By Matthew Ewusi Nyarkoh
August 09, 2009
ACCRA, Ghana – Several thousand children live and work on the streets here, and their numbers are growing. Increasing urbanization in the capital city and increasing poverty in the surrounding countryside are making more children vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and abuse, including a higher risk of exposure to HIV.
The minimum age when children can work legally in Ghana is 16. However, more than 26 percent of children between 5 and 14 work illegally, according to the Ghana Statistical Service. The service’s report indicates that children in rural areas work in fishing, herding and farming, and asdomestic servants, porters, hawkers, mine and quarry laborers, and bus conductors. In urban centers like Accra, street children work mainly as truck pushers, head porters, and sales workers.
Amina is 11, an orphan who works as a porter in the suburb of Nima. Porters like Amina, known in Accra as kayayei, carry heavy loads in a basin balanced on their heads. She said in an interview that she came to Accra two years ago, when she was 9, after her parents were killed. They were returning home from their farm field on a bicycle when theywere hit by a car and killed, she said.
Although she has aunts and uncles, they not only declined to take in the orphan but alsoaccused her of causing her parents’ deaths, she claimed. Since she had no other family to run to, her only option was to head to Accra to find work and take care of herself. So now she carries loads for shoppers in the Nima market.
She charges 70 pesewes ($ .50 U.S.) for a small load and 1 cedi ($ .68 U.S.) for a bigger load. After the day’s work, she waits for a shop to close so she can sleep in front of that shop, she said, adding that she has been robbed a few times of the money she made that day.
She added that the government should come to the aid of child laborers like her to provide them with shelter and support. She asked that her full name not be published because she feared for her safety if her relatives should learn of her whereabouts.
Jalal Mohammed, a program officer at Moslem Family Counseling Services in Accra, said in an interview that child laborers are not only denied access to education but also some are held in indentured servitude, forced to work off their families’ debts. According to his agency, over 1 million underage children work in Ghana. Of those, more than 242,000 are engaged in the most dangerous and exploitive work and over 800,000 are not in school.
Mohammed said many child traffickers in Ghana have been publicly exposed but authorities have failed to prosecute them. The government would not act and traffickers would not be deterred unless aid workers, human rights activists, and journalists continued to apply pressure, he said.
Jalilu Umar, an aide to Mohammed, said illegal child labor is a major threat to the country’s development and therefore should be discouraged by all. But Saani Ibrahim, the secretary of the Nima Youth Association, a private agency in Accra, said parents often abandon or neglect their children, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness and exploitation.
“Children are the heritage of God, source of joy and happiness, and they represent the beginning of the future in any society,” Ibrahim said.
The Ghanaian government haslaws in place to protect children and alleviate family poverty, noted Hilda Abena, 12, a student at St. Kizito Junior High School in Accra. Enforcing those lawscould help reduce the incidence of child labor, including prostitution, and provide more children with education, health care, and skills for legal employment later in life, she said.
Children are too often treated like nothing mote than but economic assets, said Joseph Asouandze, 18, who recently graduated from the O’Reilly Secondary School in Accra. Asouandze said he has seen children as young as 4 living and working on the streets. It is not uncommon to find these children out of school, traumatized, neglected, underfed, lacking even basic healthcare and living in misery. And the girls, he added, are sometimes considered “legitimate” avenues for sexual gratification.
Asouandze compared the slavery of centuries ago to the enslavement of children now, observing that family members then and now sometimes sold children they could not take of.
For that reason, he concluded that the two are the same, and the government should more vigorously combat poverty and strengthen its prosecutions of parents and others who entrap children in servitude.