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Independent Appeal: Breaking the silence of Gambia's sex tourism

The tiny West African state has become a magnet for Western predators looking to abuse children. Simon Akam reports

On a hot Wednesday evening local children gather by a mango tree in the sandy backstreets of Bijilo, close by Gambia's main tourist drag on the West African country's Atlantic coast. A generator thumps a little way off to power a projector and on a fabric screen a film plays in which a young girl is groomed by an older man with a gift of a mobile phone. Later she is raped.

After the screening Samba Njie, youth co-ordinator with the Child Protection Alliance, a Gambian NGO in partnership with the British development agency ChildHope – one of the charities supported by this year's Independent Appeal – addresses the young audience.

"Now we are getting to the tourist season," he says, speaking in the local Wolof language. "There are some tourists who come here to abuse young children. Whether we accept it or not, it happens," he adds.

Tiny Gambia, a former British colony surrounded inland by former French possession Senegal, has a complicated relationship with the West.

Package holidaymakers arrived in the 1970s and blessed by a GMT time zone, easy flight connections from Europe and a stable political climate the winter sun industry blossomed.

Today over 100,000 tourists arrive each year and in 2008 travel and tourism provided 17.9 per cent of GDP and 89,000 jobs, 14.4 per cent of the country's total employment.

But there is a darker side to the annual influx of "toubabs", as westerners are known. The Gambia has become a target for unscrupulous tourists looking for sex with children.

"Men like younger girls," said Ahmed Jegan Loum, national co-ordinator of the Sex Workers Intervention Project, a local organisation that works with prostitutes. "Europeans come here to see young girls who are not too involved in sex." Very young boys can be seen approaching tourists and offering an under age "sister", promising she is a virgin.

"It's just an adventure for them," added the local chief, Abdoulie Joof, in Kololi, an area dominated by beach resorts. "They want to experience young girls. Some of them are homosex[ual], they go in for the boys."

Campaigners believe that since Asian countries tightened up their regulations men wanting sex with children turned their attention to destinations like the Gambia.

"At that time we found it was relatively new and coming up fast," explained Mireille Bijnsdorp, who has conducted one of the few in-depth investigations into the subject, for the NGO Terre des Hommes. "There was a feeling, this was a new issue for the country."

Despite the risk of trauma, Aids and ruined marriage prospects, for many young Gambian women prostitution appears to be an aspirational lifestyle choice. "Many girls envy them and would like to get such opportunities no matter what happens," said 16-year-old Yamai Jobe.

"Some would like to step into their shoes to get the same benefits." A girl of 12 saw her friend with a mobile phone and asked her how she got it. "At the beach," said her friend, so she went herself the next day and asked a tourist for a mobile. She was raped in the bushes and left with some coins.

Campaigners say that "sponsoring a child" has become a vehicle for abusers to gain access to underage sex. Tourists typically offer to pay for a year's schooling, for them only the cost of an expensive meal, in exchange for a relationship.

A night walk through the Senegambia tourist strip reveals middle-aged white men in ill-advised shorts sitting at al fresco tables with African girls half their age. A pair of balding European lotharios drive past in a jeep, the rear seats jammed with young black women. Elsewhere, Gambian youths with dreadlocks and imitated South London accents squire wobbly white women old enough to be their mothers.

Many parents regard the exhibition of their offspring to holiday makers as an "opportunity" rather than a threat. It is in this environment that the Child Protection Alliance does its work. An umbrella body founded in 2001, the CPA co-ordinates NGOs and other bodies involved in child protection issues.

"It was founded to fill a gap," said Njundu Drammeh, the Alliance's national co-ordinator. "At the time CPA was founded there was no child rights organisation in the Gambia."

The alliance's work is reflected in legislation. The Gambia passed a Tourism Offences Act in 2003, followed by a Children's Act two years later. The local police have also set up a child protection unit, while hotels are signatories to a code of conduct.

"We are not trying to look on everyone as a suspect, but we have systems in place," said Memunatu Junisa, human resources manager at the Kairaba Beach Hotel. "You come in with the child? Who is that child? What is the relationship?"

ChildHope's support for the Gambian CPA is a new venture, set up this year. "We partner with an organisation because we believe in their issues," said Allan Kiwanuka, ChildHope's partnerships and programmes manager for Africa.

An unfortunate consequence of increased vigilance has been to force prostitution into smaller guesthouses and even private houses.

Faced by these challenges the Child Protection Alliance has introduced a series of neighbourhood watch groups, comprising adults and children, which report suspicious goings-on to the authorities.

"They go places where these things are happening," explained youth leader Mam Jobe. "They disguise themselves as an innocent party, watching out." Yet, despite the legislatives measures and the work of CPA, prosecutions for the abuse of children in the Gambia remain few and far between and a culture of silence – known as "maslaha" – prevails. What makes combating this more difficult is that in Gambian culture even mentioning sex is taboo and children are not allowed to complain about adults. If a child is abused, it is rarely reported. The staff of the Child Protection Alliance are clear about what needs to be done and that includes breaking the silence.

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk