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End of mission statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, on her visit to The Gambia (21- 29 October 2019)

Banjul, 29 October 2019 

Good afternoon and thank you for coming,

Let me start by thanking Government of The Gambia for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from 21 October to 29 October 2019. 

This is the first visit of a UN Human Rights Council appointed Special Rapporteur to monitor, report and advise on issues related to the sale, sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the country. The Gambia has been constructively engaging with the UN independent experts and I hope this practice will continue in order to enhance the promotion and protection of all human rights through identifying effective strategies and sharing of good practices in particular in the Western Africa region, based on a dialogue with all stakeholders, including CSO’s and children themselves. 

The objective of my visit was to assess the scope of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and the measures adopted by the authorities to prevent and combat it, ensure accountability and provide care, recovery and reintegration to child victims. 

During my nine day visit, I have met with multiple stakeholders, including the Child Welfare Committee of the National Assembly, the Minister of Women, Children and Social Welfare and the Department of Social Welfare, the Minister of Tourism, the National Refugee Commission, the Ombudsman, the National Agency Against the Trafficking in Persons, the National Human Rights Commission, the Minister of Information and Communication, the representatives of the Minister of Justice, the Panel of Kanifing Children’s Court, the Prosecutor’s office and Solicitor General, the National Association for Legal Aid, the Permanent Secretary and senior officials at the Minister of Basic and Secondary Education, the Child and Welfare Unit of the Police Headquarters in Banjul, the Investigation Unit of the Immigration Department, the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I also held meetings with the Associations of Hotel Workers and Hotel Owners, Associations of Tourist Guides and Tourist Taxi Drivers. I had insightful discussions with Child Protection Association of The Gambia, the Jaara Soma Community Association of Working Children, members of the National Youth Council, Children’s Parliament, and members of the Voices of Young in the Media. I visited the Children’s Shelter in Bakoteh, the Bakoteh SOS Children’s village and a daara Bumbazi in Sambuyaa. I also visited The Gambian Tourism Security Unit located in the Banjul Tourism Development Area (TDA). During my visit to the Lower River Region (LRR), I met the Governor, the LRR Multi-disciplinary teams, the LRR Regional Education Directorate and the Jaara Soma Community Child Protection Committee. I also had a meeting with UN Development Partner Groups.

I was impressed by the quality of interaction and the professionalism of governmental stakeholders, child protection service providers, young activists and children. I am grateful to the Government for their cooperation before and during the visit. To everyone who met with me, including the representatives of civil society organisations, children and independent researchers, I want to express my appreciation for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue on the issue of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and for their dedication and commitment to provide protection and assistance to child victims and children in vulnerable situations. I also wish to express my gratitude to the UN Country Team, in particular, OHCHR and UNICEF, for their support and assistance. 

For the purpose of this presentation, I will highlight three areas of utmost concern and pressing need for action in The Gambia, namely the urgent need for resources, adequately equipped and child friendly decentralized shelters and continued capacity building of frontline child protection actors, including Gender and Child Welfare Police Officers, Tourism Security Unit Officers, Immigration Child Welfare Officers; continued sensitization and awareness-raising and economic empowerment of impoverished communities and children to curb the culture of silence surrounding the child sexual abuse and exploitation cases; and finally the urgent need for coordination of activities amongst various child protection actors to ensure complementarity of  interventions. 

Positive steps and legislative developments 

With the establishment of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC), The Gambia has embarked on a national process of healing and reconciliation by addressing its past and pursuing truth-seeking, reversing the abusive legacy and bringing perpetrators to account. My visit has coincided with the hearings of testimonies by courageous Gambians, victims and witnesses of sexual and gender based violence who came forward to testify and narrate their ordeal and speak about some of the horrific experiences they have endured. The testimonies before the TRRC were live broadcast and overheard on the street, in the market, in taxi and bus stops and in public premises I visited. This has created a momentum and a much-needed space to break through the deeply embedded in the society culture of silence. I, therefore, call on the Gambians, children in communities far and close, to promote the healing of victims by condemning any attempt to harass, shame or intimidate victims for having publicly spoken of their horrific experiences. As one of my State interlocutors said, “When sexually abused it is not victims’ fault; when sexually exploited it is not their will.” “No one chooses to be a victim of sexual violence.” 

