Rejoice says she was 10 years old when she was sold and taken from her home to an unfamiliar fishing village on the banks of Volta Lake in central Ghana. Her parents said they needed the money and that her buyer, Victoria, would look after her.
For the next seven years Rejoice washed, scrubbed, cooked and cleaned alongside two other girls bought by Victoria. The young girls soon learned the rule of the house – work or be beaten.
They’d begin at dawn with house chores and preparing freshly caught fish from the lake for sale at the market. They wouldn’t rest until noon, when they’d have their first meal. Then they’d work five hours more.
“Victoria warned us that if someone came we should hide,” said Rejoice, now a young woman of 17. “She told us that if we agreed to leave and she found out, we would be beaten.”
The girls weren’t allowed to leave the house alone. They were taken to a doctor only when very sick. Rejoice’s parents never visited.
But these days Rejoice has regained her youthful optimism and has returned home to her parents. She is one of 69 children to have been placed at a new government-run shelter on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Previously a training centre for teachers, it was re-opened last October as a shelter for rescued trafficked children.
Human trafficking is a global problem and, according to the US government, between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Many more, like Rejoice, are trafficked within their own country.
The shelter in Accra serves as a halfway house for up to 50 children, aged 5 to 17, where they are “rehabilitated” and then returned to their biological parents. The rehabilitation lasts several months and includes medical treatment, counselling, formal schooling and life skills training, such as personal hygiene.
“We counsel the children to help them overcome their trauma and to help them forgive,” said Sharon Abbey, director of the shelter. “We also want to prepare them for school by exposing them to classroom work and prepare them to go to their parents.”
Most of the children arrive with health problems, physical symptoms of their neglect such as skin rashes, bilharzia or lice, which are treated at local clinics. Very few of the children have had any formal schooling and many have behavioural problems.
“Most arrive rowdy and violent - that is the environment they grew up around,” said Dorris Yiboe, field coordinator for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has rescued and placed several dozen children at the shelter. “They won’t stop talking, have no manners and don’t respect each other.”
But within a month or two of living at the shelter, the children transform. They are healthier, better mannered, listen to instructions and discuss their differences rather than resort to violence.
|Poverty leaves children vulnerable to child trafficking
“The ones who have been here longer report that the newer ones are behaving incorrectly. That tells you something,” said Abbey. “They tell you they are changed people.”
Once the children are ready, they are returned to their parents, given school uniforms and placed in school. District officers, with the help of police, monitor the families to avoid re-trafficking.
SERIOUS PROBLEM, SERIOUS RESPONSE
Most child rights advocates believe there are at least a few thousand trafficked children in Ghana, though there are currently no reliable statistics. Most of the children are trafficked from within the country and work as domestic servants or in the fishing, mining and agricultural sectors.
Child trafficking is done for commercial ends, explained Lookie Amuzu, West Africa coordinator for the NGO Free the Slaves. Through the practice, children’s labour is exploited by men and women who have paid often as little as US $60 per child to the parents.
Most parents are persuaded by promises that their children will be better off, well treated and maintain contact with the family. The parents are also told that after a period of time the children will return with money commensurate with their work. But this almost never happens.
“The master usually paints a rosy picture,” Amuzu said. “But there is deceit and this picture generally doesn’t play out. No normal parent would knowingly send a child to do this work. Most of them don’t know what the child is going through.”
Though poverty and the demand for cheap labour are at the root of child trafficking, Ghana’s longstanding cultural practice of traditional adoption – sending children to more affluent relatives - has helped foster an environment where the trade can flourish.
|Many of the children at the centre are in class for the first time, after being rescued from child traffickers
The assumption previously was that children sent to live with relatives would be well cared for and receive schooling in exchange for some household work. But in the 50s and 60s, said Amuzu, poverty worsened and parents started demanding money for their children’s work. This became more lucrative and professional traffickers arose.
“Trafficking is like a business, a trade or a profession. People acquire skills to do it and want to stay in it,” said Jack Dawson, director of the Association of People for Practical Life Skills (APPLE), which has rescued dozens of Ghanaian children.
But there is growing resistance to the trade in Ghana. In August last year the Human Trafficking Bill was passed. The law seeks to suppress and punish traffickers and provides funding for rehabilitation and re-integration. And the Ministry of Women and Children is drafting a national plan of action against trafficking.
There is also an increasingly integrated fight with social services, civil society, government ministries and law enforcement agencies coordinating and intensifying their efforts. The new shelter is an example of this coordination.
Though it is administered by the Department of Social Welfare, it is groups such as APPLE and IOM that are identifying parents, actively rescuing their children, and then turning the children over to the shelter.
These groups are giving parents income-generating skills, lest persistent poverty drives them to re-sell their children. APPLE trains parents in soap making, batik tie and dye and other small-scale businesses, and IOM trains parents in saving, planning and basic business skills. Both IOM and the Department of Social Welfare have micro-credit schemes.
But child rights advocates argue that without more education and effective governmental and law enforcement structures in place, child trafficking will continue in Ghana.
To read the story of Hawa, a girl of ten rescued from traffickers:
WEST AFRICA: Children in danger: Going home