Gambian child protection agencies have just completed a one-week camp in the capital, Banjul, to sensitize children to the risks of commercial sexual exploitation in the tourist-friendly, impoverished country.
Hundreds of schoolchildren attended the U.N. funded camp where they were asked to go back to their schools, homes, and neighborhoods to explain to others the problems of abuse they face.
Camp coordinator Famara Darboe said European tourists and Gambians use children for sex and or pornography because it is cheap and they can get away with it. He says criminals who organize the transactions make money, while the children have little to show for it but the scars that remain with them for life.
"The children are being used as commodities for perpetrators for their financial gains. So the children protection alliance took it as its responsibility to sensitize people about what this is and the impact on children," Mr. Darboe says.
Mr. Darboe says the European perpetrators are pedophiles. Meanwhile, he says research shows there are sordid reasons as well as to why some West Africans seek to have sex with impoverished Gambian children.
"It is believed that most people have the concept that once you have sex with children it can prevent you from HIV/AIDS or having sex with children if you are HIV. positive can cure it. This is why many people are going for it," ," Mr. Darboe says.
There are no established statistics on the scope of the problem, but in tourist areas, many foreigners and Gambians can be seen negotiating with criminals known for offering sex from children.
One child who attended the camp said he now understood the horror of the problem and that he would urge families and children, that whatever the immediate financial gain they would be getting, it was just not worth it.
"Every child who is being abused or every child who is being sexually abused, it is abused potential. Show me the condition of the children and I will tell you the future of your country. So if you adults out there look at us being abused, what future do you think the Gambia will be like?," the child asks.
The head of Gambia's main child protection association, Jalamang Camara, says the government has passed laws to prevent tourism sex abuse and to punish Gambian offenders, but he says too often, police are part of the criminal networks.
"Government should ensure that they train law enforcement officials so that they are not corrupt. They have to work very hard that laws are implemented. It's not only beautifying books because if not we are compromising our future," Mr. Camara says.
Another child at the camp said she was ready to do her part, but she also asked for outside help, saying the problem is getting worse, not better.
"It is really getting serious. If we are affected then we have nowhere to go. We are seeking help from the government, the entire stakeholders. The children will take part here, if we have help," another child says.