Many pupils, victims of Aids and poverty, are leaving school to work in the sex trade, reports Wachira Kigotho.
Researchers have discovered that hundreds of children are working as prostitutes in two towns in Kenya and Tanzania. They say it reflects the impact of poverty combined with the spread of Aids.
According to Belgium-based Educational International Barometer, more than 300 boys and girls have become sex workers in Kisumu on Lake Victoria in Kenya. And reports from Tanzania say that Mwanza, also a lake town, has become a sex-trade magnet for teenage school-drop-outs and those who have escaped from refugee camps.
Poverty and the break-down of family ties are forcing children into prostitution, according to Dr Anne Allen of the Cardiff University of Wales College of Medicine, and Dr Tom Mboya, an Aids researcher in Kenya.
Estimates by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation indicate there are 350,000 Aids orphans in Kenya, 520,000 in Tanzania and 110,000 in Uganda. And many more children are likely to become homeless in the next few years as their parents die of Aids.
"Primary-age children are a familiar sight in bars, hotels and night clubs in Mwanza," says Noorjehan Mbakile, a social worker for a joint Dutch-Tanzanian project called Aids Tanesa.
Child prostitution is also rife in other parts of the lake area - in Geita and some of the islands. According to a Tanesa report: "Many drop-outs and other young women with no formal education have gone to mining sites and fishing islands for easy and quick money." Tanesa has launched a mobile boat clinic to ply the lakeside villages and the islands in an attempt to control the spread of Aids. Its social workers claim that one in ten adults in Mwanza town is HIV-positive.
In Nairobi, estimates put the number of street children at 60,000 and rising. "Most of those children are victims of poverty and broken homes and are involved in child labour and prostitution," says Mary Killen of the Sisters of Mercy, who works with slum children.
A UN report on Kenya says early sexual activity is leading to higher HIVAids infection in adolescents. More schoolgirls are dropping out , with teenage pregnancy accounting for 80 per cent of drop-outs. The figure is higher in Tanzania.