“There law (on early/forced marriage) is already there,” says Dr. Isatou Touray

By Sarjo Camara-Singateh

The Executive Director of GAMCOTRAP, Dr. Isato Touray was caught in her office in the Kanifing institutional area on the 12th day of July 2016.to share her views and reactions on the president’s pronouncement on the banning of forced and early marriage in The Gambia.

As an activist working with women and children can you share your views and reactions on the president’s pronouncement to ban child and forced marriage?

 For us at the Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices affecting the rights of Women and Children (Gamcotrap), this is nothing new as there was a law in place since the 1st day of July 2005 that was when the president assented to the law passed by the National Assembly, which states, “An act to set out the rights and responsibilities of children, to consolidate the laws relating to children, to provide for the care, protection and maintenance of children, to establish a children’s court, to provide for a criminal justice system for children and for other connected purposes.”

And if you looked at the Children’s Act it has been very clear; a lot of rights have been put in place and it’s very clear and very comprehensive and for that matter I think the population has forgotten, may be they have not been involved in dealing with issues of the law and also promoting the rights of women and children but as leaders in the fight to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

If you go through the explanation on harmful social and customary practices on page 21, section19 of the Children’s Act says “no child shall be subjected to any social and cultural practices that affects the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and; in particular, those customs and practices that are (1) prejudicial to the health and life of the child; and (b) discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status”.

Dr. Touray said coming specifically on Part IV- protection of the rights of the child Heading A – Marriage and Betrothals, prohibition of child marriage section 24 says “Subject to the provisions of any applicable personal law, no child is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and a marriage so contracted is voidable.”

On prohibition of child betrothal, etc. section 25 (1): No parent, guardian or any other person shall (a) betroth a child to any person; (b) make a child the subject of dowry transaction; or (c) give out a child in marriage.

(2) a betrothal or marriage in contravention of section (1) is voidable. Other sections tell you the penalties and other things that follow.

For us I think it is a question of time to make it a sensational issue on women and children’s rights or use it as a topical issue when people want to get the attention of other actors who may be, they need their support, but for us in GAMCOTRAP, I think we are happy that he reiterated what he has assented to in 2005. The population should be aware that the Children’s Act is a very comprehensive document, which has clearly spelt out the issue, even bringing in the children’s court and all other institutions that are necessary, it even identified those institutions that are supposed to be taking responsibilities to ensure what happened.

Now what is the fundamental flaw in regard to the enactment of the law, “because for us it is a non-starter, it is already there”. The most important aspect that needs to be considered here is effective implementation of the Children’s Act which clearly spells out, and that means leveraging resources to the relevant state institutions to be able to protect those girls and to make all the commitments that he has made or assented to a reality by giving resources, building capacity of relevant institutions and having a strong flow up mechanism to find out how effective things have been done.

She noted that since 2005 1st July, a lot of early marriages have been contracted and betrothal has taken place, the debate have been going and apparently community based organisation, civil society organisations have been doing a lot, the female lawyers and female teachers associations all these branches that are really interested in promoting women and children’s rights have done a lot of advocacy but the failure of the state to implement the Children’s Act is the fundamental flaw.

I was surprised to see people appreciating and congratulating us because that was done 11 years ago. Dr. Isatou Touray said now the issue is what has come of the Children’s Act and how far has implementation taken place, because we have done a lot with the Child Protection Alliance and other institutions. We must also think of getting the data to compare whether there is a drastic risk reduction because it would not be only by 1% reduction, whether there is 30 or 40% reduction or so, so that we would celebrate.

Can we say that the move was triggered by the African Union?

Yes, it is possible, yes, because the African Union is now forced to take responsibility. I can remember in some of the meetings I have attended. It was the responsibility of the AU, to take responsibility to ensure that early marriage, harmful traditional practices particularly female genital mutilation are all addressed and they have to engage the states to take responsibility. I think it is a good practice but when countries sign or promulgate laws or conventions about women and children it is their responsibility and duty to take responsibility because they are the primary duty bearers. They must not politicise women issues to create relevance for themselves because they have failed, failed in giving it effective implementation.

Looking at the patriarchal nature of the Gambian society do you think women can effect any changes on the current trend of sending girls to marry?

 With the years of work and also engaging with women in the rural area, most of the time decisions are taken by men. Gambia is a highly patriarchal society.