It is also of utmost importance that the reconciliation is based on inclusive process, allowing for the meaningful and effective participation of children and youth in particular when it comes to the much-needed sensitization of the population of its responsibility to prevent and report instances of child sexual exploitation and abuse. 

The Gambia has also embarked on a Constitutional reform process through the Constitutional Review Commission, is about to undertake a comprehensive criminal justice reform and has established a Paris Principles compliant National Human Rights Commission. The Gambia has deployed significant efforts to sensitize the society and raise awareness among different stakeholders, including law enforcement, judiciary, tourism industry, media, children, of international norms and standards on combating sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. 

Legislation and institutional reforms

The Gambian Criminal Code (1990) criminalises the procurement of children for sex or prostitution. It also contains a provision specific to child sexual abuse material (CSAM). However, to date, the national legislation still does not contain a definition of CSAM and does not prohibit offences involving sexual grooming. The Children’s Act 2005 provides extensive legal provisions for the protection of children from prostitution. It further makes procuring a child for prostitution an offence within or outside The Gambia. Similarly, the Tourism Offences Act 2003 makes it an offence to procure a child for prostitution. The organisation, promotion or encouragement of foreign travel that promotes ‘child prostitution’ is an offence.

The Trafficking in Persons Act 2007 criminalises all forms of exploitation indicated in the Palermo Protocol. The Trafficking in Persons (Amendment) Act of 2010 increased the penalties: where the victim of trafficking is a child, an offender is liable to “the sentence of death.” In a number of respects, however, the legislation falls short of the requirements of the Palermo Protocol, such as the possibility to detain and criminalise victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. In addition, the legal framework on trafficking does not provide for the systematic screening of foreign children nor specifically takes into account the potential international protection needs of victims of trafficking. Whereas the law allows victims of trafficking to obtain a temporary residence visa for the duration of legal proceedings, no other legal alternatives are mentioned with regard to asylum procedures and proper reception facilities. 

Other important legislative reforms concern the adoption in 2016 of Children’s Amendment Act 2005, which prohibits and criminalises child marriage and prescribes 18 years as the legal age for marriage, although exceptions are still allowed for 16-18 years old in customary and “personal laws”; the amendments of the Women’s Act 2010 in 2015 to prohibit FGM, the Sexual Offences Act 2013 and the Domestic Violence Act 2013. 

Other commendable steps include the establishment of a gender unit in November 2014 by the Attorney General’s Chambers to train police officers, prosecutors and law enforcement on gender and sexual and gender-based violence, the establishment of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare in 2019, which along with the recently established National Human Rights Commission in 2019, is not yet fully operational as it is finalising various mapping and outreach strategies. At the local level, the establishment of community child protection committees across the country and youth neighbourhood watch groups in communities around the tourist development areas are good examples of how the empowering of communities can support the preventive efforts of the child protection system. 

Despite these commendable steps, the effective enforcement of these laws remains weak, including when it comes to the prohibition of child marriages, FGM, child forced labour and responding to sexual exploitation of children by the trusted circle in the community and in the context of travel and tourism, and perpetrators of such crimes are rarely brought to justice and punished with sanctions proportionate to their crimes. Their effective enforcement is marred by several factors, including the lack of awareness of the existence of these laws with ensuing penalties; lack of adequate human, technical financial and administrative capacity to oversee and rapidly respond to reported cases, as well as significant gaps of capacity and expertise in providing necessary child-friendly services and assistance to victims, including at the first point of contact with children. Law enforcement is hindered by a deeply engraved culture of silence favouring informal settling of the case between households over the judicial determination of accountability for fear of stigma brought upon the family. The culture of silence in regard to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, religious and cultural beliefs keep sex as a taboo subject between generations, deterring children from reporting their experiences. No alleged perpetrator of sale, sexual abuse or exploitation, human trafficking is known to have been prosecuted or convicted under these laws.

