Despite government efforts to reduce the number of children living and working in Gambia's streets, the phenomenon continues, with hundreds of children vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse, child rights activists say.
Street children are most prevalent in the border towns of Farafenni and Basse, and in Brikama, Serekunda and Jarra Soma, according to Phoday Kebbeh, director of child rights NGO Institute for Social Reformation and Action (ISRA). “The figures are staggering,” he said.
The number of street children is unknown, but in one Immigration Department round-up in February, 374 people were rounded up, 200 of whom were children living or working on the street, according to a department communiqué.
International Organization for Migration’s regional programme director, Laurent De Boeck, told IRIN the number of children working on the streets in Gambia is on the rise.
In early 2008 the Gambian government launched a crackdown on street children, with Immigration Department officials and police starting round-ups every two months. Children are brought to a government-run transit centre in Bakoteh, 16km from the capital from where authorities try to reunify children with their families. But the department lacks capacity to handle the cases, according to ISRA’s Kebbeh, who said the round-ups spark fear in children.
Some 60 percent of children living on the street in Gambia come from neighbouring countries, most from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, according to a 2006 study – the most recent – by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and NGO Christian Children’s Fund (CCF).
Most of the children are known locally as “almodous” - deriving from the name “Ahmed” - who beg for alms for a religious teacher or marabout, who says he will teach them the Koran, house and feed them. They are known as “talibés” across the border in Senegal, where their numbers are far higher, says Kebbeh.
Poor families commonly send their children – usually boys – to a marabout with the intention of providing him a Koranic education, but in some cases they inadvertently feed a thriving network of child traffickers and smugglers, says child rights protection NGO Samu Social.
In Gambia ex-almodou Mutarr Nying, 12, escaped his marabout’s home in 2007 because he could not endure the regular beatings from his teacher. Children are battered if they do not deliver enough money to their teacher each night, he said, revealing a scar on his neck he said was from such a beating.
“It is a long time ago now [since I left]. I think two rains have passed since. Once he [the teacher] sent my peers in search of me. They almost kidnapped me, but a market woman came to my rescue.”
He said: “For two days she gave me food. I slept under her stall for a week without her knowing." Mutarr still carries a can to collect alms to support himself. He has not seen his parents for three years.
In addition to beatings the children face abuse from adults and other children, exploitation and exposure to unprotected sex, said Salifu Jarsey, UNICEF’s Gambia-based child protection expert. Many are malnourished and wander the streets half-naked, Serekunda residents told IRIN.
Gibby Barre, 15, an almodou in Serekunda, said while his marabout feeds the some 22 children living with him, the children have to beg for money for clothes and shoes.
Lacking capacity police refer the children to the Social Welfare Department, which in turn is unlikely to be able to follow up on individual cases, said Kebbeh. So children end up in the hands of child protection NGOs such as CCF or ISRA.
CCF runs a UNICEF-supported drop-in centre, which gives street children a chance to get a health check, have a shower, play with other children or simply rest, said UNICEF’s Jarsey.
ISRA and UNICEF are also developing a code of conduct for Gambia marabouts on minimum child protection standards, which they plan to release by the end of 2009.
Tackling the problem of street children is a delicate balancing act, because almodous are tied up with religion and tradition, UNICEF representative in Gambia Min-Whee Kang said. “It requires a multi-pronged, holistic approach, and strong systems and support structures to create a protective environment for these children.”
ISRA’s Kebbeh said existing legislation on child protection and trafficking also must be enforced.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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