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Opinions of Saturday, 5 November 2011

Columnist: Kuyini, Ahmed Bawa

Considering a Child Rights Approach to Dealing

Considering a Child Rights Approach to Dealing with the “Kayayo Girls” Phenomenon

One of the biggest concerns of policy makers, child rights advocates and families is the lack of educational participation among young girls called the Kayayo girls. These girls who mostly drop out of school or have never attended school migrate in droves from rural northern Ghana to urban centers in the south. The girls try to earn a living through carting goods on their heads along the narrow streets of the central business districts of Accra, Kumasi and others This has been dubbed the Kayayo Phenomenon.
Although this problem has largely been attributed to poverty and lack of jobs, I have always held the view that it borders more on child rights and protection and social justice. In my opinion, subordinating the arguments about how to deal with the Kayayo problem to poverty and lack of jobs, has detracted government, civil societies and families from tackling the problem in the most appropriate and comprehensive way - namely that of rights/protection.

The Kayayo phenomenon began in the late 1980s when young women who had never been to school began to visit Accra and Kumasi during the dry season (when there was little to do on the farms) to work for some income. These girls often returned to their villages before the next rainy season. However, in the early 1990s many of these seasonal female workers began to stay for longer periods of time and also tried to make homes for themselves in the streets of Accra. Another remarkable change, apart from the phenomenal rise in the numbers of those arriving, was that children as young as 8 -10 years of age were beginning to dominate the population of Kayayo girls. That was when it became an issue of child protection. However, without a legislative framework at the time (pre 1998) it would have been difficult to construe it as such. As a teacher, I used to have conversations with some of the girls and tried to convince them to go back and complete their education. Sometimes, it was heartbreaking to see some of those girls (months later) with newborn babies on backs and heavy loads on their heads, in the midday heat of tropical Accra.

By 1996, sections of the Northern Ghana youth organisations and politicians and later government departments began to express concerns about the rising numbers of Kayayo girls. The NDC and NPP governments talked about the need to address the issue through the actions of the Girl-Child Education Unit and the Ministries of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare. In the last 15 years, much attention has been focused on stemming the migration of the young girls to the cities through a concentration of effort at addressing issues related to school enrolment and dropout among girls. The Ghana Government’s policies and provisions have therefore sought to increase enrolment rates and sustain school attendance of the girl-child. In addition, some projects such as The Canada-Ghana Girl-Child Education Enhancement Project and others by ActionAid, have focused on reversing the trend through education and sensitisation on gender issues. More recently, some NGOs have set up alternative vocational education experiences for the girls in Accra and in the source villages in northern Ghana.
There are two main problems with this approach. Firstly, the use of education hinges on the principles of attitude change through knowledge and this often requires a sustained effort over time, because attitudes are value-laden. Secondly, there are limited funds to allow for delivering these programs on a sustainable basis and so broad success with this approach is unlikely in the short-term.

Although, the combined effect of these programs has yielded some good results, it appears that these approaches are not producing quick results and many more bright futures are curtailed. In fact, recent anecdotal reports and observations show that in spite of the government’s huge investment in education and the push for attaining the EFA and MDG goals, the Kayayo phenomenon will remain one of the most visible pedestals of resistance to harnessing the productive power of women in Ghana. This is because in spite of the implementation of several poverty mitigating programs targeting schools (such as the school feeding program), female drop out and/or disengagement from school is still higher than boys and more girls fail to pass BECE exams, especially in the north. The girls who drop out of school are more likely to join the bandwagon of Kayayo girls migrating to the south. This outcome appears to give credence to the fact that the policies and programs have narrowly articulated and perceived the situation as only one of female (girl-child) disempowerment and less adequately as one of child rights & protection, which require a broader and more integrated approach, including catering for all other associated issues and risks.

In light of this limited progress, I am of the opinion that alternative and more radical approaches to addressing this phenomenon should be canvassed, discussed and implemented. Undoubtedly, attitudinal change approaches alone are not adequate in our cultural setup where people are more resistant to directing energies of children into avenues that do not generate immediate outcomes (in this, case money). Therefore it is worthwhile considering a vigorous combination of law enforcement and attitudinal change. The Ghana child rights legislation (Children’s Act, 560 of 1998) has never been seriously considered or used as a foundation for dealing with the Kayayo problem and it was high time that the Ghana Government took a legal approach using the framework of the Child Rights Legislation.

Why is a legal approach required?

In trying to canvass support for a legal approach, we need to recognize that the Kayayo phenomenon is a child protection and social justice issue. It is also one of dereliction of responsibility on the part of Government.

Why is it a Child protection issue? The majority of the migrant working girls (kayayo girls) including girls as young as eight years old have no homes in the cities and are usually economically and sexually exploited (coerced into sex or sometimes raped). The main places of accommodation such as the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ slum (notorious for crime) are inappropriate and the thought that young gilrs are in these unsafe environments should be an issue of concern from the point of view child protection. Further, this internal migration experience is associated with health risks for children and therefore shares a striking similarly with international migration from poor and conflict afflicted countries, which has witnessed a phenomenal rise in the numbers of unaccompanied minors. And since Governments in Europe and Australia have made provisions to ensue that unaccompanied minors (children) are protected under child rights laws, it is profoundly important that our government takes the same position on Kayayo.

In regard to dereliction of responsibility, it is important to stress that the notion of citizenship imposes on all parents and guardians of children some rights and responsibilities. Further, that the government has an obligation and a responsibility to ensure that citizens who disregard the law are brought to account. Thus parents and guardians of kayayo girls must be responsible to their children within the framework of the child rights legislation. So if these battalions of children and young girls are throwing away their future, with the open connivance of adults who should know better, then the government must take radical steps to address it. Again, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that the principles of social justice and social inclusion prevail across the spectrum of society. In this case, the unintended consequences of not enforcing compulsory school attendance and school completion by these girls, amounts to a gradual and yet progressive social exclusion from effective participation in the future society of Ghana. For these reasons and others not mentioned here, the Ghana Government needs to take a legal approach to terminating this problem.

I am convinced that if the government sets up a program of law enforcement whereby the parents or guardians of any minor caught in the practice of kayayo are sanctioned heavily in line with the legislative principles of denial of rights to education and protection from child labour (as outlined in the Children Act, 560), many families in the Kayayo source regions will cease to send these young children to the engage in the practice.
I taking this opportunity to invite all concerned persons and institutions (child rights advocates and civil society) to join a network “Bright Futures for Kayayo Girls” to petition the government in regard to adding a legal approach to the exiting approaches.
To contribute ideas to the petition, please emailing cevsadmin@cevsghana.org or visit our website www.cevsghana.org and post your ideas and support for the petition.

Dr. Ahmed Bawa Kuyini
For CEVS-Ghana, Tamale.