The scope and manifestations of sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of children, including in the context of trafficking
Even though there are no comprehensive and disaggregated data on the extent and prevalence of sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of children within the community, in the context of tourism, and in cross-border areas, the anecdotal evidence gathered from representatives of tourism industry and child protection stakeholders shows that the phenomenon exists.

The alleged cases of commercial sexual exploitation are reportedly occurring in the Tourism Development Area (TDA) which is confined to the areas around the major hotels and beaches restaurants and nightclubs, as well as in a densely populated and impoverished areas. Some come in contact with children and develop relationships with them through organizations registered as philanthropies and charities or else approach children under the guise of sponsorship for their education. Child sex offenders also gain access to children through middlemen or intermediaries known as bumsters or already have prior information about the areas where they can have access to children through the Internet. A number of tools and deterrents have been put in place, such as the development of a manual for training on the eradication of child labour and sexual exploitation in the tourism industry; the increased efforts of the Ministry of Tourism and The Gambia Tourism Board to identify and respond to violations arising in the context of tourism, including through the introduction of the Tourism Code of Conduct in hotels, motels and restaurants within the TDA and the strengthened procedure of issuing residential permits by the Department of Immigration for non-Gambians in an effort to help track those involved in child sex abuse. 

An additional challenge is posed by the fact due to the increased efforts and presence of police checkpoints by the Tourism Security Unit as well as the recent introduction of the strict rules in hotels, the offenders are increasingly using private residences and compounds outside the commercial tourist areas of Banjul.

Sexual exploitation in the context of trafficking

To date, there have been no convictions under the Trafficking in Persons Act 2007. Of five cases pending before the court, two are concerning children of which one case on sexual exploitation of a minor who was reportedly repatriated to Nigeria, and the second one is a pending court case of a three months old child who is believed to have been abducted. Only seven cases of trafficking were reported in 2016. In 2018, four sex trafficking victims were identified for referral with no prosecutions ensued. It is not clear how many of those were children. There is anecdotal evidence of the Gambian women and girls falling victims of trafficking in the Middle East for labour exploitation and domestic servitude. A comprehensive data is also lacking on the number of cases related to trafficking of children for sexual purposes reported or on the number of children sexually exploited in The Gambia. Underreporting of cases is partially due to the lack of confidence in the administration of justice, lengthy investigations and court proceedings, lack of prosecutions and convictions and of meaningful national referral mechanism for protection (including from retaliation) and assistance of victims of trafficking. 

Sexual exploitation of children on Internet 

There is very limited information and data available on the prevalence of child sexual exploitation facilitated by or committed through the Internet in The Gambia. The Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructures has submitted to the Attorney Chamber’s Office the Gambia Cybercrime Bill with a line to bring the existing legislation in line with the Council of Europe Budapest Convention. It is also envisaging various proactive measures to address the risk of child sex tourism via information and communication technologies (ICT), ensure online safety and curb the spreading of child abuse material, including by launching campaigns on internet safety modules on topics such as cyberbullying, smart parenting and online grooming. It also plans to engage with Inter­net Service Providers, internet cafés and social network platforms such as Facebook, to develop child protec­tion codes of conduct, stricter moni­toring and filtering and blocking of websites contain­ing child sexual abuse images. Previous efforts included awareness-raising through The Gambia Radio and Television Services and other private print and electronic media to provide children with appropriate information. 

Child marriage

Despite the 2016 amendment of the Children’s Act 2005 criminalising child marriage with a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment for the parents and partner of the child, the customary and “personal laws” permit child marriages before the age of 18 result considerable number of children being married before the age of 18, particularly in rural areas. Several stakeholders pointed to the need to harmonize and enforce the legislation to ensure that the child marriage is not permitted before the age of 18 in the domestic laws and customary laws and that there are effective measures to prevent the practice of child marriage, including putting in place social protection schemes to support poor families, education free from hidden or associated costs, scholarships for low-income families in rural areas, free food for children from vulnerable families, information campaigns about the harmful effects and the dangers of child marriage.

