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Child trafficking: A symbol of poverty and vulnerability

• Some children are trafficked to fishing communities where they are made to fish to the detriment of their education­­. Picture: Eric Peasah.• Some children are trafficked to fishing communities where they are made to fish to the detriment of their education­­. Picture: Eric Peasah.
In Ghana, European-built slave forts and castles scatter along the coast — most notably those at Elmina and Cape Coast — and serve as reminders of the central role the country played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago.
Slavery has a different name today — human trafficking — but it still flourishes in Ghana: the 2013 Trafficking in Humans Report identified it as a source, transit and destination country for the practice. And, last year, the Ministry of Gender, Children and Socal Protection said 69.8 per cent of Ghana’s human trafficking was internal.
Along the shores of Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake, children are the victims.
In the Volta Region in eastern Ghana children as young as four and rarely older than 13 start their 15-hour workday as early as 4 a.m. and end well after dark, seven days a week. While girls de-scale fish and perform other domestic chores, boys mend, cast and hoist nets.
At the command of their masters — many of whom used to be slaves themselves — they dive underwater to unhook nets even when they can’t swim, knowing the alternative is taking a beating. Several of the children say they know others who’ve drowned. Others contract illnesses such as bilharzia from the parasite-infested lake.
Although work has primed their young muscles, distended stomachs portray their malnutrition.
But, most of their parents don’t know the realities of life on Lake Volta. Believing their children will attend school and work in the evenings, parents sell their children for as little as $20 a year. Some parents can’t afford to feed their children, while others believe their children  are staying with relatives, unaware that the relatives sold the children to fishermen.
Stacy Omorefe, cofounder of counter-trafficking NGO City of Refuge Ministries (CORM), said some NGOs have estimated that 7,000 – 10,000 children work along the lake — a number she thinks is low.
“No one can really give you an exact figure,” said Eric Peasah, founder of Right To Be Free and former field manager of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) counter-trafficking project. “But, I can say that, when you go on the lake and cruise for one hour, you can meet not less than 20 different canoes, and each one of them might have at least one child or two children in it.”
That wasn’t always the case. Four or five decades ago, Peasah explained, fishermen brought children or nephews who’d already finished middle school to learn the trade and carry on the family practice. But, he said, many of the teenagers eventually rebelled, not wanting to become fishermen. 
“Some of the groups along the line started taking younger boys from their villages to go and help them,” he said. “They had these young, young kids who are very submissive and obedient. They do what they’re asked to do.”
Ghana’s 2005 Human Trafficking Act criminalises the practice on the lake, and treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — ratified by Ghana in 1990, before any other country — discourage child labour and human trafficking. But, resolving the issue is more complicated than merely arresting and jailing those who are violating the law.
“We want to prosecute,” Peasah said. “But, the question is, how do you prosecute without much evidence? You need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this child was given out, was sold…and the people you need to (get) the evidence from are people within the family.”
Children, not knowing any better, sometimes say the fishermen are their fathers or relatives, which compounds the problem.
“Some of the kids we found, they don’t even know where they’re from, their last name,” explained Johnbull Omorefe, cofounder of CORM.
According to Peasah, only those who partake in extreme and obvious trafficking are successfully convicted.
Besides, according to Victoria Natsu, Head of the Human Trafficking Secretariat in the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, “it’s not in the best interest of Ghana, the children and the family themselves to have parents being prosecuted.”
Although an Anti Human Trafficking Unit was established within the Ghana Police Service in 2006, large-scale rescues pose another problem.
“We have a lot of shelters around, but we don’t have shelters,” Peasah began. “For example, if police go and do police raid — we’ve done that before — and we have hundreds of children, where do you take them? Nowhere.”
Most NGO shelters are at capacity, including CORM’s Children’s Village, where almost 40 children — most rescued from Lake Volta — stay in two dormitories, with the opportunity to attend an on-site school.
In Peasah’s opinion, though, permanent shelters aren’t the answer.
“I personally don’t believe in long-term institutionalising of children, victims,” Peasah said. “Those who run the orphanage, or whatever they are running, until children move, you can’t bring more.”
Peasah suggested if all counter-trafficking NGOs worked together to improve and use an existing government shelter as a temporary rehabilitation facility, money could be freed up to help more victims directly. But, he added, many NGOs don’t want to give up their shelters.
CORM does more than just shelter children, though.
Since their first rescue attempt, Johnbull and Stacy have worked to educate fishermen and other residents about the law regarding trafficking and child labor. They also educate “sending communities” — places where parents are likely to sell their children — about what really happens to children at the lake. 
According to Natsu, the government is also working to create awareness so parents and fishermen will know trafficking is not proper.
“Today we are talking of modern day slavery,” she said. “What we are saying is even if you want your children to be part of the process, let them have their education, their good health. Let them do all that children are supposed to do.
“Let them grow to the level where they could fit into the job, then start to train them.”
But, the problem is not only fuelled by lack of awareness — but also by poverty.
“If you look at everything, it revolves around single moms,” Johnbull said. “So, let’s go back to the root: what can we do to prevent it?”
 For CORM, the answer lies in operations called 7 Continents and Save A Child Water.
The former, located in the Tema New Town district of Greater Accra, employs about 10 single mothers who learn to make bags, jewelry and other similar items that are then sold in places such as the United States and France. The women are paid on a monthly basis.
Save A Child Water filters, packages and sells clean drinking water in Ghana, and only employs single mothers. A message inscribed on each water sachet, including the words, “children are not for sale,” helps spread the word about the issue. 50 per cent of profits go toward rescuing and supporting children and reconnecting them with their families.
The government, too, recognises that preventing trafficking means alleviating poverty.
Programmes such as Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP), for example, provide cash and health insurance to qualifying extremely poor households across Ghana, as long as their children are not in labour or trafficking and are enrolled and kept in school.
And, according to Natsu, Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) and the Ghana School Feeding Programme (GSFP), although not perfect, also help increase enrolment.
“It’s vulnerability that creates most of these problems for us,” Natsu said. “The first point of protection should be the family and the community.”
Although there are countless counter-trafficking NGOs working around Lake Volta, Peasah said vast areas of it were still mostly untouched.
“I believe that we cannot do it all,” he said. “We need each other.”

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