CELEBRATING THE DAY OF THE AFRICAN CHILD

In 2002 the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, native of Ghana, West Africa, commissioned the Millennium Project – “to develop a concrete action plan for the world to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to reverse the grinding poverty, hunger and disease affecting billions of people.”[i]

Day of the African child

Day of the African child

 

The Project noted that at the turn of the millennium, over a billion people in the world were living on less than $1 a day and another 2.7 billion on less than $2 a day.

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In Africa, the effects of such extreme poverty were acknowledged in the areas of:

  • HEALTH – lack of access to clean water; water-borne diseases; malnutrition; disproportionate number of deaths due to AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis; infant mortality; and more. 11 million children were estimated to die each year, mostly under the age of five, while 6 million of those died of preventable diseases.  50% of Africans were suffering from a water-borne disease such as cholera or infant diarrhea at that time.  One million child deaths per year were expected from malaria – one child every thirty seconds.
  • HUNGER – the population of Africa dramatically increased while food production decreased by nearly 25%, leading to the need to import, rather than export food – up to 1/3 of grain was imported at the turn of the millennium. As a result, 40% of Africans lacked sufficient food.
  • WOMEN AND CHILDREN – 1 in 16 women died in pregnancy or childbirth (the figure for the developed world is 1 in 3700), and half of all births lacked a qualified birth attendant. 40% of women in Africa were uneducated – uneducated women are less likely to have access to appropriate prenatal and postnatal care and to have their children immunized, and more likely to contract HIV/AIDS.[ii]

The Millennium Project’s intention to make vast improvements in these areas and others by 2015 had spotty results.  For instance, Benin, a tiny West African country that lies along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, was not able to meet any of the goals.[iii]

Children in Africa face numerous challenges as the Millennium Project noted – a year after the end of the project, African children still struggle against incredible odds.  Living in Ghana, I see the challenges faced by children every day.  I’ll be writing from my own perspective as a resident of Ghana, West Africa.

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Children from a family of charcoal-burners. Their meal that day was a thin soup containing one tiny crab.

 

 In 1997, Ghana signed on to The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and enacted a country-wide law in 1998 to protect the rights of children in Ghana, The Children’s Act.  A document from 2013 examined how the law had affected children in Ghana over the 15 years since the enactment of the law.

The study stated that unfortunately, children still face extreme abuse, forced labor in unsafe conditions, lack of education, homelessness and exploitation.  Sadly enough, the researcher found that in some cases, the governmental agencies responsible for carrying out the law did not even know the law existed.  Partly because of long-standing cultural practices, the idea that children have rights is not high on the agenda of many adults.

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Children playing and helping the family – not attending school

 

 According to the Act, parents (or a designated legal guardian) must care for their children and provide them with shelter, health care, education, and other life necessities.  This is severely complicated by a high birth rate, combined with extreme poverty.  Right now in Accra, the capital of Ghana, a city of about four million people, there are an estimated 40,000 homeless youths.  Most of these young people left their home villages in search of work in the city – sometimes they were forced to leave by their parents, who could no longer afford to care for them.  Oftentimes girls are forced to leave home if they become pregnant.  With no way to take care of themselves, they come to the city and become head porters in the markets – carrying heavy loads for shoppers on their heads.

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These pre-adolescent girls are already carrying in the marketplace – it’s quite possible they were born to a homeless mother and have always lived this life.

 

 The kayaye as they are known here, group together for protection at night.  Some of these girls hook up with “boyfriends” who offer them food and safety in exchange for sex and often end up pregnant or with STDs.  Others make a living through prostitution, placing themselves in danger on a daily basis.  Once pregnant, they can possibly enter a program like the NGO “Street Girls AID” in Accra, where they live, learn a skill, and can remain until four months after the birth of the child.  The need far outweighs the available beds and young women consider themselves lucky to be able to enter a program like this.[iv]

After the program ends, they’re out on the streets again, with the baby on their back, doing their best to support themselves and their child.  Uneducated, they may return to head porting, hawking goods in traffic, or find any other way to earn a meager income.

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Hawkers selling snacks and pure water – a common sight on Ghana’s busy roads

 

 The situation back in the villages is challenging too – families face extreme economic hardship and there is little work; there is no money to send children to school (or the parents have to be selective about which children they send – who are usually the male children, seen has having more potential); children may be looked at as a commodity and expected to help support the family.

The 1998 law outlines a reporting system for cases of child abuse and neglect and seeks protection for children from forced labor, work in unsafe conditions, working under the age of 18 and marriage of girls under age 18.  However, long-standing cultural practices may supersede the law.  In traditional society, girls around age 14 go through a coming of age ceremony which is a signal that she can now marry.  Since sexual intimacy prior to the ceremony is taboo, parents will sometimes have their pre-pubescent girls take part in case she becomes sexually active at a young age.  Or, the young girl could be part of an arranged marriage – which still takes place here.

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The little girl in the right hand corner is taking part in puberty rites – she was maybe eight years old.