Multiple stakeholders also expressed concern that despite the explicit criminalisation of the FGM in the Children’s Act 2005, the existence of the National Plan of Action for Accelerated Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation 2013–2017, various awareness-raising programmes, including through satellite TV and radio in local languages, to combat the practice of FGM, the latter still exists in the country, especially in remote areas and in the southern Senegalese region of Casamance or in cross-border areas and hard to reach regions and among ethnic communities. There are no reporting and complaints mechanisms accessible to girls at risk of becoming victims of this practice. There are hardly any prosecutions and sentences against practitioners and religious leaders in far to reach communities. Some believe that the laws promulgated during the past regime are no longer valid and should be ignored.

Children at risk

Children on the move, including children living and working in the streets, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless and undocumented children are exposed to high risks of trafficking and exploitation. Children migrate from neighbouring countries in pursuit of a better life or short-term employment opportunities often ending up working as street vendors or performing low-paid jobs. Some lack ID cards, and are in dire need of age, country of origin assessment, registration and family tracing. In September 2019, the IOM in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare, under the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare completed the development of a Standard Operational Procedures for protection and assistance of vulnerable migrant children, who are unaccompanied and separated or children victims of trafficking for the purpose of exploitation in The Gambia. The latter, however, has not yet become operational. 

Child vendors along the beach areas selling bananas and peanuts, children working in family farms, and various businesses and in the informal sector, as well as children in petty trading and in domestic work at home, and children forced to work in the farm of the marabout are of serious concern. There is no comprehensive data on the scope of the phenomenon of children in street situations, including almudos children, forced to beg or work in the street. 

Admittedly, during my ten-day presence in the country, I have not seen nor come across a begging child in Banjul and in the LRR, and due credit should be given to the Government for its efforts to eradicate this problem. However, I am yet to receive information on efforts to inspect the industry hiring children or monitor the implementation of legal provisions to end child labour under the age of 16 are effectively enforced with a view to putting in place measures to eradicate the child labour and develop effective preventive measures to prevent low-income families to send their children to venture out for additional income.

Children in Quranic schools 

Another source of concern is the fact that due to their unregulated nature, children in Quranic memorization schools or informal religious teaching centres known as daaras in The Gambia cannot benefit from the child protection system. The vast majority of talibés living and studying at residential daaras are boys between the ages of 5 and 15, of whom few receive any formal quality education beyond learning the Quran. Instances of forced begging, exploitation, beating and other forms of abuses by the marabouts or by older children have nonetheless been denounced by a number of CSOs and children living in the communities. There is no official statistics of the total number of daaras operating in The Gambia and the number of children enrolled in them is unknown. I was told by the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, that according to the findings of their recent mapping of these religious centres, some 50.000 children have been identified and that the Ministry is currently contemplating various strategies to see how best to support them, including by providing children with basic literacy skills and engaging the headmasters in various economic opportunities to support their livelihood. In partnership with an NGO, it had previously initiated monthly cash transfers and food rations to 17 such centres to discourage them involve children in forced begging and broadened the schools’ curricula. Hopefully, this initiative can be scaled up in the future. 

The Quranic centre Bumbazi I visited in Sambuyaa had 44 children, including 40 boys and 4 girls, aged between the age of 10 and 15 and was composed of three barracks, including a prayers’ area, and an unfinished construction in the vicinity. The living, sanitary and safety conditions were unacceptable. The sleeping areas were composed of a few overused matrasses and piles of carpets on the concrete floor. The meal consisted of a bucket of rice with or without a side dish. Only one girl attended the community school at the request of her parents. I was told by many stakeholders that children placed in daaras in neighbouring countries or cross-border regions often run away from the hardship crossing the border at the Lower River Region and other cross-border areas of The Gambia, and in the absence of any means to support their travel, they are forced to beg and are at a high risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse by transit track drivers and traffickers. 

