Child protection experts say sexual exploitation of children by tourists is on the increase in The Gambia, despite national laws against it.
“More and more children are working in the sex industry with tourists,” said Bakary Badjie, programme officer with the non-profit coalition the Child Protection Alliance (CPA). “Sexual relations between children and tourists are shifting from hotels, deeper into communities, where it is harder to track.”
Though the latest comprehensive report on the problem – by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – is from 2003, anecdotal evidence shows the practice has grown since then, said Badjie.
A sex worker, 23, who asked not to be named, told IRIN many of her fellow sex workers are under 18, and most of her clients are Western male tourists. They work in Bakau, a suburb of Banjul popular with tourists. At least half of the female Gambian sex-workers UNICEF talked to for its 2003 report said they started as a sex worker before the age of 18, some as early as age 12.
Many of the girls involved come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds, have dropped out of school, or have been uprooted from rural areas and lost the protection of their extended families, according to Badjie.
The girls can earn up to 2,000 Dalasi (US$83) a day through this work, he said, versus the $1 a day the majority of working Gambians earn, according to World Bank figures.
They may receive presents such as watches or mobile phones, and some consider themselves the ‘girlfriends’ of return tourists, according to Ousman Kebbeh, tourism resource officer for the Gambia Tourism Authority (GTA).
He told IRIN many of the girls are also “duped” into getting involved in the sex industry, through offers of payment of school or medical fees. “Tourists…take advantage of poor girls…they approach them and say ‘I will sponsor your education’. They do not just stop at the girls…they even approach the parents,” he said.
According to UNICEF’s research, some of the girls’ families do not view the work as exploitative child labour, and many of the girls involved no longer consider themselves children.
Many of the mainly European tourists involved come to Gambia specifically looking for “cheap sex” with young girls, and some tour operators even promote these services to their clients as a lure, said Badjie. Tourists meet girls in clubs, on the beaches, in the streets, through “bumsters” – local men who act as intermediaries – and even at school gates, according to the non-profit group End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking.
UNICEF representative in The Gambia, Min Whee Kang, told IRIN the government is reluctant to emphasise child sex tourism as a problem because the country relies so heavily on tourist dollars. This is particularly the case for the upcoming 2008-09 season, she said, given concerns that the global financial crisis could force many tourists to cancel holidays.
With an average of 100,000 travelers per year, according to the GTA, tourism brings in approximately 16 percent of The Gambia’s national income, and 30 percent of its export earnings, according to the World Bank. One in five private sector jobs in The Gambia is in the tourism sector, according to a 2008 Overseas Development Institute report.
Kang and other child rights experts say the government has made some positive steps. The Gambia in 2005 passed the Children’s act, which harmonises Gambian laws relating to children with the UN Child Rights Convention, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and other international conventions, according to UNICEF. “The  act is quite strong,” said Badjie. UNICEF’s Kang calls it “a good start…it provides the framework for a protective environment.”
The government also passed the Tourism Offences Act in 2003 to regulate tourists’ behavior and outline how hotel owners should act when tourists break the law, Kang said. The government has also set up an army-led tourism security unit to protect tourists and Gambians.
The GTA now has a code of conduct for tourists outlining punishments for child protection abuses, which UNICEF and the CPA helped develop. Under current law, tourists who sexually abuse a child, whether or not they believed the child to be over 18, could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.
“These [laws] have done a lot to curb the situation,” Kebbeh told IRIN, citing the case of a Norwegian teacher who was recently tried in Norway for having sexual relations with a child in The Gambia.
A child pornography case involving tourists is currently being reviewed by a court in the capital Banjul.
Enforcing the law
But it has been difficult for the GTA to enforce tourist-related laws, according to the child protection group CPA. The GTA’s Kebbeh said some hotels such as the Ocean Bay in Bakau proudly display the code of conduct in their lobbies, which helps to raise awareness, but no one is tasked with evaluating whether staff adhere to it.
The CPA and UNICEF train immigration and department officials as well as hotel staff, from security guards to receptionists, in the code.
“If we see an underage girl who is not a guest entering the hotel, the security guards now automatically refer her to reception,” said Suleyman Corr, duty manager at the Ocean Bay hotel. “We don’t allow teens to be used. And guests now have to pay for all additional visitors who go to their rooms.”
When asked if he knew of security guards accepting bribes to let girls through, he said, “Of course it is a possibility but we haven’t heard of it.”
Other hotels are stricter and stipulate that no one other than the person booked can stay overnight, or ban “bumsters” from their premises. “These are basic but effective measures,” a hotel manager told IRIN.
Kang said UNICEF would be willing to help the GTA monitor sex tourism, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the GTA. According to her it is also up to tour operators to promote responsible tourism. Tour operators IRIN contacted did not wish to comment on the issue.
But the practice will not end, hotel manager Corr said, unless the GTA goes into villages and communities where tourists are increasingly renting houses or staying at smaller, less regulated hotels.
“We have to take the fight to the community level, to get families, teachers and community leaders involved in better protecting children if we’re going to be able to reduce the rates [of child sexual exploitation],” Badjie said.