I will begin to thank the Standard Newspaper for this great opportunity to let me have my own column here.
Those of you who recognise me on the photo and who have read my articles about His Excellency President Barrow’s body language and the other about tribalism, might wonder why I have changed my name.
I use my name Pirjo Andersson when I’m in Sweden but I also have a Muslim name, which I love, so I prefer to use it here in my column.
Yes, I am a Muslim since 3 years back but you must forgive me if I don’t know how to use all the Arabic expressions and greetings because I wasn’t brought up with them.
Originally I’m from Finland and as a Finn, I’m used to go right to the point so I hope you will all get used to my style in time.
I love The Gambia and I have the greatest respect for you all but when there is something I see or hear that I react on I will write about it to share my thoughts with you.
For those of you who have enjoyed a swimmingpool sometimes you might know that diving in from the deep end of it is the scariest part but if you have managed that it can’t be worse, so here I come – diving in from the deep end!
I’m going to write about a subject that you might find shocking but I will tell you about it anyway.
Poverty is making us turning a blind eye to the truth.
One of the oldest professions on earth is prostitution.
It is something we don’t want to talk about, or even believe it is there in our neigbourhood, but it is still a fact.
When we think about prostitution the first thought that comes in mind is young women with short skirts, high heels and seductive manners.
This is one part of it, the most obvious part, but there are others, much deeper and more serious.
The Gambia is, as you all know, a very small country and the level of poverty is high.
Because of the last 22 years of oppression under the tyrant YaHya Jammeh the economy for the whole country had reached rock bottom.
Before that you had to deal with the aftermaths as the colonialists had left the Gambia to manage on its own.
It is understandable that the rising after this fall will be long and hard, there are many problems to deal with and sometimes it must be really hard for the government to even know where to begin.
In the middle of all these mixed problems we must not forget those who struggle in silence and shame – the women who have been forced in to prostitution.
Yes, dear reader, they are forced in to prostitution because of poverty, because of the lack of options.
According to Indexmundi.com and a search from 2016 the level of literacy for the whole population in the Gambia is 55,5 %, male 63,9 % and female 47,6 %.
This is much too high and that causes huge problems for the individuals, families and the whole society.
The illiteracy leads to unemployment and by that poverty.
If the family is lucky at least one person has a job but that person also has a big responsability to support a big family.
It must be a nightmare to know that the whole family’s well being depends on one person and what happens if this person loses their job or even dies?
There are no safety nets around the families, no one who is able to reach out a helping hand because all are as poor.
Employers are also able to use the poverty as a trump card for themselves.
They can threaten the employee to obedience by showing what the consequences will be if the employee gets fired.
What can you do to defend and protect your rights as a worker if you are illiterate, if you don’t belong to a workers union who can help you to defend your rights?
Nothing, and the employers know that!
For a young woman there are even less options than for men especially if she quits school at an early age.
It doesn’t pay to help her mum taking care of the home and the home is not even a pleasant place to stay when poverty is biting your neck.
What these young women have to hope for is to get married but the poverty will continue there.
Too many young men fled the Gambia during the oppression and some even continued afterwards because they didn’t have any hope for the future.
It takes a lot of courage to do this long and dangerous journey which many times leads to death in the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea.
The young men who have stayed in their motherland are as poor as the young women.
What kind of future will this lead to and what kind of future will their children have?
The young men hesitate to get married because they know they can’t support a family of their own.
The young women hope for a better life and some of them fall for the calls for their bodies – the only asset they have.
I read an article some days ago, on a Gambian news site, about some young women, who live in the Gambia, and they were forced in to prostitution.
One of them had been sexually abused by her own uncle, in the article she is called Isatou and she was born in Sierra Leone. The uncle was supposed to care for her as she was studying in the Gambia but he began to use her sexually and she couldn’t do anything about it because she depended on him and his mercy.
She had to obey him otherwise she wouldn’t get food or anything else she needed.
Imagine a young vulnerable woman who had left the safety of her home and who came in to the claws of a man she trusted!
It is shameful and as crazy as it always has been through the history it is the woman who has to bear the shame!
This is making me so upset, poverty is making some people acting worse than animals and when I think of these men who call themselves faithful Muslims it is even worse.
The young woman in the article, Isatou, finally found the strength to leave her uncle when she was 25.
Imagine her options now, what kind of man would like to marry her knowing what she has been through?
Isatou is now working as a prostitute, not a good life but at least she is free from her abusive uncle.
She and her friends protect each other so that no one they know will see them and find out what kind of job they have.
This is one of the reasons why you don’t see these girls out in the daylight, doing their business.
Another prostitute in this article, Mariama, born in the Gambia, she is the oldest child in her family and by that she has an extra responsability.
This girl felt forced to leave her home because she was in constant quarrels with her mother who insulted the daughter in front of others and always argued about money.
The mother wanted the girl to get a job to support the family but what kind of job can a young girl get without any education or connections?
Mariama couldn’t stand the quarrels anymore so she fled her home and got the only job she could get – prostitution.
She hates her life but now she can finally support her family, pay for their rent, food, school fees etc.
The mother is happy but she doesn’t know what her daughter does for a living.
Can the mother be that naive or has the poverty forced her to turn a blind eye to the truth?
Who is to blame for the prostitution?
There are no easy answers for that but to deal with this problem we must discuss it and find solutions.
These girls are suffering while we are turning a blind eye to them.
We must open our eyes, reach out to those who suffer in silence and show them mercy.
Stigmatizing the prostitution doesn’t cure the problem, instead we must create options from the beginning so no one has to live this undignified life.
No young women want to be prostitutes, they are forced to it by poverty.
We must put this to an end and show that even if we are poor we are rich in heart.
These girls shouldn’t be ashamed, we should as long as we allow this system to remain.
Maybe you wonder if there are no male prostitutes.
Of course there are, we just don’t call them that but the bumsters are another side of this sad profession.
As I’m a toubab I have got my fair share of bumsters approaching me, on the streets or on the beaches.
My first visits in the Gambia was as a tourist and the first time I experienced bumsters I really didn’t know how to deal with it and I felt extremly uncomfortable.
We have different cultures in different countries but as I’ve been living most of my life in Sweden I’m not used to having unknown people approaching me just like that and I know that I’m not alone feeling like this.
It is different if a sales person on a market etc approaches me to sell his or her goods, we discuss the price and so on but then at least I could leave the discussion if I wasn’t satisfied.
A bumster never leaves you alone, they are like plaster sticking to you and no matter how you try you can’t get rid of them.
If you got rid of one then suddenly some other appear and the process begins all over again.
This is actually one of the reasons why so many tourists don’t leave their hotel area or walk along the beaches, even if some of the guys who approach them are really nice you don’t want to take the risk of having a long and annoying discussion again to get rid of them.
It is a bit easier now thanks to the guards at the hotels and the beaches but they can’t keep an eye on everything at the same time.
Where is the dignity for these young guys?
They are selling their company and their bodies as well as our female prostitutes.
The guys live for a hope of a better future, some of them might find true love with a tourist but most of them will face an uncertain future just as our young female prostitutes.
The only difference between male and female prostitution is that the male doesn’t have to fear violence from their customers the same way the female does.
This is an ugly side of the Gambia, the country I love and where I once wish to live in.
This side is giving the Gambia a bad reputation among tourists so that is why I’m writing about it to raise a discussion.
Among all the other factors the government has to deal with this is a serious factor we can’t turn a blind eye to anymore.
The Gambia is a very small country, depending on the tourism so we must offer the tourists something better, no fake smiles anymore – only true smiles at the smiling coast of the Gambia.