The sexual abuse of children in the Gambia is increasing as a result of rising poverty in the small West African country and Gambian men rather than European tourists are mainly responsible for the phenomenon, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in new report published this week.
Gambia has long been linked with sex tourism, but the UNICEF study, published on Wednesday, found that the main abusers of local children were male Gambian "Sugar Daddies."
“The Sugar Daddy Syndrome,” explained Cheryl Faye, head of UNICEF in Gambia, “is the abuse of young girls lured by money or other gifts - perhaps some shoes or a mobile phone - into sex.”
According to Faye, the problem appears to be growing and, most worrying of all, Gambia's Sugar Daddies appear to be gaining social acceptance.
“There is a certain tolerance in wider society that this is going on,” Faye told IRIN. She said one of the strongest indications that a traditional taboo on such behaviour is being lifted is the new aggressive pursuit of Sugar Daddies by the children themselves.
“There is more temptation for children in a climate of growing poverty,” said Faye. Back in the family home “parents who struggle to put one meal a day on the table for their family don’t ask questions about where the money comes from,” she added.
In the past, reports on the sexual abuse of children in the Gambia have frequently blamed the practice on foreign, mainly European tourists, who exploited the low incomes of the local population and the inability of the police to monitor their corruption of minors.
According to Jean Claude Legrand, UNICEF’s regional adviser on child prostitution, the government of Gambia is making a progressive step in admitting that much of the problem of child abuse is home grown and not just imported in the chartered jets that bring European tourists flocking to Gambia's golden beaches.
“Tourism used to be used as a mask, especially by government and civil society. But one should not always look outside for the cause of the problem,” he told IRIN.
In Banjul on Wednesday, government ministers were present at the launch of the UNICEF report, which was based on in-depth interviews with 60 sex workers in Gambia, 15 of whom were under-age children.
“The high levels of sexual violence and coercion against young people often remain hidden because the victims are unable to speak out, let alone seek help, because of the culture of silence in this country,” Doctor Yankuba Kassama, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare, said at the launch ceremony.
“Poverty, family breakdowns, absence of nurturing relationships, child abuse and drugs are factors that contribute immensely to children’s vulnerability,” he added.
Indeed UNICEF highlighted the link between child abuse and growing poverty among Gambia's 1.4 million people. According to its report, 59% of Gambians live on less than US$ 1 a day and poverty is increasing.
“Adults who are sexually exploiting children take advantage of the poor economic circumstances of that exist in the Gambia," the report said. “Since these men very often approach poor children and/or their parents and offer to assist them with any problems they may have, some parents or care givers turn a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of their own children, or children under their guardianship,” it added.
In other cases, UNICEF found that girls were actively or passively encouraged by their impoverished families to pursue Sugar Daddies for the material benefits they might be able to command.
It warned that for most of the girls involved, this wais just the beginning of a downward spiral that often resulted in child pregnancy, clandestine abortion, violent abuse, HIV infection and exposure to AIDS.