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'Twilight Girls' emerge from Kenya's dark side

/ Source: The Associated Press

This time last year, Janet Kimani spent her days at school and her nights fighting with her little brothers over what to watch on the family's flickering TV set.

Now, she sleeps all day and sells her skinny, 14-year-old body at night for $3 an hour.

"There are so many of us girls on the streets these days," Janet, dressed in a black miniskirt and white blouse, told The Associated Press in Eldoret, a western Kenya town that was a flashpoint of this year's postelection crisis.

Prostitution and sexual exploitation are on the rise in the wake of the violence, which killed more than 1,000 people, eviscerated the economy and forced tens of thousands of children to leave school, doctors and human rights groups say.

Although no firm figures are available, medical experts say they fear the increase in young prostitutes — known here as "twilight girls" — will undermine gains in the fight against AIDS.

"With time, we'll start feeling the impact of this conflict on HIV and AIDS," said Teresa Omondi, head of the Gender Violence Recovery Center at Nairobi Women's Hospital.

A recent report by gender-violence center sounded the alarm.

"There is already great fear that the gains made to reduce the prevalence of HIV in Kenya would be lost," it said.

Studies under way
Kenya's National AIDS Control Council also has launched a study into the effects of sexual violence such as gang rapes.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.

Several young prostitutes interviewed by the AP said they were having sex without condoms to attract customers now that so many more girls are on the streets.

"We use condoms most of the time," said Milka Muthoni, 17, who dropped out of school this year. "I know it's a risky business. At times I have gone to the hospital with injuries and venereal diseases. But I have no other options."

Milka, who also lives in Eldoret, said her parents kicked her out when they learned she was a prostitute. But now, she says, "I have been shopping for them so they no longer ask me where I get the money from."

Kenya's darkest hours
The bloodshed following the disputed presidential vote Dec. 27 marked some of the darkest times since Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963. The rioting and ethnic clashes exposed deep divisions over land and economic inequality.

A power-sharing deal six months ago between President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who was named prime minister under the agreement, ended much of the killing. But Kenya lost up to $1 billion because of the turmoil and thousands remain displaced.

Untold numbers of children have not returned to class or have dropped out because they cannot afford school fees after their parents were killed or lost jobs.

'Job was torture'
For Janet, returning to school was not an option — it burned to the ground in the violence.

She had been living in Eldoret's displacement camp for a month when she noticed that her friend, Nyambura, always had food and neat clothes. Nyambura confided that she had been selling herself — and invited Janet along to the pub.

"I was reluctant but Nyambura convinced me that the men would pay us," Janet said. "I had never even had alcohol before, but I was desperate for money so I followed my friend."

She was paid about $18 and used the money to buy food for her parents and six siblings. She tells her family she has a job in town and they don't ask her specifics.

"My parents were poor even before the violence," she said. "Now that I'm on the streets, on good days, I get up to 2,000 Kenya shilling ($40) after sleeping with five or six men."

She has no hope of returning to school. Her parents are out of work, and Janet's contributions are vital to her family.

"At first, this job was torture to me," she said. "Sleeping with these men is terrible, and sometimes they are rough and hurt me. But with time, I have gotten used to it."

Preying on children
Prostitution has long been a problem in Kenya, particularly on the tourist friendly coast.

Agnetta Mirikau, a child protection specialist with UNICEF Kenya, said the increase is particularly noticeable in towns where the violence was the worst, such as Eldoret, Naivasha and Nakuru. Eldoret was the site of a horrific attack after the election, when a mob torched a church filled with people, killing dozens.

"Adults are now preying on these kids," Mirikau said. "People have no income, children have been displaced and they want to help supplement their parents' income. If there is no food to eat and they're responsible for their siblings they go out and make money for food."

Eldoret Mayor Sammy Rutto recently ordered police to crack down on prostitution after hearing girls as young as 12 were spotted in bars.

"This is a business we cannot allow," he said. "This prostitution will definitely lead to an increase in the spread of AIDS, and many parents will lose their children."