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Life can be cruel for girls growing up on Kenya's Swahili Coast. Some families agree to marry off their young daughters for money, while others encourage them to become child prostitutes for tourists. The girls drop out of school, get pregnant and miss childhood entirely.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, a coalition of educators and religious and traditional leaders is now trying to break that cycle.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Thirteen teenaged girls, all with babies on their laps, are gathered around a table in the town hall of Msabaha village, not far from the renowned beach resort of Malindi.

Dhahabu Lazima is 17 years old. She was 13 when her father ordered her to marry.

DHAHABU LAZIMA: (Through Translator) I was in Class Four then, when he married me off. And I was very angry with my father for using me as a tool to get money, in a marriage that I really suffered. I tried talking to him before I went to the husband's place. I told him, Father, I want to go through education, I want to learn, but he wouldn't listen to me. He told me, if you don't go, I will curse you. So that is what I feared and I had to get married. I feared getting cursed by my father.

BURNETT: Across the table, an 18-year-old Janet Reheme wears a T-shirt that reads Sweet Baby. Her infant son is transfixed by a microphone.

JANET REHEME: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: She says her family had no income and they needed to pay school fees for her siblings. She was 15 when her mother sold her to an abusive 28-year-old man to be his wife.

REHEME: (Through Translator) When I dropped out of school, she married me off. She did not get a lot of money. She just got 2,000 Kenya shillings and two goats.

BURNETT: Two thousand shillings is about $24.

In many places in the developing world, where tribal tradition runs deep, as soon as a daughter reaches puberty she's ready for marriage. But along Kenya's Swahili Coast, where the warm Indian Ocean greets the continent's powder-white beaches, poverty has perverted tradition. Tourism has also distorted childhood here. In addition to forced early marriage, some families encourage underage girls to sell their bodies to male tourists to earn money. The arrangement is what a girl calls mzungu wangu; in Swahili, my white foreigner.

On the coast, brokers for sex tourism are called beach boys, because that's where you find them. At a local tavern, a woman in a tight T-shirt chats with a beach boy nicknamed Rasta to see if he has any clients for her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

RASTA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Rasta laughs easily and tucks his dreadlocks under his marijuana-leaf hat. He has agreed to discuss his trade.

RASTA: Most of the tourists, all, most of the people who like sex, like the teenagers, the young ladies.

BURNETT: He says most of the tourists like teenaged girls. An Italian client of his always request young girls, he says, and offers to pay more for them. But Rasta insists he has two daughters himself, and he will not procure underage prostitutes for tourists. He sends them to other beach boys who will.

RASTA: May be I have to send him to somebody else.

BURNETT: Within the Giriama ethnic group on Kenya's coast, pushing young girls into early marriage or sexual activity is often passed off as merely the tradition of an underdeveloped, uneducated people.

A project spearheaded by the humanitarian organization Catholic Relief Services is trying to change that notion. Giriama elders, or Kayas, have been enlisted in an interfaith council that seeks to reach people and inform them that it is illegal for girls under 17 to marry and that violators can go to prison.

John Baya Mitsanze dresses in blue and white scarves that signify he is a Giriama traditional leader.

JOHN BAYA MITSANZE: It's a big problem, a serious problem, especially when you have young girls getting pregnant while in school. Poverty is actually the driving force. Our cultural values have been seriously eroded.

BURNETT: UNICEF studied sexual exploitation of children in Malindi and listed several reasons why the crimes go unreported - cultural acceptance, a complicated verification process for sex crimes against minors, and rampant corruption among police who demand bribes to take action.

Naomi Kazungu is manager of the Malindi Child Protection Center, which was opened by the government three years ago to try and curb early marriage.

NAOMI KAZUNGU: It's like when you have a case and the case is supposed to be taken to court and it's for a child, like it's an early marriage case, nobody can give you money.

BURNETT: You're saying there's no one to pay off the police to pursue the case.

KAZUNGU: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that is the challenge.

BURNETT: Kazungu says she has referred 13 such cases to the police, but they've made no arrests.

Local leaders are so concerned that Malindi is gaining a worldwide reputation for sex tourism that the local marine association is launching a campaign against child sex exploitation. Steve Trott is the chairman.

STEVE TROTT: What we are seeing is certain tourists coming from, mostly from Europe, coming here for the sun, sex and sand experience. And again, that's something we need to stop it in its tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

BURNETT: If there's a hero in this story, it is Esther Kutto, principal of Dabaso Primary School in the beach resort of Watamu. Her teachers act like social workers. If they notice a girl has dropped out of school, they go looking for her. And if they find that the girl has been married off or sold to a white foreigner, they notify the police. Like the Kaya elders, Kutto educates her students' parents that early marriage is wrong.

ESTHER KUTTO: They did not know even what the rights of the children were. But now that we are teaching the children of their rights, they also in turn go to teach their parents about their rights. In fact, one of the basic rights of the young children is education.

BURNETT: Kutto says underage pregnancies at her school have dropped from 29 in 2009 to five so far this year. So passionate is the principal about saving girls from early marriage that, two years ago, she repaid a bride price of $70 for one of her students who had been married off. She snatched the teenager away from the indignant husband and brought her back to school.

She's about to graduate and Esther Kutto expects her to become an advocate to convince other girls to take a stand against early marriage and sexual exploitation.

John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

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