 

 Exploitation of children and child labor as slaves in gold mines, on cocoa farms, as domestic servants, and elsewhere is a documented fact.  These children are sometimes sold as slaves by their own parents, or unwittingly turned over to companies who promise good wages and an education for their work.  Once in the clutches of these modern-day slave owners, the children are forced to work long hours and beaten if they do not perform.[v]  The government looks the other way and allows these practices to continue.  It’s a real irony that Nestle’s Milo hot cocoa mix is consumed by millions of Ghanaian children every morning  – meanwhile, the Nestle company sources its cocoa from farms using child slaves.  As noted in the aforementioned document, “There is very minimal knowledge and awareness of children’s rightsin “hana. The perception among )oth adults and children is that children are simply engaging in

there is very minimal knowledge and awareness of children’s rights in Ghana.  The perception amongst both adults and children is that children are simply engaging in work, which is good for their socialization.  Therefore to suggest that a child has the right to be protected from exploitation did not make sense to the local person.”There is very minimal knowledge and awareness of children’s rightsin “hana. The perception among )oth adults and children is that children are simply engaging in

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Children in a village in Ghana’s Eastern Region that has been taken over by a gold mining operation. The mine can be seen in the background. Mining operations, usually foreign-based, are allowed to act with impunity and completely destroy villages before they move on to the next area. 

 

Even within a nuclear or extended family, and within the school system, corporal punishment is the norm.  Children are regularly beaten with sticks, often seemingly for no particular reason.  Harsh discipline is seen as beneficial to developing a positive character.  When the frustration of joblessness and poverty come into the picture, discipline easily turns into abuse, as children become the scapegoats for their caretakers’ problems.[vi]

A BALANCING ACT

As a “westerner” I continually question my perception of cultural issues and practices in Ghana, and compare the quality of life of people here with that of Americans.  It’s all too easy to point fingers at other countries and decry their treatment of children, meanwhile forgetting that similar practices exist in the developed countries.  As a former mental health counselor in a public health setting, I regularly heard stories of extreme abuse and exploitation of children in my home town, and the protection offered these children by government agencies was not nearly adequate.

Sometimes, the perception of abuse (or even slavery) is simply incorrect.  Children will sometimes be taught the family trade at a young age, which only benefits the child by giving them a way to earn money when they get older.  When a family is unable to pay to send their children to school, learning a trade is a gift, and the children enjoy working alongside their parents.  Given that few college graduates become employed – youth unemployment is a huge issue in Africa right now – knowing a profitable trade is probably a better option.

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A young boy in the Volta Region readies the family fishing boat for the evening’s fishing expedition. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing and performed his tasks efficiently. What a lucky boy to be given such responsibility at such a young age!

 

Additionally, I believe we need to consider the fact that it’s the developed countries who oftentimes benefit from the exploitation of children in the third world.  Where did that chocolate bar you’re eating originate?  Possibly right here in Ghana, on a cocoa farm where the labor comes from enslaved children.  How about the gold in the new jewelry you just purchased?  Perhaps it came from a gold mine that’s destroyed an already struggling village.

Are children better off sitting in front of the television, becoming obese eating junk food, or out cutting weeds with a machete on the family farm?  How about the undisciplined children we’ve all experienced who cry and scream for new toys at the department store while their parents give in just to get them to shut up?  Are they better off than a child who understands his or her limits and knows better than to go beyond them, and is respectful of parents and elders?

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Schoolchildren at their morning assembly in a small village in the Volta Region of Ghana

 

 As Ghana and the rest of the African continent struggle with poverty, disease, hunger, and so much more, I believe that we need to see the challenges facing African children in a holistic context.  Ideas such as the Millennium Project, if properly implemented, could go a long way toward raising Africa out of the abysmal situation the continent finds itself in today, thus improving the lives of millions of children.

As individuals, we can do our part by educating ourselves and choosing products that support fair trade oriented businesses in Africa and other third world countries, and supporting companies that are taking a stand against child exploitation.  Protesting exploitive business practices with the money we spend goes a long way!  If we can educate others to do the same, so much the better.  Trusted Clothes is a fantastic resource as we learn and share about these issues.

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Happy kids canoeing on the Volta River

 

 Better yet, come see for yourself!  There’s nothing like visiting and learning first hand, and travel to Africa is a real eye-opener.  Chatting with a few Ghanaian friends recently, we all shook our heads about how unfortunate it is that what the Western world believes about Africa is only one side of the story.  There is so much beauty and wisdom here – Africa is more than starving children, war, and disease.  Experiencing Africa – not as a tourist staying in five-star hotels, insulated from real life – but meeting and mingling with locals, eating our local foods, learning about the culture of the country you visit – will be a life-changing experience.  Like me, you may end up staying!

Here’s a list of chocolate companies that source their cocoa from ethical farms:[vii] :

  • Clif Bar
  • Green and Black’s
  • Koppers Chocolate
  • L.A. Burdick Chocolates
  • Denman Island Chocolate
  • Gardners Candie
  • Montezuma’s Chocolates
  • Newman’s Own Organics
  • Kailua Candy Company
  • Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company
  • Rapunzel Pure Organics
  • The Endangered Species Chocolate Company
  • Cloud Nine

[i] http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/[ii] http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/documents/3-MP-PovertyFacts-E.pdf[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Development_Goals[iv][iv] https://www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Girls-AID/208291592524924[v] http://www.foodispower.org/slavery-chocolate/[vi] http://www.academia.edu/12070359/THE_CHILDRENS_ACT_OF_GHANA_ACT_560_IN_RETROSPECTS[vii] http://usuncut.com/news/beware-of-these-10-popular-chocolate-brands-that-exploit-child-slaves/

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Sara Corry

About the Author

Sara Corry, aka Abena Sara lives in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa, close to the capital city, Accra. Tropical Africa is feeling like home now after nearly 30 years as a desert dweller! When not involved in business development, she can be found with camera in hand trying to photograph the beautiful native bird life. She writes a blog about daily life in Ghana, and is a contributor to a website devoted to wildlife conservation in Africa. She has a passion for travel and would jump on a plane to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice!

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