Refugees, asylum seekers, stateless and undocumented children 

According to UNHCR’s estimate, in 2018, over half of the refugee and asylum-seeker population were children. Most refugees, because of their ethnic background (Jola) and occupation (agriculture), are settled in the West Coast Region of the country, in direct proximity to their region of origin, Casamance. 

Children from these groups are particularly prone to become victims of trafficking, forced labour or street begging, sexual and labour exploitation and disappearance. Significant challenges relating to the sale and sexual exploitation of children include the lack of a functional identification and referral system. 

Refugee children born in The Gambia or arriving as minors also risk of statelessness, because The Gambia applies the ius sanguine principle, whereas many countries of origin practise the ius soli rule. While progress has been made in providing birth registration to children, only 57.9 per cent of children under the age of five had their birth registered, with an important variation depending on the location of the children. Such phenomenon leaves children vulnerable as it is an important safeguard against the risk of exploitation, early/forced marriage, child labour, trafficking and disappearance. 

Root causes and pull factors 

Although the lack of disaggregated data on different forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children hinders the ongoing efforts to curb the root causes and the design and implementation of appropriate proactive policies and measures, the anecdotal evidence gathered from child protection stakeholders demonstrates that child sexual exploitation is an occurrence among communities where poverty is rampant. As one of the State interlocutors mentioned, “The poverty has the face of women”. Girls in rural areas with limited access to education and economic opportunities are often disproportionately affected by child marriage.

Along with poverty and illiteracy, lack of awareness of the laws, for example, prohibiting the child marriage and the FGM, other drivers are deeply embedded culture of silence and gender discrimination; insufficient sexual and reproductive health education; and the stigma surrounding the topic of sex which perpetuates the practice of child marriage as a legitimate way to prevent premarital sex. 

Some parents from impoverished families reportedly, directly or silently encourage their children to get involved in the tourism industry for financial gain thereby encouraging child sexual commercial exploitation. Many interlocutors acknowledged the significant efforts invested in increasing awareness on the dangers of commercial sexual exploitation of children, but blamed the problem on the lack of oversight by parents who knowingly or unknowingly, by ignorance or due to poverty feel compelled to push their children working in the street to seek out relationship with tourists to support their living thus normalising therein and giving their silent consent for the child to engage in commercial sexual exploitation. 

The existing societal barriers, the stigma and the shame, the negligence or ignorance of children’s need, and misperception of child welfare vis a vis the best interest of the child, continue to feed the culture of silence and inhibit the reporting of cases to the police. This culture of silence is further compounded with weak law enforcement and inadequate child protection responses, leading to poor or inadequate protection of children from sexual abuse and exploitation. 

Prevention and response

The lack of adequate data collection mechanisms constitutes a serious obstacle to child protection and to the prevention of sexual exploitation of children and has been recognised by all child protection stakeholders. UNICEF is currently supporting the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare through the Department of Social Welfare to build a Child Protection Information Management System to facilitate monitoring and evaluation of child protection interventions in The Gambia, inform policy and evidence-based decision making, and facilitate appropriate information sharing between stakeholders and service providers. 

There is also an undeniable need for a well-functioning and credible mechanism of reporting, including a free hot-line operating 24/7, which has been suspended due to its limited number and the inadequate training of the hotline operators. That said, the role of the first point of contact with child victims of abuse, such as the Gender and Child Welfare officers at the Police, Immigration and Tourism Security Units should not be underestimated. Some of them have been working frontline for several years and are in desperate need for resources, as well as psychological support and counselling. 

The primary authority responsible for providing protection from and prevention of sexual exploitation of child-related offences is the recently established Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (2019), which has integrated the Department of Social Welfare, the primary coordinating body responsible for child protection in The Gambia. Restructuring and strategizing around the two pillars of child protection and gender (woman) issues are currently ongoing. It is important to note that a Department has been created to address specifically child rights issues. Mainstreaming child rights issues and an increase in the budget of the Ministry is clearly called for. The coordination of child protection and prevention services is weak and resources in the social protection sector need to be substantially increased to include sufficiently equipped, child-friendly and decentralised shelters, well-trained psychological and social workers, adequate communication and transportation means, child-friendly interviewing facilities respecting the confidentiality and privacy of the child, and continues capacity building and training of gender and child welfare police officers as a front-line protection, to identify, respond and investigate child abuse cases.

