A recent study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has identified Gambia as one of Africa’s top destinations for child sex tourism.
It said on Tuesday in Banjul that poverty, corruption, and weak law enforcement, has undermined the government’s efforts to protect children from abuse.
It noted that hundreds of girls and boys are sexually exploited in the country, where every second person lives on little more than a dollar a day.
UNICEF accused some parents of trusting tourists for financial assistance, while the study revealed that others turn a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of their children to earn extra income.
Sheriff Manneh, an officer with the Tourism Security Unit in Banjul, which was formed specifically to focus on curbing sex tourism, confirmed that in West Africa, Gambia remained the main destination for child sex tourism.
He noted that yearly more than 150,000 people visit Gambia which is only a short flight from Europe.
“Most tourists come from Britain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Omar Jarjue, a tour guide in Kololi disclosed that many tourists are coming for only that reason, to have sex with children.
“We see it happening every day. It has become a normal thing.
“As child sex tourism is more and more heavily policed in Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia, lesser known destinations like Gambia are gaining in popularity,’’ he said.
The Child Protection Alliance (CPA), an umbrella body of about 40 local non-profit organisations, opened up that sex tourists bluntly offer poverty-stricken parents money for their children.
It said while others befriend children who sell food and drinks on beaches.
CPA said the government has stepped in and reformed several laws to curb child sex tourism.
It said that a “Sexual Offences Act and a Responsible Tourism Policy’’ are meant to protect children.
It said that in 2014, the National Assembly signed off on a special tribunal to hand down hefty fines and stiff sentences to sex offenders.
CAP said awareness programmes have been launched to educate hotel staff, community leaders, teachers and police officers.
“Hotels are now prohibited from allowing adults to take minors to their rooms.
“We check the identity documents of all visitors to determine their age,” explains Sillah Darboe, a receptionist at the Bungalow Beach Hotel in Kololi. If staffs don’t follow the rules, they are suspended or fired, he says.
CPA National Coordinator, Njundu Drammeh, said that the alliance has formed dozens of watchdog groups, which monitor beaches, restaurants and bars in holiday towns and report cases of child sex tourism to the authorities.
He lamented that corruption and weak law enforcement create stumbling blocks in the fight against child sex tourism.
Drammeh identified prosecution as the major challenge to success, while sex tourists find ever new ways to circumvent the law.
He said instead of the tourists to stay in the big hotels, they now stay in small motels or in privately rented out accommodation,” he said.
Drammeh said that part of the problem is also that government needs to carefully balance the fight against child sex tourism with the need to promote the Gambia as a thought-after tourism destination.
“Tourism makes up roughly 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and supports more than 80,000 jobs in the small nation of less than 2 million people.
A Gambian single mother recalled that a tourist offered to pay for Sirreh, her daughter’s school fees and buy her clothes.
“He came to our house, took my daughter out for walks and he gave us a lot of money.
“I thought it was a kind-hearted, charitable act from a well-off European. Only much later, weeks after the man had returned to Europe, did Sirreh dare to tell her mother that he had sexually abused her.
“I destroyed my own daughter, all because of poverty,” cries Sanneh, with tears rolling down her cheeks,’’ she said.
The woman said that every dollar spent by holidaymakers and business people is important to keep the nation afloat, tempting law enforcement officers to look the other way.