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Opinions of Sunday, 28 February 2016

Columnist: A.B. Kafui Kanyi

Struggling to remain in school in rural Ghana

It is a quarter of an hour to midday. Emma is still in the bush surrounding of Suano, unsure of reaching home in time for his afternoon shift classes.

He starts sobbing uncontrollably as fears of missing another school day grips him.

The 12-year old class four- pupil finally emerged from the bush, hurrying through cocoa farms but his speed may not be enough to cover the remaining four kilometres Asawinsu, where he lives and schools, before class begins.

Asawinsu is in the Adansi South District of the Ashanti Region.

With his hands firmly clutching a bundle of firewood on his head, he hastens slowly lest he loses the worn-out pair of slippers protecting his feet from the hot ground as he cries intermittently.

Emma went to the farm at about 0400 hours with his parents and was released a few minutes to midday to go home and prepare for school.

He has already missed two days in the week due to work on the farm and was worried about a third day and its consequences on his academics.

The frail and stunted looking boy is not in this alone. He told the Ghana News Agency and a team from the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) that a couple of his friends also go through similar routines.

Their task is mainly to weed farms, gather cocoa beans and carry cocoa pods, firewood, and foodstuffs home.

The children spend a good time of the day on the farm, with some going to clear weeds before school and going back after school to pick foodstuffs.Unlike their parents, the children hardly wore any protective farming gear.

Those who go back to the farm to pick foodstuffs after school are usually unable to do their home work having gotten home late from the farm.

Though school enrolment in the community is high, attendance is low, because the children are engaged in economic activities during school hours.

Charcoal burning is one such economic activity. It is considered the only alternative for the very poor in rural areas, with high demand for charcoal coming from city dwellers.

With about 70 per cent of the Ghanaian households relying on charcoal as inexpensive fuel, charcoal burning has gradually become the preserve for rural youth and children.

The activity is pervasive between September and January – the cocoa off-season, when children help their parents in burning charcoal as a stop-gap measure, waiting for the new cocoa season.

At Aborekrom, in the Sefwi-Wiawso Municipal area, Mr Emmanuel Kudadzi, International Cocoa Initiative’s (ICI) Community Child Protection Committee (CCPC) Secretary, said charcoal burning is a major economic activity for children of very poor parents during cocoa-off season in the community.

He said pupils in the community engage in the activity to get “quick money” for their school needs.

When they are sacked from school during this period, there is nothing we can do as we see them resort to burning charcoal,” Mr Kudadzi said.

Unconfirmed reports suggest about 80 per cent of pupils in the community and other hamlets around the area go into the energy-sapping activity of felling trees, cutting them into sizes, and covering them with soil before they are fired into charcoal.

The children also help in fetching water from very far distances to quench the fire and help in packing the charcoal into sacks for sale.

Investigations show children play varied roles in the charcoal burning process, sometimes during school hours and often reluctantly.

At Owusukrom in the Adansi South District, male children between nine and 12 years old engage in illegal mining (galamsey) in the Offin River during school hours.

They allegedly come to school on Mondays, Wednesdays and some Fridays and dedicated Tuesdays and Thursday to the economic activity.

Mr Emmanuel Amoah, Head teacher of the local District Assembly Basic School, said four boys in class four are known illegal miners and hardly come to school.

They are said to earn between GH?10.00 and GH?15.00 a day, mining in the River from dawn to dusk.

According to author Jason A. Schoeneberger’s "Longitudinal Attendance Patterns" study, excessive absenteeism increases the chances of a student eventually dropping out of school, which can lead to long term consequences for students, such as lower average incomes, higher incidences of unemployment, and a higher likelihood of incarceration.

Child Trends Data Bank (2015) says attendance is an important factor in school success among children and youth. It says better attendance is related to higher academic achievement for students of all backgrounds, but particularly for children with lower socio-economic status.

Mr Edward Ansah, Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Chairman of Hintado D/A Primary School in the Wassa Amenfi East District, said community members in Hintado are headstrong, with differing attitude towards education- hardly appreciating academic achievement.

He said some parents deliberately refuse to hire adult labourers for their farms to keep their children in school, arguing they need the help of the children for light works.

The Children’s Act 1998 says a child under the age of 15 years can't be employed while the minimum age for engagement of child in light work is thirteen years.

The law defines light work as the work, which is not likely to be harmful to the health or development of the child and does not affect the child’s attendance at school or the capacity of the child to benefit from education.

Section Eight of the Act further underscores the importance of the Right of children to education and well-being, saying, "No person shall deprive a child access to education...or any other thing required for his development."

Indications are that apart from poverty, lack of basic social amenities in rural areas; contribute to the engagement of children in some activities during school hours.

For instance children are tasked to walk several kilometres in search of water for domestic use in communities where there is no water and during the dry season, they could spend 12 hours or more in search of water, instead of being in class.

Some parents also think allowing their children to walk four or five kilometres to school in nearby villages is uninspiring hence the need to engage them in “profitable” pursuits.

Unfortunately, this distorts government’s policy with respect to education of children.

Studies show that such engagements with physical stress due to the age and maturation of the child could affect his/her concentration at school and breakdown of his/her health.

It is therefore not surprising that a good number of such children do not do well in their Basic Education Certificate Examination and only end up in ‘galamsey’ pits, enduring life of pure deprivation with no stimulation for proper physical and mental development.

ICI IN ACTION

It is inspiring to see how the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) is working with players in the cocoa industry, farmers’ organisations, international organisations and the government to eliminate child labour in cocoa growing areas and to ensure a better future for children.

For instance, it is supporting child-centred community development projects including construction of classroom blocks, water projects, classroom furniture and capacity building in good farming practices and income generating activities for cocoa farmers and their wives.

It has also set up Community Child Protection Committees in the localities to sustain the campaign on child protection and child labour. The committees are to educate the locals against child labour and arrest parents who engage their children in hazardous work or any work that affects their (children) education.

Unfortunately a good number of the committees are ineffective. They appear only interested in lobbying for projects for the communities and not much of “putting the child first.”

And though ICI supports are helping increase school enrolment in the communities, the children are struggling to remain in school, with relatively high pupil absenteeism.

The children are gradually becoming endangered species - only objects of exploitation, whilst local authorities-metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies appear unconcerned.

Checks in some assemblies indicate the welfare of children in rural areas appears not to be on their priority list, meanwhile, they are enjoined by the Children’s Act to protect the welfare and promote the rights of children within their jurisdictions.

It is therefore prudent for the assemblies to partner relevant institutions and NGOs to work towards ensuring that children remain in school during school hours to break the vicious cycle the situation has now assumed.