Inspired to Take a Stance Against Child Sex Tourism
Monday, February 20, 2012
Yes there are ethics in tourism and there are laws that protect children from irresponsible tourism. Yet child sex tourism is unabated in The Gambia, as the tiny west African country, known by the tourism industry as the Smiling Coast, smiles to child sex tourism. KISSY-KISSY MANSA was at a CPA organised, ECPAT Netherlands funded workshop at the end of which participants promised to henceforth take a stance against the menace
John the tourist is back.
“Welcome back Mr John?” putting up a warm smile, a hotel receptionist saluted Mr John, a tourist. The hotel is John’s regular in his favorite holiday destination, The Gambia.
“Hey thank you,” John returned the greetings. He was checked in after going through the courtesies of the hospitality industry. In a short while he was bound for the town.
“He is a nice man?” one of the two receptionists informed his fellow as John barged into the town. He needed no tour guide. He mastered the geography of this ill-planned town. And he knew what he want and where to get it.
“Hey guys you’re still there,” he said, referring to the two receptionists on his return to the hotel. Without waiting any reply, he demanded the keys to his hotel room.
But with John was a girl, apparently below the age of 18. The receptionist was prompted to hesitate.
“Mr John, who is this girl with you?” He enquired.
“I want my keys,” John, the nice man yelled. “Look, do I have to tell you who this girl is? I’m her sponsor. Get it?”
“Please, Mr John, that’s the rule here. I have to see the girl’s identification.” The receptionists kept their cool though John’s arrogance was growing up.
To the disgust of other guests, the ever-present tranquil atmosphere at the hotel became disturbed. John retreated with the girl.
He returned later engulfed with rage. “Yes I’m harassed. I don’t enjoy my holiday,” he replied to the hotel manager to whom the matter was forwarded.
Admittedly rare in The Gambia’s tourism industry where ‘the guest is always right’, the manager consulted with the receptionists for their side of the story. And thanks to the intervention of the guests who witnessed the incident unfold, the receptionists were found to be at no fault.
“Mr John,” the hotel manager called-out putting on his authoritative voice. “What’d happened is unfortunate…”
“What” John intercepted. “You mean I’m wrong?”
“Not necessarily,” the manager replied, explaining to John that its illegal to allow tourists with a minor in a hotel, especially under circumstances where the child could be sexually abused.
“He is right, he is right,” John whispered into his friend’s ear. But he proud to accept fault. As a last refuge of this guilty soul, he took excuse that he knew no such law.
The Smiling Coast smiles to child sex tourism
The Gambia has many wonderful things to attract tourists. From the tranquil and beautiful beaches, slow meandering River Gambia and the awe inspiring crocodiles pools, to fabulous eco-tourism sites.
However as world’s notorious sex tourism destinations such as Cambodia and Indonesia tightened up against this lucrative enterprise, new destinations have emerged. The Gambia, reports show, is one of the new safe-havens for this practice which “affects an estimated two million children worldwide every year.”
“The Gambia is a new destination for commercial sex tourism,” Njundu Drammeh, coordinator of CPA says.
This is confirmed by a UNICEF study on sexual abuse and exploitation of children in The Gambia in 2003. The said study reveals that The Gambia is vulnerable for pedophiles in search of a low profile location to abuse children silently and with impunity.
It is hot on the heels of this rising menace that, Child Protection Alliance (CPA), a child rights coalition of national and international organisations organised a two-day sensitisation workshop at Baobab resort for tourism stakeholders.
Funded by ECPAT Netherlands, a global network of organisations and individuals crusading against sexual abuse and exploitation of children, the training is aimed at raising awareness on The Gambia’s tourism code of conduct.
Wrapped up Friday 17 Jan., the event dealt with other relevant topics such as child related tourism offenses and responsible and sustainable tourism. It also witnessed a series of plays by participants. The story about John, the tourist and his regular hotel was one of them.
Despite their diverse roles in the tourism industry, the participants unanimously acknowledged that the plays reflect the realities they often encounter in their job.
