Welcome to another edition of Children’s Corner. In today’s edition, we are featuring the interview we had with Ms. Haddy Jatou Jonga, a young child and women rights activist.Haddy is the Girls’ Mentorship Coordinator at Think Young Women (TYW), a youth organisation working to advocate against Harmful Traditional practices affecting the well being of women and girls in the Gambia, such as Female Genital Mutilation and Child marriage. She was also the former president of Voice of the Young under the Child Protection Alliance(CPA) As well as a active member in many youth led organisations. She will be talking about FGM, child marriage and how she is advocating for harmful traditional practices to be banned and abandoned in the Gambia.
Children’s Corner: Could you give a little personal background of yourself to our esteemed readers?
Haddy: My name is Haddy Jonga, alias Haddy Jatou Jonga. I graduated from the Gambia Methodist Academy in the year 2011 and I am now a final year law student at the University of The Gambia, Faculty of Law. I am a child and women’s rights activist and have worked with a couple of youth-led organisations such as Think Young Women(TYW), where I am currently serving as the Girls’ Mentorship Coordinator, Lend a Hand Society, The Balance Crew, Voice of the Young, under the Child Protection Alliance (CPA), amongst others. I was recently recognised as one of the most outstanding and promising emerging young women leaders of Africa by the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa. Coupled with this, I am the host of “The Balance Show” at the nation’s broadcaster GRTS which is geared towards promoting innovation through education. I am a human being first, then a young woman, a daughter, a sister and lover of children. I enjoy reading, playing with and talking to children and writing poetry. I am a performance poet for Blaque Magique, a group of young talented Gambians dedicated to using poetry, theatre and music to effect positive change.
Children’s Corner: You have now dedicated your time to advocacy in Child and Women’s rights issues. What motivates you in this?
Haddy : Well, like you said, I have dedicated myself to the advocacy for the rights of children and by extension women because I cannot find a cause more noble and genuine than that. From personal experience, I know very well how being accorded or deprived of your rights can influence or hinder your personal growth as an individual. We live in a society where children’s voices never really mattered although this has changed somehow over the years and I have come to realise the importance of questioning things and the people around me. I grew up as an inquisitive child and with the support of my parents I have been able to come thus far. I want every other child to be provided with all the necessities they require in order to become their best and to self-actualize. To tell you the truth, the smile on a child’s face gives me the greatest joy. Children have good memories and usually never forget some of the things done to them by an adult. If a child had a bad experience from childhood, those memories remain and in some cases those memories keep him/her from achieving great things due to a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. As such, I always strive to make a child smile because you can never know how much pain that one smile can soothe. The satisfaction I get from making children smile; that is my strength; that is my main motivation.
Children’s Corner: FGM continues to be the most controversial topic in our society and it is a serious human rights abuse in the Gambia. As an activist, how will you advocate for the enactment of a Law to criminalise it?
Haddy: First of all, I want to emphasize the fact that changing the mindset of people towards FGM is the most important means of eradicating it. People have used all sorts of channels and justifications such as culture and religion but the bottom line is, what is harmful is plain harmful and there cannot be any justification that is reasonable enough. Yes, we want a law enacted to put a stop to this practice but sometimes the law may not be enough. If people only stop the practice because of the existence of a law against it, they would only stop due to the fear factor or they can even find ways of doing it underground and not necessarily being convinced that it is against the fundamental human rights of all survivors. The abandonment of FGM as a human rights violation should be done through a holistic approach with the support of policy makers, traditional as well as religious leaders. Of course, as an activist, my role is to speak up against it through advocacy, awareness raising and lobbying and I will continue to do that at all times. But I just want to urge everyone out there to take time and reflect on the amount of harm being caused and how we can individually play a role in ending FGM once and for all.
Children’s Corner: Africa has the second highest rate of child marriage globally after Asia. 39% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. As an activist how do you intend to sensitize Gambians about it?
Haddy: Again, at this point, I will re-emphasize the need to switch the current trends, change our mindsets and our attitudes towards some of these traditional practices. As an activist, anything that will improve the life and welfare of children and women is dear to my heart and as a result I use every little channel I have to ensure that the interest of children and women are promoted. Child marriage is a cause for concern globally. My approach and that of my organisation (Think Young Women) is to engage and involve young men and boys in the fight. For so long, people have sidelined the need for men to be aware of the damage of some of these practices can cause and to convince them enough their participation in this regard is highly needed. Maybe it is already late for the older generation but working with young men and boys from now will equip them with all the information they need and it will enable them to be responsible husbands and fathers who will vehemently disagree with and not condone child marriage in their various households. I always advocate for the need to partner and work with men because they are usually the heads of households and if they are able to understand and appreciate the need to keep their sisters and daughters in school instead of marrying them off before eighteen, they can contribute immensely towards the abandonment of child marriage in no time.
Children’ Corner: Child Sexual abuse and exploitation is a growing problem in the Gambia. As an activist how will you advocate to curb this menace?
Haddy: Thank you for this question. I am sometimes saddened at the fact that too often, cases of rape and sexual abuse of children occur at a high rate in The Gambia. Firstly, I always stress the need for parents to have strong relationships with their children. This will help in ensuring that children speak up about their problems and some of the abuse they go through. So as an activist, my duty at all times is to encourage parent-child dialogue and to break down the culture of protecting the family name and integrity. Most of the time some cases of child abuse and exploitation are regarded as “family matters” and are rather settled at family level. We should however ask ourselves, is the family name more important than the life and wellbeing of a child? We are always advocating and will continue to advocate for cases of this nature to be reported so that the laws can be implemented and the perpetrators are brought to justice. It is time that we stop blaming and shaming the victims and letting the culprits go free. Also, one thing that really worries me is the fact that people tend to associate what happened to a girl at any time with her dress code. Yes, I agree we must be decent and responsible in our dressing and appearance but how about the one year olds that get raped? Can we use the way they are usually dressed against them? It is time to wake up and take up responsibility. Child sexual abuse and exploitation must stop. I have a duty to play, so does everyone else.
Children’s Corner: What are some of the violations children face in the community?
Haddy: FGM is number one on my list. Like I said earlier, we must move away from using culture and religion as shields and face the reality of the matter. The lives of girls and women are at risk and we must all do something to stop it.
The second one is child apprenticeship. I live in Old Yundum and recently, I have been seeing a whole lot of children at the coastal road garage working as apprentices on public transport. It is disheartening because these children are so young and are being exposed to a lot of dangers as they may end up having little or no education, be subjected to physical violence and maybe even drug and substance abuse. I am calling on the authorities to look into this matter. These children each have a place in school and not on the streets.
Children’s Corner: According to the UNICEF report, 42% and 37% respectively of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married in childhood. How would you advocate for the eradication of such practice in the Gambia?
Haddy: I think it is important to use success stories of women who were at the time accorded the opportunity to go to school and today they are among the most successful and renowned leaders in various spheres. People relate more to evidence they see for themselves and bringing these people to share their stories thus, if they see the first hand benefits of allowing girls to finish their education and take up careers, they will be inspired to allow their girls to also do the same. We need to make it clear that we are not against marriage; we just want every woman to have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Added to this, women who were child brides and have been through a lot of issues, they should be made comfortable enough to tell their stories and in so doing , convince young girls that marriage is supposed to be a mutual consent and it is a partnership.
Children’s Corner: Any Last Word?
Haddy: My last words will be to call on both young men and women to join the bandwagon in advocating for the rights of women and children. We all have a collective responsibility and if we succeed it just means a better life free from all forms of violence for all of us and a happy society.
Children’s Corner: Thank you for granting us an interview?
Haddy : The pleasure is all mine.