Women and girls in Turkana County, northern Kenya, are being exploited in exchange for money to buy food, the International Rescue Committee said today. The IRC is seeing an increase in gender-based violence, early and forced marriage, and women and girls engaging in transactional sex as a direct consequence of food insecurity caused by drought in the region. 2.6 million people are food insecure, and the area has seen a 5-fold increase in food prices, conflict around watering points, loss of livestock, and an increase in malnutrition and infectious diseases.

Clear and alarming indications of harmful coping mechanisms were found during an assessment conducted in late February by the IRC in Turkana County looking at how the ongoing drought has affected local populations. Women reported they were engaging in transactional sex, and girls reported to have been married off at an early age to procure food for their families.

“The IRC’s work with women and girls in northern Kenya has served as a critical lifeline for those who have experienced sexual gender-based violence and others forced to engage in sex work to survive,” said Conor Philips, Kenya country director at the International Rescue Committee. “The current drought has led to a scarcity of food and in increase in women and girls who need support – now more than ever.”

As a result of the drought, girls as young as 12 years old are moving from rural to urban areas to engage in transactional sex. Mostly being solicited in nightclubs, they receive as little as 50 shillings (37p) in exchange for sex.  Many of these young girls report being the head of their household with younger siblings or even children of their own who depend on them for food.

Mary*, a 24-year-old sex worker in Lodwar, has one daughter, three brothers and sisters, and a mother who depend on the money she gets from sex work. “Since I was raped, I entered into prostitution, because I saw that is something that my family depends on,” she told the IRC. “The children are always disturbed, because they are feeling hungry. Some even cry when they come from school and find there is no food. It is not something good, but the need to care for these children is what forces me, because I don’t have anywhere else to run to.”

The IRC is also seeing an increase in sexual gender-based violence and cases of defilement. In one specific case, a six-year-old girl was referred to the IRC’s Wellness Centre in Lodwar after being raped and severely beaten by the man who was hosting her and her family. She could no longer hold in urine due to the incident. Every time she would start to fall asleep, she would yell, “He is here! He is here!” IRC staff helped identify the perpetrator, who is now in jail.

Before IRC programmes lost critical funding in 2016, the IRC worked with the Kenya Ministry of Health to provide care for gender-based violence survivors, psychosocial support, mentorship to adolescent girls, job training to vulnerable women and girls, and education and awareness raising to communities on HIV, gender-based violence, and reproductive health. The IRC was reaching nearly 10,000 people at the time through this programme.

Additionally, the IRC was reaching half of the female sex worker population in the district with targeted HIV prevention and reproductive health services, support groups, psychosocial support, and income generating activities. This programme had seen a number of women and girls leave sex work to go back to school or start their own businesses. Due to funding cuts, IRC had to let go of five full-time staff that were working on these programmes, which had a direct impact on the delivery of much-needed aid.

“The shutdown of IRC programmes is a tragedy for an extremely vulnerable population who depend on us for counseling and mentorship,” said Phillips. “Donors should reinstate funding now, supporting girls to get out of commercial sex work and have better and safer opportunities to feed themselves and their families.”