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The Gambia must step up prosecutions

GENEVA / BANJUL (31 October 2019) – The Gambia should be commended for embarking on a national process of healing and reconciliation, reversing its abusive legacy and bringing perpetrators to account, said UN human rights expert Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, ending a mission to the country.

She said the truth and reconciliation process had created a real momentum and a much-needed space to break through the deeply embedded culture of silence and stigma surrounding the issue of sexual abuse of children, that until recently had largely been regarded as a private family matter.

“Effective investigation and prosecution are indispensable in curbing the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation,” said De Boer-Buquicchio, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, presenting a preliminary statement at the end of her visit.

“However, despite the welcome progress, societal barriers, such as stigma and shame, poverty, lack of awareness or ignorance of laws continue to feed the culture of silence and inhibit the reporting of cases,” she said.

“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 is stalled, resulting in victims or witnesses withdrawing their complaints. Some cases have also reportedly been dismissed on the grounds that statements by child victims were allegedly inconsistent.”

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The Special Rapporteur said that despite commendable legislative and significant awareness-raising efforts, she was concerned that no one involved in the sale, sexual abuse or exploitation of children or in human trafficking, was known to have been prosecuted or convicted. There were hardly any prosecutions and sentencing of practitioners and promoters of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), she added.

Child sexual exploitation is believed to be most prevalent in the Gambia’s poorest areas, and in and around the Tourism Development Area but the Special Rapporteur highlighted the need for disaggregated data on the issue.

Although marriage in The Gambia is illegal under the age of 18, customary and “personal laws” permit child marriages before this age. Girls in rural areas are often disproportionately affected by child marriage, the expert noted. Likewise, despite the explicit criminalisation of FGM and campaigns to raise awareness, the practice continues, especially in remote and cross-border areas.

De Boer-Buquicchio raised growing concern over the vulnerability of children on the move, including those living and working on the streets, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless and undocumented children. She also highlighted instances of forced begging, exploitation, beating and other forms of abuse in religious teaching centres (Koranic schools), denounced by civil society organisations.

She urged better reporting mechanisms, including a free telephone “hotline” operating round the clock, and better resourcing for the police force’s child welfare unit.

“Services for recovery and reintegrating children victims are virtually non-existent in The Gambia,” said de Boer-Buquicchio.

“I urge the Government to invest substantial resources in strengthening frontline protection services and making investigations more meaningful and child friendly. 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 children deserve.”

During her visit, de Boer-Buquicchio met national and local Government officials, representatives of civil society, development agents, children, and representatives of the tourism industry, including hotel owners, tourist guides and taxi drivers.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report at a forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council.

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