex trade in Kenya, witnessed the act during a routine visit to meet the family and felt powerless to act.

"The room was full of people: men, women, the mum is there, the sister. It was one of those things where you felt you should try and be the knight in shining armor and just grab the kid," Richardson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"But I kept reminding myself, I could snatch this kid right now and then be this enemy in this community or I can sit and make relationships. It just broke my heart that rape had become so normalized.

"When she finished, she just sat and ate her egg with a blank stare."

In Nairobi's overcrowded slums, hungry children often trade their bodies for a few coins or food. The city of about 3.1 million people is home to 2 million slum dwellers, and the Kenyan capital's slum population is growing by 6 percent a year.

Kenya has up to 30,000 child sex workers, according to the United Nations children's fund, mainly along its palm-fringed tourist beaches, with child prostitution widely acknowledged as a problem that needs to be tackled by stronger law enforcement and by giving the youngsters a way out.

Richardson, from Atlanta, Georgia, had no idea of the extent of the problem in Kenya until she started traveling regularly to Africa while at college, initially to South Africa to help fight social injustices and then to Mozambique.

A meeting with a Canadian woman in Mozambique who needed help to set up a rescue home for children caught up in the sex industry led Richardson to the Kenyan town of Mtwapa, a notorious red-light district on the coast.

"It was a time of being heartbroken and shocked. Seeing a 15-year-old, much less an 8-year-old, telling me that she has to have sex to eat was completely shocking," Richardson said.

"I hated it. I couldn't speak the language. I had never been a parent. We had these kids in the house that we were supposed to take care of ... They are traumatized, they can't sleep, I can't sleep."

Richardson found herself becoming one of a growing number of activists running grass-roots campaigns to stop grinding poverty from sending children from the slums into the sex trade.

She would sneak into brothels, strip clubs, and alleys, sometimes posing as a prostitute, to lure girls away, an experience she described as "terrifying."

But after two years of running the Mtwapa rescue center, Richardson wanted to do more to help and in April this year set up the charity Art and Abolition, which aims to help "sex slaves" through the performing arts, therapy, and education.

Assisted by a local social worker, Richardson selected 10 girls aged between eight and 16, who were living in the slum of Sinai to take part in her program. Sinai is one of about 200 slum settlements in the city.

"All 10 of them have either been raped or been forced by poverty or their parents to have sex for money," said Richardson, who has dreadlocks, a broad smile, and the word "Love" tattooed inside her left arm.

Richardson said her commitment to her work stemmed from personal experience as she was sexually abused as a child by a close family member but everyone tried to ignore it.

She credits the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, a theater company founded by a jazz trumpeter, for saving her.

"I saw what the arts and genuine love did for me as a survivor, and I wanted to do it for more girls," said Richardson.

"It built up so much self confidence in me. It was just a really free space, full of a love that none of us had ever had before, and so it really just changed my life."

Art and Abolition ran its first camp in August – a week of music, dance, drama, and visual arts – culminating in a performance. A two-week camp is planned for December.

But her work comes at a cost, and Richardson has managed to garner the support of a dozen artists and activists in New York, who are holding fundraisers for Art and Abolition this month.

They include U.S. model Cameron Russell – who gave a notorious TED talk called "Looks aren't everything" where she changed from a black micro dress into a long floral skirt to show the power that image has over our lives – and Morley, a New York singer-songwriter who has performed with Sheryl Crow.

Richardson said it was heartbreaking that in Sinai's fetid alleys, most of the girls' mothers were alcoholic sex workers. Some knowingly sent their daughters out to sell their bodies while others forced them into situations where they were raped.

The youngest girls in her program are sisters, aged eight and 10, whose mother made them sell peanuts in a local nightclub. Both of the girls were raped.

Their mother was in denial until Richardson took the children for medical examinations and confronted her, making her come to terms with what she was doing to her daughters.

Richardson said she no longer judged women who sold their children after her work in Kenya.

"After I hear their stories, and I get to know these women, I realize that they really are not different to us at all. I probably would have done it too," she said.

(Reporting by Katy Migiro, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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