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General News of Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Source: The Globe Newspaper

Lost childhood: Legions of Ghana's children live on Accra's streets as sex workers

“We sleep in front of shops at night,” says Zuwera. She lives on the streets of crime-prone Accra suburb, Tudu in the city’s Central Business District.

“The rains come and go every year but our home remains the streets. Many of us sleep on discarded cupboards we pick from the streets”. Zuwera came from the North, one of many children who left their village for a better life.

Some were lured to the national capital from the poorest regions by greedy agents, promising the children they would be taken care of and paid well. These children live their lives in conditions described by Zuwera as “hellish”.

Child labour is a commodity Ghana is producing in loads. The city of Accra is seeing a surge in the number of underage female children, some as young as 9-years-old, who – in the baking African sun – toil long hours in the streets of the national capital for little reward.

Ghana has what campaigners call comprehensive laws in place to protect children and prohibits the use of underage workers, but they remain largely unenforced. As a result, the number of street children in Accra has ballooned from 21,000 in 2007 to more than 54,000 last year, according to figures from the Department of Social Welfare.

Anti Child Labour Campaigners fear that as the nation’s economy expands, following ongoing commercial production of crude oil in the deep waters of the western region, Ghanaian children will continue to be exploited to meet the country’s hunger for economic success.

As a result, every morning, before daybreak, the streets of Central Accra are a carnival bursting with vendors setting up their wares for the day. Many of the city’s traders use underage workforce of head porters who haul traders’ weighty goods to shops and lorry stations in the capital for a nominal wage. For more than 15 hours per day, the small heads of these children, supported by their little legs and thin necks carry burdens destined for various households and markets in many parts of Ghana.

“I make ¢6 a day,” 12-year-old Zuwera from Savulugu in the Northern Region said with a broad smile partly exposing her rotten teeth. “It is difficult a job. Sometimes, the loads are too heavy for me but I have to carry them in one way or the other or go hungry,” she added, while holding a ¢1 note she earned from her early morning toil.

Although school is in session around the country, Zuwera and her young friends who have sworn to win the impossible battle against abject poverty by serving as head porters are not in school.

Who will pay my school fees?

“We don’t go to school. In fact we don’t need to go to school to be rich,” said Zuwera’s friend, 13-year-old Alimatu through an interpreter, while carrying a bale of used clothes in a badly mangled pan. “Again, this kind of work cannot allow you to go to school. Also, when I go to school who will work for me and who will pay my fees? I will not be able to make enough money to send back home to my poor mother who is a widow.”

“I start work as early as 4:30 am. I continue working until late into the night. In a day, I can make as much as ¢7,” she added.

“This is the story of how we survive in Accra,” Alimatu said, dumping the heavy bale of used clothes from her badly mangled pan on the hard-packed soil just outside the Kantamanto market to grab a quick bite to eat from a woman warming a pot of porridge over glowing coals.

Of the more than 40 underage girls who sat on the hard-packed soil on the pavement between the Railway station and the Merchant Bank Headquarters eating all kinds of early morning meals, including rice water, beans and porridge, none could neither speak nor write passable English.

Many had fled to Accra from poverty ridden Northern Ghana villages to Accra. “Criminals and drug addicts mostly attack us and run off with our earnings. Some of my friends have been raped many times and subjected to severe beatings when they refused to surrender their monies to these criminals. We can’t even tell the police because the criminals will kill us”.

Zuwera said, she “dreams of a day I will make enough money to own my own home, build a good business and stop this kind of work. But for now, I must continue life in the streets, carrying heavy loads, hoping for a better tomorrow”.

But, for many, carrying loads in the streets of Accra is often not their only means of survival. Investigations by The Globe revealed that at night, many of them serve as commercial sex workers in the city’s biggest slum, Sodom and Gomorrah and around the Kwame Nkrumah Circle.

“I earn a lot more money having sex with men in the slum at night, than carrying loads,” said one self-confessed child prostitute cum head porter, Hassana. “On a good night I make as much as ¢30 from men. And I am talking about at least six men a night,” said the 15-year-old.

Thanks to male curb crawlers, Hassana -- unlike her colleague head porters who live on the streets -- owns a wooden kiosk, which she calls home. “As you can see, I have a television, a radio set” said the young prostitute who fled her native Saboba to Accra in search of greener pastures. “One day I will stop sleeping around with men for money but that will be only after I make enough money”.

Worrying situation

Child Rights campaigner, Bright Appiah, said the growing number of children in the streets “is worrying,” yet not much has been done by successive government in terms of “implementing” good policies to reduce the problem.

“If you look at the political manifestoes of the various political parties there is very little commitment from the parties on the issue of social programmes to help to reduce the number of children in the streets,” he said.

“The reason why there are many children in the streets is because the family system is failing children so they move out to seek refuge in the streets,” he said, adding “We need a comprehensive child protection system to deal with the problem”.

The man given the task of fighting the problem of street children in Ghana, Stephen Adongo, head of the Social Welfare Department, said although his office has “very good policies aimed at addressing the problem, our main handicap is lack of funds. “The last time, we took 50 children off streets in Greater Accra alone and sent them back to basic school. We were supported by an Italian NGO”.

He added that the department’s social workers have too much work and too little central government resources to adequately respond to the needs of street children, much less to stop the problem from continuing.

“The resources are not significant,” he said. “Most of our programs are suffering from serious underfunding. For this year for instance we have not yet received our releases”.

“There are more than 54 thousand street children in Greater Accra alone. So we need every support we can get in order to help them. The rehabilitation program is there but our handicap is funds”.**