Let me state from the outset the following:

Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (SECTT) is a reality in the Gambia. Research or studies done in 2003 by both UNICEF and Child Protection Alliance (CPA) and in 2014 by the CPA point to its prevalence. Observations and anecdotal evidence reveal the same. However, the research were more qualitative.

Our own Gambian brothers and sisters are as complicit as the tourists who sexually exploit our children. Our fellow Gambians serve as pimps and intermediaries; often the very people who tell these tourists where to get children to abuse or how to get them. We cannot exonerate ourselves from this crime. (I can vouch that most of the official tourist guides have zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation and report when they see or suspect. I have received complaints from them).

There are laws in place to protect children against sexual abuse and exploitation, prostitution, indecent assault and trafficking. These include the Children’s Act 2005, Tourism Offences Act 2003 and Trafficking in Persons Act 2007. In 2014, the Sexual Offences Act was amended to create a special Tribunal or Court to expeditious deal with cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in tourism.

Unfortunately, prosecution of tourists or even Gambians is nothing to write home about. It is absolutely dismal; may be not more than 3. Cases get reported but they “die” even before they got to court. Corruption? Lack of evidence? Unwillingness of witnesses to testify? Unwillingness of complainants to cooperate with the police? I don’t know but the situation is worrisome. When a legislation is a paper tiger none become afraid of it. It serves to protect than scare the perpetrators. I wonder why we create laws when we do not have the intention to fully enforce and implement in both letter and spirit.

In 2004, CPA supported the then Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA) to develop a Code of Conduct on the protection of children in travel and tourism, adapted from the WTO Code of Conduct. All the hotels signed up to this Code and GTA and later Gambia Tourism Board ensured the signing of the Code was part of the issuance or renewal of licences. Again, like the laws, there is no effective monitoring of this Code. Hotels and others sign up as a matter of duty, to conform and not out of conviction. Like the laws, it is observed in neglect.

Aware that some tourists do not go to the hotels but rather use rented houses or compounds in the communities of the Tourism Development Area, and which proximity gives paedophiles access to children, CPA in 2010, with financial support from UNICEF, set up Neighbourhood Watch Groups in Bakau, Kololi, Manjai Kunda, Kerr Serign and Bijilo to monitor and report Child Sex Tourism cases to the nearest Police station.

These Groups were later transferred to the Department of Social Welfare. Their main support has been UNICEF. Like the laws and the Code, these Groups are now, in spirit, dysfunctional for lack of support and encouragement. This doesn’t, in any way, absolve communities in the TDA from setting up their own monitoring observatories to protect their own children from sexual predators.

Until 2017, the State acknowledged the existence of SECTT in the country. The former regime made stern pronouncements about it. The Gambia Tourism Board was at the forefront of the fight. I cannot say that about the present. We have heard the current Minister of Tourism, on at least 2 occasions, dismissed the existence of SECTT without citing any fact to back his claim.

It is immaterial whether SECTT is organised by a travel or tourism agency or negotiated by individuals. What is important is that it is tourism and its facilities that are used as vehicles or conduit to facilitate the sexual exploitation of our children. Playing the ostrich is harmful. Trying to protect the honour and name of the Gambia when we know that SECTT is prevalent will do more damage to “Destination Gambia” than acknowledging its existence and taking concrete steps to combat it.

Good tourists, who form the majority that visit, run away from destinations where children aren’t protected. Remember, most of these tourists too have children or are concerned about children and know that children in their own countries are protected.

The fight against SECTT has been more civil society driven than Government own. CPA, with support from ECPAT Netherlands, and UNICEF have been the critical players. The efforts have seen a lull since 2016 though. Gambia Tourism Board uses its media programmes to put the searchlight on the issue, nonetheless. The absence of a sector wide approach and comprehensive programme to combat sexual exploitation of children in our tourism, coupled with mindboggling government inertia, militate against every good intention.

I bet the Gambia Tourism Board does not have a specific budget line for the fight against this menace or even for the promotion of responsible tourism which includes prevention of child sex tourism. I know for a fact that the “Dos and Don’ts” of GTBoard does not mention child sex tourism.

I wonder too if Tour Operators bother to mention child sex tourism or the laws to their guests at their first briefing with them. In fact am of the view that tour operators in the Gambia, by and large, are uninterested in the fight against sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Regardless, I know men whose stellar contributions to this fight is second to none- Messrs Sheikh Tijan Nyang, Adama Bah, Ousman Kebbeh, Dawda Nyang.

Not all tourists are abusers. Most of them are decent, caring, protecting, and hate to their marrow the exploitation and abuse they see. They would want to report but are unsure of the consequences for themselves. Some of them don’t return back to Gambia after their visit because of their abhorrence of SECTT and lack of national efforts to fight the menace.

I don’t know of the existence of any clear cut reporting system in place. If there is one, then it isn’t popularised. There is no online reporting portal although I know CPA is in the process of setting up one. Tourists won’t report incidents or suspected incidents when they don’t know where to report, don’t know how to report or are unsure of the credibility of the system or protection that such a system gives them. As far as I know, there is no toll free child helpline or number to call in such situations. If such a number exists, then it is not popularised.

May be it is high time we showed the searchlight on “black” tourists who visit our country. Some among them too could be child sex predators. And since we can easily assume them to be “one of us:, their predatory actions could go unnoticed.

