“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Mandela
Children, persons below the age of 18 years, are said to form about 45 or so percent of our current population. Thus, we have a very young population. But I am tempted to ask: on the totem pole of your Government where are children placed? At the top, the middle or the bottom of the pole? Are they a priority or mere footnotes? Or because they have no votes, they matter less in the scheme of things, mere cogs in the turning wheels of the Government?
Mr. President, your always talk about the youth, reducing youth unemployment, creating jobs for youth, etc. Certainly, these initiatives are not for children. Interchanging “youth” with “children”, as if they are one and the same, will certainly do some disservice to children or rather put children’s issues in the back burner. Their aspirations may be similar but their needs and fears are certainly different.
Mr. President, adults always claim children are the future, the leaders of tomorrow. Unfortunately, policy makers and politicians go to build that future without consulting those who would live in it. What architect does that? What role, influence and contributions did children have or make during the preparation of the National Development Plan 2018-2021? And the NDP is supposed to build the future for our children.
How were their views, aspirations and fears captured in the Plan? Did the architects consult with children throughout the country, children from every background, boys and girls and children with disabilities, or mainly done through some adult representatives? Adults cannot assume they know what and how children feel without consulting with them. Children should be at the table, not on the menu. Children are not just the future, they are part of today too, leaders who can influence and proffer solutions to the problems of today.
Mr. President, it is said that the development of a country cannot be any swifter than its progress in education. Thus to develop as a country, we must invest heavily in education and ensure its availability, in numbers and quality, to all children in every part of the country.
It is a sad fact though that children in rural Gambia contend with a lot of challenges in their quest to have good education- inadequate qualified teachers, poorly equipped laboratories, workshops and libraries, poor facilities, no school buses, inadequate text books and other learning materials, etc.
These inadequacies need urgent attention if children from the rural areas are to be able to compete on equal footing with the others from urban Gambia. All things equal, life’s opportunities are easily grasped by those who have quality education than those whose are wishy-washy. Early childhood education makes the difference too and investment in this sector is a prerequisite.
Mr. President, I know the cliche in vogue is “The Gambia is open for business” and in deed it is. Many investors are coming to shop. Good for our development and progress as a nation. However, it is imperative that your Government always conducts both an environment and child impact assessments of the policies which would be put in place to drive the economy. The future we are creating is mainly for our children and it is important we create a future worth living in.
Tourism is being upped as one of the main drivers of our economy. I think we need to promote tourism, as the second foreign exchange earner and a great employer. I am worried that child protection in tourism and responsible tourism are taking the backseat. Sexual exploitation of children is a fact and growing and we cannot neglect it.
As we open our tourism, sex travellers will come along and children from vulnerable families will be easy targets. The message must be that while The Gambia is open for business, it has zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation. If we focus on the golden eggs only, we may kill the goose through neglect.
Mark Twain has advised us to concentrate on the future because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. But looking into the crystal ball, it does not a great magician to predict that sexual abuse of children is a growing problem in our country, the victims as young as two years. The future is not what it used to be. Children are not safe in the places where they are supposed to have love and protection- homes and schools.
Poverty, pimps, paedophiles, police, greed, corruption and parents may be blamed. Denial, conspiracy of silence, fear of reprisal, upping of family honour against the best interests of the children, stigmatisation, police attitude, mistrust of the authorities are some of the factors which militate against reporting and successful prosecution.
The judicial process as well as police attitude must be both child-centred and child-friendly. The interest and vigour in pursuing and prosecuting car thiefs, murderers and drug dealers must be the same energy to expend in going after child molesters, rapists, child sex travellers and child sex exploiters.
Mr. President, our child protection system needs strengthening and reinvigorating. Child Protection services, especially services for recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration, are inadequate and weak; child protection professionals are in very short supply; child protection service delivery structures are mainly in the GBA.
The human, financial and technical capacities of the Department of Social Welfare need strengthening, to be able to play its leadership role, both at the centre, regions and the periphery. The Police Child Welfare Unit needs the requisite support and capacity to be able to adequately protect children. When child protection services are inadequate, structures weak, professionals inadequate in expertise and numbers, data unavailable,
Mr. President, while all children are vulnerable, children with disabilities stand out due to their special status. They are subject to discrimination, environmental and institutional; are invisible and excluded from the enjoyment of rights.
While we have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we are yet to domesticate this treaty and have a Disability Act. We do not even have a National Disability Policy. I think we should expedite the development of these two instruments and give our children with disabilities the recognition and respect they deserve.
Mr. President, coordinating children’s issues, programmes and implementation of domestic legislation and ratified child related legal instruments is problematic. The issues are sectoralised and a holistic approach is difficult. Reporting to treaty bodies on time has been a challenge. Establishing a Ministry for children’s affairs or an Interministerial body will go a long way to ensuring children’s matters remain high on the priority list.
Mr. President, I urge that you do not ignore children in your presidency. They are a critical vote bank. No shrewd politician will ignore this constituency. By the next election, many children would turn 18 years and be eligible to vote. A connection or relationship not established with them now may be politically costly in the future.
All nations that have developed and advanced have invested enormously in their children, in early childhood education, in their health, protection, survival and development, in giving them a voice and building their life skills. In these lie our secret to advance too.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit it”