By Debbie Ariyo
In May and June 2019, I visited Ghana as the first part of my 2019 Winston Churchill travel fellowship. My aim was to better understand the various drivers of child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing sector and to explore some of the responses on the ground by engaging with a range of government agencies, NGOs and those working to support children who have been rescued. I travelled across Greater Accra, Central and Volta regions, so I was able to see these issues play out first hand, while observing the various social dynamics involved.
My research was further enriched through being embedded within two NGOs in the Central Region – Cheerful Hearts Foundation and Challenging Heights where I spent a total of five days interviewing their staff, touring the region, visiting various fishing and non-fishing rural communities between and around Kasoa, Senya and Winneba to better understand this phenomenon. I had also planned to spend time with an NGO featured on a recent CNN programme about child slavery in the fishing industry, but unsurprisingly, the negative publicity generated by that programme had dampened their trust in foreigners wishing to come and “learn” about their work.
As I toured these fishing communities, it was easy to observe the very high levels of poverty and deprivation, and coupled with other social factors, including high birth rates and high levels of unemployment, even the influence of religion, I could understand why child trafficking is so rife. These push factors are very similar to those involving the young victims of trafficking from different African countries that I work with in the UK. Under these dire conditions, it is easy for struggling parents to give their children away to recruiters believing they would receive regular payments in return for them working on the boats. However, as I spoke to a range of NGO workers and community advocates, I learnt that this was not the case. The promised payments usually never materialise. Worse still, parents lose contact with their children, sometimes permanently. The recruiters are hardly ever seen again.
I had met with parties who believed there was nothing wrong in the practice of children or their families being offered money to work in the fishing sector. “It is simply child labour”, an NGO leader told me. “They are doing it to support their families.”
I spoke to other professionals who highlighted that the use of children for fishing has been going on for generations. “It is their culture”, I was told. “There is nothing wrong with it.” This high level of moral intensity in relation to child trafficking, even slavery in the sector could be a factor in the reduced efforts to stop this practice. Many people do not see anything wrong with it.
I visited a shelter for rescued children run by the charity Challenging Heights. There were close to 100 children – both boys and girls in this facility alone. Most of them had been trafficked from their communities in the Central region and taken to the Volta region to work with fishermen on Lake Volta. I was shocked to see a young boy, about 6 years old, who had been rescued while he was working on the lake with other lads.
The attraction for fishermen in employing young boys is three-fold. Firstly, fishing is very arduous labour, so it is cheaper and easier to employ boys to do this work rather than men. Secondly, as children, they can swim faster, breathe longer in the water and their nimble hands can (more easily) retrieve stuck fishing nets from the bottom of the lake. Thirdly, without their family members around, there is little or no incentive for the fishermen to take proper care of the children, provide for their material needs, send them to school or even ensure their safety. Aside, I was told of the high rate of accidents or death that occur as the children go underwater to retrieve the nets – ranging from being entangled in fishing nets and drowning, to being injured by the tree stumps in the water. Of course there is hardly any question asked about the welfare or safety of these children.
I asked the shelter workers to tell me what they thought of the children’s experiences working on the lake. A worker responded as follows:
“I remember the case of a 12 year old boy we had here. His hands had wounds all over them. His hands were so shrunken and dried out they looked like the hands of an 80 year old man. How can you tell me that this child is joyfully and freely doing this work”?
As I left the Central Region, I spoke to my driver about the work I had been doing on this subject. It was meant to be an innocent conversation. However, I observed he started to shake uncontrollably. He manoeuvred the vehicle to the side of the road where we stopped. I asked him what the matter was.
“Madam, what you are talking about happened to me”, he said, his voice shaking. “I was about 10 years old when my mother gave me away. It was the worst time of my life and I still remember what I went through at the hands of those men. I saw with my own eyes a boy that went with us on the boat. He went down to retrieve the net and he did not come back. We left him there in the water.”
“Is this slavery? I asked.
“Of course it is slavery. They never treated their own children like that. They did not give us food. They did not send us to school. They did not give us money. They always beat us. I am still very angry with my mother for giving me away.”
Since “Eric” had told me he was 45 years old in previous conversations, I observed that it had been 35 years since his experience, yet he was still largely traumatised by it. Just to point out that I asked his permission to use his story in my reports and he consented.
As we resumed our drive towards Accra, I pondered about the culture of disbelief that made people who had no experience of a particular issue to disparage it or call into question the intentions of those who know, or the sincerity of those who have experienced it. This helps to normalise the practice, making it more difficult to intervene to safeguard victims.
To tackle different forms of child trafficking and child slavery, these have to be seen for exactly what they are – practices that harm children. As a first step, we have to address the culture of disbelief that helps to normalise harmful practices. This calls for closer joint-working between NGOs, communities, politicians, academia, Government agencies and the private sector to agree a common approach. This should not be difficult – in many instances the laws are there to guide our understanding of these issues. For example, Ghana has robust legislation and accompanying standard operating procedures that address the issue of child trafficking covering the four Ps – Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. While we can debate the adequacy of current legislation, the onus is on various practitioners to improve their understanding of the law so they can better perform their safeguarding roles.
The situation is not too dissimilar in the UK. We have to continue working to enable professionals understand that there is no cultural practice that makes it right to abuse, exploit or traffick children, or even enslave them.
Today is World Day for the Prevention of Trafficking In Persons. We need to intensify our efforts to help prevent the abuse, trafficking and enslavement of children.
Debbie Ariyo OBE is Founder and CEO of AFRUCA and a 2019 Winston Churchill Fellow