Research by CPA and UNICEF both point to the complicity of some parents in the sexual exploitation of their own children. They would encourage the relationship between their children and the tourists, chastise their unemployed young daughters for not contributing to the family’s sustenance, or compare their children to the neighbour’s who have “made” it with a tourist. (I have never heard of reports where parents encourage their toddlers to have relationship with tourists. Bizarre assumption).

The “begging culture” in the tourism area is distasteful. It is not uncommon to see parents with little children held at the hands or stripped to the backs begging for handouts. It places them and their children on harm’s way. And yes, the falsification of our situations to draw sympathy, the sob stories about how our parents died, the poverty we live in, etc.

Now, my take on the article in the Sun:

It is contains truths, half truths and parts expertly embellished. The headline is sensational, I guess for a reason. But untrue in the main. There has not been any research or study which shows the magnitude or existence of “sale of children” in the Gambia, nor any evidence to indicate sexual exploitation of toddlers in our travel and tourism.

Of course, I am aware of sexual abuse of babies and toddlers by trusted adults in the communities. And yes, there are paedophiles whose preference are prepubescent children, including babies and toddlers. But the pictures shown on the paper indicate no such accusation.

The leitmotif of the story is this: sexual exploitation and poverty are on the increase or rise in the Gambia because of the bankruptcy of Tomas Cook. While this may have an effect on the tourism industry, we cannot superimpose that as the reality of an entire country.

Tourism contributes significantly to our GDP but I am not sure if that has even translated to a better living for communities within the Tourism Development Area, or villages like Juffureh and Jangjanbureh which tourists frequents. I don’t think we can make any evidential link between the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook and child sexual exploitation or poverty here. Many and varied factors are responsible for their existence even though poverty exacerbates the sexual exploitation of children. The “single story” approach is not helpful.

The story is full of assumptions and I don’t think the reporter has gone to any length to prove their validity. The pictures of a man holding the hands of a child in the sea, children playing near adult tourists, white tourist male holding a frightened toddler are “indicators” or signs which should raise alarm bells but each “indicator” or sign is not enough to prove sexual exploitation. The parents of the children could be present at the scenes but not within sight of the reporter. May be more undercover investigation could have been done. Another single story angle.

Whatever, pictures tell a thousand words and the reporter ought to be commended for bringing to the public’s notice these pictures and happenings in our tourism.

It is difficult to know the objective of the reporter regarding this article: to expose child sexual exploitation in our travel and tourism industry or fight a cause on behalf of Thomas Cook by highlighting the “damages” its bankruptcy is doing in or to a destination like The Gambia and thus whip up support for the resuscitation of the company.

I don’t see altruism in the intention though. Time would tell if the reporter would come back again and do a follow-up story, progress or otherwise. (Before I left CPA early in the year, I was invited by GTBoard to make a presentation on Child Sex Tourism to a staff of Thomas Cook branch in the Netherlands who were on a study tour to the Gambia. The enthusiasm of that group to engage in the fight against the menace in the Gambia was very clear).

The National Coordinator of CPA has refuted some parts of the article attributed to him. He felt he was misquoted and misrepresented and thus short changed by the reporter. He flatly denied telling the reporter that one can purchase sex with a toddler for about £2. That he made reference to child hawkers and what paltry amounts they make at the end of the day’s sale.

I believe the Coordinator’s version; I know him as I was his immediate supervisor once upon a time. He doesn’t mortgage his honesty for anything and would have accepted making such statements if he had.

Child hawkers are a reality in the streets and tourism area even though the security often send them away. The vulnerable situation they are place in, especially to abuse and sexual exploitation is obvious to anyone who cares. While the Tourism Offences Act prohibits loitering in the TDA, it is a common practice or sight.

The article seems to indicate that sexual exploitation of children is a broad daylight thing in The Gambia, and sale of toddlers to tourists for exploitation is normal and normalised. This is not only untrue but also an oversimplification of a situation which is hidden and is accompanied by all the trappings of grooming.

The sale of toddlers is untrue but, as I stated earlier, there are paedophiles who have preference for prepubescent children. Sexual exploitation of children happens in secret, away from the public eye and monitoring. It includes “buying” the trust of gullible parents or carers, making families financially dependent, buying the silence of parents and the community, and using other grooming tactics.

While I find certain parts of the article distasteful, I think the reporter has exposed a serious canker worm in our “body tourism”; the sheer lack of commitment by the State to the fight against sexual exploitation of children in our travel and tourism sector; the negligence and complicity of parents; child and family poverty; the indescribable, mindboggling laxity in the enforcement and implementation of the “good” laws we have for the protection of our children; the immense vulnerability and risks our children daily face; the glamorisation of sex tourism; and materialism which has pervaded the moral fabrics of our society.

Tourism is important to the economy of our country and we must promote responsible and sustainable tourism. However, our children are more important than tourism or the gains it brings. Our children are the future of our society. We cannot place more importance on the “golden egg” than the “goose” which must be cared for to perpetually lay the golden eggs.

Countries that have promoted their tourism have non-negotiable tolerance for the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. Others have acknowledged the existence of the menace and employed every arsenal in fighting it.

The ball is in the court of the Gambia. To be or not be.

By Njundu Drammeh
Former head of Child Protection Alliance (CPA) Gambia

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