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The Other Side of Childhood

Recently, a new allegation of an adult raping a fifteen year old girl surfaced in The Gambia. This phenomenon is not new in our society. According to the UNICEFS’ report dated as a far back as May 5th, 2004 and entitled “Child sex tourism and exploitation increasing in The Gambia” the following can be noted:

“A report released today by the Government of The Gambia and UNICEF reveals that sexual abuse and exploitation of children is on the rise in the tiny West African nation that is a favorite destination for tourists from several European countries. The report concludes that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is being perpetrated in two distinct but inter-related ways: sex tourism and the so-called “sugar daddy” syndrome. Through focus-group discussions, in-depth interviews and questionnaires, the report finds that children are being targeted for sexual relations by adult foreigners and nationals. Major contributing factors include high poverty rates (GNI per capita was US$330 in 2001, two thirds of population lives in poverty), low levels of education (37% adult literacy in 2000), and cultural acceptance of early sexual relations. As many as 100,000 tourists visited The Gambia in 2003, mainly from Britain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands and Germany. The report finds that The Gambia is a vulnerable target for … unscrupulous visitors such as suspected or convicted pedophiles who enter the country in search of a low profile location to commit their crimes against children silently and with impunity. It reveals the strong existence of a false “glamorization” of prostitution, particularly in sex tourism. Many children engaged in prostitution spoke of their envy of girls involved in prostitution – their clothes, style and hanging out at nightclubs. For many, according to the report, being a sex worker means having access to a lot of cash to buy jeans, shoes, to go to beauty salons for hair and nail care to show off at beach parties and nightclubs. “The report documents both sex tourism and sexual exploitation by Gambian adults,” said Ms. Cheryl Gregory Faye, UNICEF Representative. “In the face of these clear violations of children’s rights, we are fortunate that strong political will exists, on the part of both the government and the tourism sector. Legislative steps were taken last year to curb sex tourism, and today’s launching featured five Government ministers who condemned these practices in no uncertain terms”. Although sex tourism is the more sensational face of the sexual exploitation of children in The Gambia, “sugar daddies” perhaps represent its more pervasive face. This involves sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls by adult Gambian men in exchange for money and gifts, and includes, according to the report, family members, teachers and other trusted adults.“UNICEF stands ready to continue its support to the Government in fighting the sexual abuse and exploitation of children in The Gambia,” said Mrs. Faye. “Planned interventions include increased public awareness highlighting the need to create a protective environment for the children, support to the government for legislative reform and enforcement, and recovery, as well as rehabilitation and reintegration in society of child victims.  UNICEF will seek improved coordination with partners and will aim for systematic birth registration, to ensure that the true ages of youthful victims are known.” Child victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. Cessation of studies, marginalization from their families and communities, and prostitution are other frequent consequences”.

Ironically, while this report was being published, the supreme leader of The Gambia was the one, according to several victims that came forward recently at the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), committing these atrocities. The following Aljazeera statement is from one of his many victims, notably Fatou Toufah Jallow: “Sitting beside a banner with the words ‘The truth shall set you free’, Fatou Jallow, known as Toufah, recounted the details of her alleged rape by Yahya Jammeh, the Gambia‘s former president, while her family listened in the hearing room of the Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). ‘I know a lot of people will find it difficult to believe what I have said, when you live in a culture whereby you believe that women should be quiet. It’s a culture where you have to keep secrets, that’s the culture that I come from,’ Jallow said in her concluding statement late last month. Jallow, 23, is the unexpected catalyst for the Gambia’s “Me Too” movement. Earlier this year, she became the first woman to publicly accuse Jammeh of rape in an investigation by NGOs Human Rights Watch and Trial International. She alleges that Jammeh assaulted her during a Ramadan festival at State House as punishment for refusing to accept his marriage proposal – she had caught his eye when she won a beauty pageant in 2014. Her five-hour testimony to the TRRC on October 31 was eagerly awaited, watched by the nation as it was broadcast live on TV and the internet. Young women wearing ‘I am Toufah’ T-shirts sat in solidarity in the hearing room, which was open to the public. The episode, which has seen victims speak out about being raped by members of security forces and former government officials, has exposed systemic levels of sexual violence during Jammeh’s rule… ‘These were crimes committed using the power and the resources of the state, but it also shines a light onto the wider societal problems [in The Gambia] that rape goes under-reported. If it weren’t for the truth commission this wouldn’t be coming out,’ said Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch, which is part of the Jammeh2Justice Coalition campaigning to bring Jammeh to trial…Human rights activist Sirra Ndow, who works with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, said: ‘We as a country are struggling with how to deal with sexual violence. For me, the fact that this is being addressed as part of a transitional justice process is a big step forward for us in Gambia.’ The issue often remains hidden because the stigma attached to the victim is also seen as a stain on the family name”.

      Fatou Toufah Jallow appears before the TRRC

The law is here for every citizen to abide by and none is above. How will the Gambian society transition from this current state of being? How will the perpetrators be held accountable when these incidences are taboo in our society? It is high time that our women and children are protected from these vicious, heartless predators that roam the streets in our communities. The law should find a way to punish and set a clear example to communicate that we are all equal in our rights in front of the Constitution. Checks and balances should be imposed by independent third parties to ensure that taxpayers have peace of mind in their everyday life.

Furthermore, the most important thing to note is that sexual offenders are sick individuals. The judges in the court system should make such recommendations as opposed to just sending the accused towards stiff jail sentences that will not eradicate the issue at hand in our communities. The next step would be to have a National Registry that will list all offenders so that all the citizens are aware of their presence in their neighborhoods.

The Cyber Crime Units in the nation also have a crucial role to play in the event of things. The internet users should be properly monitored and apprehended when they breach the law and engage with international sex trafficking rings. Officers should be properly trained and equipped to tackle this new pattern of criminals operating at large.

Last but not least, National Hotlines such as the National Gender-Based Violence Helpline (1313) should be promoted as the bridges to the safe havens that exist for all current and future victims in The Gambia. “ Live and let live.” Should be the attitude for all to adapt.

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