But in reality, the outcomes, unlike in the plays, are rarely positive, they say as decisions often favour the hotel and the abusive tourist, sacrificing the interest of the children and also victimising the hotel staff who stands in the guest’s illicit ways.
“In most hotels, if a guest complains that his cell phone is lost, there would be a thorough screening. But if a child is seen with [an abusive] tourist, nobody cares,” says Memunata Junisa, human resource manager of Kairaba Beach Hotel, a leading hotel in the country.
Pedophiles change abode
Yes, there are laws that protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation by tourist in The Gambia. Sexual abuse of a child by a tourist attracts 14 years imprisonment.
Children’s Act 2005 addresses offences such as, production of pornography involving children, showing an indecent photograph of a child, and using a sex gadget on a child.
And yes, these laws do not merely exist on paper. Recent times have witnessed an increase in cases involving tourists accused of sexually abusing children. Some were convicted whilst some are undergoing trial.
Besides, The Gambia has adopted extra territorial laws that allow the prosecution of other nationals for crimes committed on Gambian soil, in the event the perpetrator escapes justice in The Gambia. A landmark case was in 2007, when a court in Norway sentenced an Oslo teacher for sexually abusing a 12 year-old boy in The Gambia.
Yet child sex tourism is unabated. “Quite a number of hotels are tightening their nuts, but tourists, in their large numbers, are beating the system,” CPA’s Njundu Drammeh observes. “Quite a lot of pedophiles are now living in the local communities.”
Between values & profit
Tourism is the second largest contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Its gains are not limited to fueling the economy and creating jobs; it feeds starving families and pays children’s school bills.
Individual tourists build schools and supply them with learning materials; they establish health facilities and supply them with medical items. A host of communities today access clean water thanks to tourists.
With this mammoth benefit accrued from tourism, neither the government nor the public wants to see the other side of the tourists even when it now becomes clear that not only the country’s positive values are not at stake, but its feature, the children.
“Until recently, GTA doesn’t want people to talk about child sex tourism because the officials there feel that it tarnishes the image of the country,” Njundu Drammeh reveals.
According to him, Gambia Tourism Authority now Gambia Tourism Board (GTB), the implementing arm of the country’s tourism ministry has a brochure on the ‘dos and don’ts’ in tourism, but nothing about children is mentioned.
“So you wonder what is their stance,” the outspoken child rights activist says.
Inspired to take a stance
At the two-day sensitisation workshop, it was clear that most of the participant tourism stakeholders were aware of the menace and do frown at it. But only few were armed with adequate skills to address the problem. Even those who posses the know-how have to thread carefully to avoid backlash even for their genuine stance.
“We should be biased towards protecting our children,” Kairaba Hotel's Memunata however said. “We should not say we should not kill our industry, thereby compromising our future.”
She opined that knowledge in child rights ought to be imbued in workers at tourism industry and it be part of the induction programme or employment contract.
For Dawda Baldeh of Paradise Hotel, the use of promotional materials to combating child sex tourism. “The first thing a tourist contact is the brochures before making bookings. In every hotel room, there is an information pack. Tourists read that.”
However, some participants observe that even if all those measures are put in place, there is still a greater huddle.
For, as depicted in John’s play, in a country where majority are wallowing in abject poverty, tourists easily exploit the weakness of poverty-stricken families by offering to sponsor young children.
Mustapha Jobe, president of National Guides Association shared with the workshop one of the many such stories narrated by the participants.
He explained how he tried to protect a child from a suspected pedophile only to find himself at loggerheads with the mother of the young girl.
“The particular tourist at first came with his wife. They met this young girl and promised to sponsor her. But few months after they’d left, the man returned alone.
“He was a pedophile. We know it because we work with them. But when we told the mother about it, she felt that we were jealous of her daughter,” he explains.
And on that occasion, Mr Jobe refused to pursue further with the matter. Thus, what might transpire between that tourist and the young girl is to anyone’s guess.
“But now with this training, I am in a position to better handle such situations,” Mr Jobe says.
Author: saikou jammeh