Boy slaves and forced marriage on Ghana’s Lake Volta

Enforced child marriage generally conjures up images of young girls being wed under duress to older men. But on Ghana’s Lake Volta, in the central region of the country, one charity is saving young boys from the practice too.

Saving some of Ghana’s most vulnerable © Challenging Heights

Challenging Heights is a not-for profit organisation that focuses on rescuing and rehabilitating youngsters – mainly boys – who have been trafficked into various forms of slave labour. The list includes fishing and household domestic work.

The charity’s founder Dr James Kofi Annan was trafficked aged six and forced to work in various fishing communities along the lake but managed to escape seven years later. His story is remarkable because he not only taught himself to read, put himself through school. And in spite of his challenging beginnings, he ended up working for Barclays Bank – only leaving to establish Challenging Heights in 2003.

Teen marriage

So why is there this problem in the Lake Volta region? Well, the main issue is poverty but also ignorance. These factors unwittingly drive some family members to send their children away to people who falsely promise to educate and provide for them.

“So when a distant relative comes and says they can help you with a child, it is an appealing offer,” a Challenging Heights spokeswoman told MisBeee. “They have no idea what is happening on Lake Volta, and that the children, as young as five, are forced to work in dangerous conditions, deprived of education and medical care, and made to promise to get married.”

These slave masters often don’t pay the children, abuse them and can force them to marry once they reach their teens.

“Most of the forced marriages happen when the boys are 17 or 18 years old,” the spokeswoman said. “This is a way for them to maintain control over the boys and prevent them from leaving, by holding that promise over their heads. It is also beneficial for the masters because the children who result from these marriages are then also enslaved on Lake Volta.”

Ghana’s laws

Despite laws including the Human Trafficking Act 2005, and the Children’s Act 1998 enacted to prevent these activities, there has been a drop in government efforts to prosecute offenders, the charity claims.

“Our own experience is that prosecutions have only been achieved by NGOs pursuing cases and funding law enforcement agencies themselves,” according to Challenging Height’s 2015 annual report.

Statistics from the Ghanaian government suggest that the number of child slaves has increased since the now expired National Plan of Action Against the Worst Forms of Child Labour was launched in 2010. The plan expired in 2015 and Ghana risks being downgraded to Tier 3 on the US Department of State’s annual trafficking in persons report. Tier 3 level could impact on Ghana receiving international aid.

The total number of children engaged in this activity in Ghana has increased from 1.27 million to 1.9 million between 2010 and 2015, with an estimated 21,000 children enslaved in hazardous labour on Lake Volta, according to Challenging Heights.

On the lake, children would be forced to dive to untangle fishing nets, and would be engaged in fishing for a range of fish such as tilapia, catfish and mudfish, according to Participatory Development Associates – an organisation that supports processes of empowerment and self-determination in communities, organisations and individuals.

Rescue and repatriation

Challenging Heights works with families once it is suspected that they have been forced to work in hazardous conditions on the lake. The first stage is sending a letter to the masters requesting for them to send the child back, which sometimes works, the spokeswoman said. Otherwise, the charity sets about preparing to rescue the child, bringing them to the charity’s shelter and eventually repatriating them with their families where possible. Wherever possible, the Challenging Heights tries to prosecute the traffickers as well. In 2015, Challenging Heights rescued and reintegrated 41 children. In the first five months of 2016, that figure is nearly 30 children.

The children are assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder and screened for any health problems. Children can stay at the shelter for a minimum of six months and are also educated on site at the shelter.

“For nearly all of the children in our shelter, this is their first time in school,” the charity spokeswomen said. “We try to get them to a level that is comparable to their age as best as we can. If the children are older, we aim for them to have basic skills so that they can do an apprenticeship upon reintegration.”

Longer-term support

During the children’s time at the shelter, Challenging Heights works with the parents of enslaved children to ensure other siblings are also enrolled in school. The charity supports parents in securing sustainable sources of income through the charity’s co-operatives such as fish smoking. Soon the charity plans to add a cold store, horticulture and farming training and soap making to the list.

But their work does not end there. The charity formed community child protection committees comprising prominent community members and students that act as watchdogs for trafficking and violations of children’s rights. Community sensitisation programmes and advocacy campaigns have also been launched to raise awareness. A recent one involved talking to taxi and van drivers about trafficking. Other activities involve lobbying government and staging conferences for students, educating them on their rights and giving them a platform to voice their concerns.

If you would like to support the work of Challenging Heights, either through donations or expertise, find out more here.

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

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