By Omar Bah
The United Nations Children’s Fund has called on Gambia’s political party leaders to avoid mobilising children for rallies in the upcoming presidential election.
The Unicef country representative, Gordon Jonathan Lewis made these comments while delivering a statement on ‘protecting the integrity of children during political rallies and gatherings’ at the Inter-Party Committee’s quarterly breakfast at the Sir Dawda Conference Center on Tuesday.
The high-level meeting funded by UNOWAS, RCO, UNDP, OHCHR, NDI and GPU was attended by representatives from political parties, civil society, regional and international organisations.
The Unicef Gambia boss continued: “Unicef Gambia strongly urges the Inter-Party Committee to consider to the extent possible, children, due to their vulnerability and special condition, should not form part of political rallies and manifestations in order to safeguard their integrity, safety, security and wellbeing, especially if there is a risk that they may not be peaceful.”
He said political parties should refrain from encouraging children in highly vulnerable situations especially “children living in street situations, out of school children, and children with disabilities, among others to join political rallies and gatherings”.
“The Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits children being manipulated or coerced against their own will,” he said.
The Unicef boss further lamented that political rallies and gatherings in The Gambia have increased in recent weeks as part of the democratic space related to the upcoming presidential election in December 2021.
“Numerous eyewitness reports, media coverage and independent photographs have illustrated that children are being mobilized as part of the cadre of party loyalists and supporters during political rallies.”
He said whilst to date these rallies and gatherings have been generally safe and peaceful, the presence of children may be problematic due to their special condition and particular status which could make them more vulnerable and place their integrity at risk in the event that these rallies and manifestations may turn unsafe or violent.
“Therefore, all measures need to be taken to avoid the presence of children in these events and ensure that whenever children are present their best interests are safeguarded and their safety, security and wellbeing are completely guaranteed and held paramount,” Gordon said.
The presence of children in political rallies and gatherings, he added, “could expose them to language and behaviors by adults that could be offensive to children”.
“In the event that violence should erupt, children are particularly prone to accidents, which could also be the case with speeding motorcades as well as inadequate implementation of safety measures in vehicles such as non-use of seatbelts and overcrowding,” he said.
He said children are also more vulnerable to co-option and manipulation by adults under different pretenses.
“For example, children in street situations or children from poor backgrounds may be promised incentives (monetary and non-monetary) in order to boost numbers in rallies and gatherings. Because of their age and limited maturity, children may end up being vulnerable to exploitation and unaware of the implications of joining such events,” he noted.
Taking part in political rallies and gatherings, he stressed, presents other risks for children, including considerable ones such as being victims of reprisals from the State, opposition parties or from the community or their own families, and/or being unlawfully arrested, detained, ill-treated, tortured or killed (as has occurred in other countries).
“Whenever children are present in political rallies and gatherings, it is incumbent on the political party, in collaboration with the relevant national authorities, to ensure that all measures are in place, tested and deemed efficient to guarantee the safety and security of children,” he added.