There is also a continues need to expand bilateral and multilateral agreements and partnership with other countries of origin, transit and destination, to prevent trafficking in and sale of children; establish an effective screening process to identify child victims of trafficking and ensure they are provided with adequate recovery and social reintegration services and programmes, and that cases are investigated and perpetrators are charged and convicted.

Many preventive campaigns are youth and NGO-led. The Child Protection Association (CPA), for example, is well engaged and active in promoting children and youth leaders to voice concerns about their vulnerabilities, assist in developing solutions and host general community discussions on child sexual exploitation. It has also established specific CPA affiliated groups and projects, as well as informal inter-organisational activities such as a drama competition on the topic. The Voice of the Young, a child-led advocacy group formed by CPA, is very active in social mobilisation and capacity building. It is very important to support financial and sustain these organisations to make sure they can continue their activities. 

Identification and referral of refugees and solutions for their reintegration 

Important challenges remain in The Gambia with regard to the asylum system. 

The Gambia Refugee Commission (GRC) is not systematically managed by persons with experience in refugee protection, or expertise in child protection, trafficking in persons and sexual and gender-based violence, in part due to the turnover of staff within the administration. The Refugee Act does not provide for the establishment of reception facilities for asylum-seekers, even those with specific needs. In the absence of any minimum standards in the treatment of asylum-seekers, persons in need of international protection are at risk of further human rights abuses. The Government should also ensure that asylum-seekers and refugees with specific needs as well as victims of trafficking and persons at risk of being trafficked are provided with access to appropriate reception facilities.

The lack of access to quality education for children, including refugee and asylum-seeking children is further exposing them to a risk of exploitation. In its Education Sector Strategic Plan 2016-2030, the Gambian government mentions among its priorities the access to education for children “in difficult circumstances”, including in this group “those displaced by war, conflict and/or natural calamities” and the “unreached” such as street children and refugee children. In this regard, the Government should promote late birth registration and facilitate the access of refugee children to the national education system. 

Training, awareness-raising and sensitization 

Numerous training for the police and other child protection actors have been organised on how to identify and investigate cases of child sexual violence, however, more capacity building activities are needed for the police, prosecutors’ office and the judiciary.

Although the Gambian Tourism Board together with CSOs has in the past organized trainings for taxi drivers, hotel workers, tourist guides, and personnel of the Tourism Security Unit and has launched sensitisation and awareness campaigns and installed banners, billboards and postings at crucial areas (Banjul international airport, hotels, and highways), it should expand its awareness-raising campaigns beyond the Tourism Development Area to ensure there are no protection gaps. There is an urgent need to continue sensitising the society, families, as well as engaging more with tour operators, travel agencies, airlines and airports in countries of origins of potential and registered child sex offenders. The Tourism Security Units are willing to do more to detect cases but their capacity is restricted by the logistical (mobility and communication), technical capacity and training.

The capacity of Community Child Protection Committees (CCPCs) to raise awareness on child sexual abuse and exploitation and reporting sus­pected child abuse to the relevant authorities is limited, due to lack of training, their voluntary nature and the cultural barrier within the communities to confront these issues.

Awareness raising activities targeting vulnerable communities, tourism industry and employment agencies are further needed to effectively tackle the impunity and reach out to victims. Additional training and capacity building activities are also needed for better screening and referral mechanisms as part of initial reception arrangements to ensure that vulnerabilities and protection needs of asylum-seekers and other groups are identified at early stages.   

Investigation and prosecution 

The real extent of these plights is unknown due to the unavailability of comprehensive disaggregated data on the number of investigations and resulting prosecutions of cases of sexual violence against children as well as the outcome of trials, including information on the penalties for perpetrators, and redress and compensation offered to the victims. 

