By Ndey Sowe
The National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) Chairperson, Emmanuel Daniel Joof, in observance of the ‘Day of the African Child’, called on the Government of the Gambia to move beyond policy making in order to mitigate the issues affecting children in the country.
“We have an obligation to end all forms of harmful practices which deny too many children, especially girls, the right to life, protection from inhumane and degrading treatment, the right to development and education, dignity, and the best attainable standard of physical and mental health. It is the Government’s primary duty to effectively enforce and implement laws that protect children from these practices. Our children want us to now move beyond policy to action, to secure for them a better future,” said Chairman Joof.
Chairperson Joof made these remarks in a press release marking the Day of the African Child, which is annually commemorated on the 16 June. According to the stakeholders, the day presents an opportunity for Governments and stakeholders, including National Human Rights Institutions, to reflect on the challenges children face despite the laws and policies that have been established to promote, protect, and fulfil their rights, adding that it also seeks to highlight progress and lessons learned over time.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Thematic Committee on Vulnerable Groups joined the rest of Africa to mark the Day of the African Child (DAC).
The theme for this year’s commemoration is ‘Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice since 2013’.
The Gambia registered significant milestones in the area of law and policy. The National Social Protection Policy and the National Child Protection Strategy both cover comprehensive critical issues such as child marriage, FGM, and child labour. This is complemented by the establishment of a specialised Ministry for Children’s protection, the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare, the Police Child Welfare Unit, the Social Welfare Hotline Service and community-based child protection systems.
“However, as we reflect on this theme, it provides us the opportunity to evaluate the impact of the laws and policies we have in place to prohibit Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child marriage, child trafficking, child labour, sexual abuse and exploitation, child sex tourism, and other harmful social and cultural practices, and how they affect children in our country,” the release added.
Despite the existence of numerous domestic legislations and being party to child-focused regional and international legal instruments, the release indicated that children in The Gambia continue to be subjected to harmful practices which violate their human rights.
“FGM is still practised across the country,” the release noted.
According to the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2019/2020, up to 73 percent of women aged 15 to 49 years have undergone the practice. The Survey shows that FGM is most prevalent in Basse, Upper River Region, where 95 percent among women aged 15–49 years, underwent the deeply rooted societal menace. The trend does not seem to decline despite the ban in 2015 through the amendment of Sections 32A and 32B of the Women’s Act (2015). This is also reflected in the Children’s Act as amended in 2016 under Section 19, which states that “no child shall be subject to any social and cultural practice that affects the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and, in particular, these customs and practices that are: (a) prejudicial to the health and life of the child, such as female circumcision…”.
While 18 years has been set as the minimum legal age for marriage for both boys and girls through the amendment of the Children’s Act in 2016, child marriage remains prevalent, the survey reported. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 2018), 34.2 per cent of the women aged 20-49 years were married before they reach eighteen years.
The release stated that economic labour also affects children as early as 5 years of age, with a higher prevalence among adolescents, 15-17 years (Child Protection Situation Analysis in The Gambia, 2022). “When children are on the streets, especially during school hours, they miss out on their right to education,” the NHRC press release disclosed.
“It also exposes them to other forms of vulnerability, especially sexual abuse, and exploitation. For many of these children, this increases the burden of poverty and exclusion that they may face in their communities.”
The release pointed out that the theme for this year’s commemoration is therefore critical to the country’s context as it presents a unique opportunity to identify challenges in the implementation and enforcement of laws that protect children. Stakeholders posited that it is also an opportunity for the Government to reinforce the bold steps that were taken in 2015 and 2016, to legally prohibit FGM and Child Marriage respectively.
On the Day of the African Child, the commission added: “We call on the Government and all actors to build on the gains achieved and to ensure full enforcement of the laws that protect children to secure their best interest.”