The lack of data is further marred with the underreporting due to the prevailing stigma, shame, informal system of settling of the case in the community, between the households and the lack of cohesive data sharing between various child protection agencies. The lack of trust towards the judiciary and investigative bodies is due to the lack of convictions, perceived corruption and social connections. 

The Child Welfare Unit within The Gambia Police Force is responsible for receiving, referring and investigating cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse. However, they are severely under-resourced, lack technical capacity to receive, investigate and address complaints by children in a child-sensitive manner and have limited outreach and monitoring capacity including in the regions. The Government should ensure that law enforcement agencies have the funds, resources and skills to identify, investigate and respond to the sexual exploitation of children, and are able to use adapted protocols when dealing with child victims. 

The establishment of three ‘One-Stop Centres’, an inter-agency unit for victims of domestic or sexual violence is an encouraging step, but requires proper funding and scaled to other locations in the country. 

The rare instances when complaints are lodged with the police are not duly acted upon, the gathering of compelling evidence is delayed, and investigation and prosecution are stalled resulting in victims or witnesses withdrawing their complaints. Cases are also reportedly dismissed on the grounds that child victims’ statements were allegedly inconsistent. In some cases, the police or often the judiciary would encourage the parties to settle the case in the community at the detriment of the child and in the interest of protecting the family’s honour. In this respect, the best interests of the child is not sufficiently understood and consistently applied by the community child protection committees, the police and social workers. 

Law enforcement has a critical role in prevent­ing and responding to child sex tourism cases. An ongoing and sustainable program of capacity building is required for the law enforcement agencies to strengthen their knowledge of laws and their practical skills in detecting, investigating and intercepting child sex tourism cases and responding to child victims. 

Care, recovery and rehabilitation of victims

The Department of Social Welfare previously and the newly established Ministry is mandated to provide a wide range of care and support, including coun­selling for child victims of sexual abuse and ex­ploitation and other rehabilitation services. It is also responsible for the Bakoteh transit shelter for children and elderly, the only Government-run shelter with a capacity to house 75 children. 

Children may stay from a few weeks to several months or even years while authorities are tracing their parents, negotiating their return to the family or a safe environment, such as the extended family. The shelter is severely underfunded. Children in shelters have very limited psychological counselling and support and the possibilities of engaging them in any meaningful activities while they are awaiting their cases to be finalised are extremely limited. The security surrounding the shelter is virtually non-existent and many children run away from the shelter, go missing or continue getting involved in illegal activities. Their transfer from remote regions is also severely delayed due to the lack of means of communication. Pending transfer, there are no readily available child-friendly facilities, emergency shelters and services in the cross-border areas to temporarily house children who are runaways or victims of sexual or domestic abuse. The child welfare immigration officers, gender and welfare police officers and other first-line child protection actors are confronted with a situation when they have no other choice than to care for various needs for children, including food and items of first necessity at their own expenses, including housing children in their premises or taking them home before their transfer to the shelter is arranged. It is also not clear how the risk assessment of these children is conducted, including assessment of their vulnerability upon their return to ensure that they are not being returned to an environment from which they have escaped.

The Trafficking Act establishes a Fund for Victims of Trafficking and outlines how funds should be allocated. However, thus far, the financial support from the government to NAATIP has generally only been used for operation and programme costs. As there are no convictions of trafficking compensation to the victim remains a dead letter. 

The Child and Environmental Development Association – The Gambia (CEDAG) does provide some limited assistance in the process of reintegration of trafficked children to their families and communities within the ‘Children on the Move’ project of the West African Network. 

There is an urgent need to establish additional shelters for child victims of sexual violence and exploitation, properly funded, staffed by well-trained personnel and capable to offer integrated services (psychological, legal, medical, etc.). 

A functional referral system and an effec­tive case management approach are prereq­uisites for efficient service delivery that meets the needs of child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Let me conclude by saying that The Gambia has come a long way to put in place impressive laws, policies and child protection structures. Their strict and uncompromising enforcement is key in delivering results and achieving societal changes The Gambia has deserved.

Thank you for your attention. 

END