Homeless Girls Eke out a Living in Accra


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ACCRA, GHANA — Throngs of people march through the Makola market to trotro (public transportation) stations. It is 5 p.m. and people are heading home after work. Young and old bodies are shoved as many rush through the thick human traffic.

With her frail frame, Abiba, 14, wanders through the crowd carrying her pan and feeling the pangs of hunger. Hard work has formed beads of sweat on her face and dust is caked on her feet after moving from one corner of the market to the other, carrying loads for people during the day.

Abiba walks across the Accra High Street towards the Tema station, where wheels of cars stand still at the red traffic light. She has just finished for the day as a kaya yo, a local term that refers to a young woman or girl who works as a porter, carrying heavy loads on her head, usually at market places.

Balancing her empty silver pan, she walks briskly to the pavement—the small patch of the street has become her home in Accra. A few feet back is the beautiful Novotel Hotel. Close by is a fenced trotro station. She covers the ground with her old, faded cloth and using her partially rusted pan as a pillow she lays down to rest.

Abiba is not alone.

Close to her on the street is another young girl with twin babies counting the coins she has earned in course of the day as a street beggar.

Every day, scores of girls and young women between the ages of six and 25 can be seen working and living on the major streets of Accra and other major cities in Ghana. These girls and young women have either migrated to the major cities or were born on the streets and live in varying degree of homelessness.

The streets of Accra are home to more than 20,000 children. The Catholic Action for Street Children notes that 86 percent of children who live and work permanently on the street are between the ages of seven and 15 years old. Investigations by the Press Institute reveal that girls between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as young women between 18 and 25, are also living and working on the major streets of Accra.

These girls and young women are from different backgrounds and have varying levels of education. Some of these girls are foreigners who have migrated from various regions in Ghana and from neighboring African countries like Niger and Burkina Faso. During the day they fill the bustling streets of Accra working as head porters, hawkers, beggars and petty traders selling ice water, candies, fruits and pastries.

Some girls live with family or friends, but rely on the streets for money. Other were born on these streets and will likely never leave. Some of the young women here have basic education, but most have not attended school.

Ajara Mahama, who appeared younger than her 22 years, sells oranges on the streets near Tudu. Mahama migrated to Accra with one of her mother’s male friends from Yapei in Tamale.

“I came to Accra a year ago and since have not returned home, but I hope to return someday to see my parents,” she says. “[A] bus ticket from Accra to Tamale is expensive and I need enough money to send home and also buy gifts from Accra [for] my family,” she says. Mahama sells oranges between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for her daily survival.

“I usually buy my oranges at a whole sale price of GHC 5 ($3.50). I am able to sell the oranges at GHC $9.50 making a profit of GHC 4 ($3) a day,” said Mahama, smiling shyly. Carrying her pan of peeled and unpeeled oranges she adds, “Sometimes I come to the streets three or four times daily if the market is good.”

Mahama can not speak English and has never been to school. However, she can speak Gonja and two other local languages—Twi and Ga.

Fatima and Aicha, both nine, also came to Ghana from Niger with their parents. Tiny, dirty and hungry, they play in the Cathedral and Accra Polytechnic Streets every day between 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. chasing cars. At the Kwame Nkrumah circle the girls grab the hands of anyone passing and sometimes hold tightly to the clothes of pedestrians until they are given some coins. “Please money” is one of the few phrases they speak to drivers and passengers in traffic, pointing their little fingers to their mouth. Aicha also speaks in Twi, “ma mi sika” which means “give me money.” The money they earn from begging is normally used by their parents to buy food.

Street Living Has A Price
All of the girls and young women living and working on the streets face abuse, including sexual and economic exploitation, as well as exposure to HIV/AIDS. According to local advocates, women working as hawkers sometimes lose money because they give the purchased item to the client, but are not able to collect their money before the car speeds off.

Adjoa, a potato chip seller on the Kojo Thompson Road, says, “When the traffic light turns red, I can sell some of my chips, but sometimes just after I am about to collect my money from the customer after serving him or her, the green light turns on and the car speeds off. Some customers are kind enough to throw the money to the ground so I can pick it up, but others sometimes go with my money.”

Local police have recorded incidents where young girls have been knocked down and even killed by vehicles in an attempt to collect their money.

Many of the girls and young women sleep in kiosks in front of closed shops and trotro stations at night, while others sleep on the streets or corridors. In both situations, the women must use public toilets and eat food sold on the street, which is usually prepared in a poor hygienic environment. Few are able eat at standard chop bars, the local roadside restaurants that are less expensive than sit-down restaurants. Only a small segment of the girls and young women live in an actual shelter with their guardians, relatives or boyfriends.

Poverty and Civil Conflicts Fuel Homelessness
Economic and socio-cultural struggles in Ghana and neighboring countries are the major factors behind the alarming rate of homeless girls on the streets of Accra. Extreme hunger and poverty in the rural areas of Ghana, especially in the northern region, compels girls and young women to drift to Accra.

Recent civil conflicts in Bawku, in the northern region of Ghana caused by feuding chieftaincy disputes between the Mamprusis and Kusasis, have been ongoing since December 2007 and claimed the lives of 10 women and children in 2008. These struggles have contributed to some girls fleeing to the cities to seek refuge.

Fati, who came from Bawku for the fear of being killed, does not have a home in Accra yet, but has some friends she intends to contact.

Many of the young women interviewed say they are on a quest for a better life. Ama, a 23 year old from Wawase in the central region of Ghana, says, “In the village, it is extremely difficult—no money, no food.” She confessed that although life in Accra is not easy, it is better and she is able to send about $15 to her family on a regular basis from the plantain chips she sells on the Caprice-Achimota Road in Accra.

Statistics show that the number of people in Ghana who live below the national poverty line was estimated to be 28.5 percent in 2007. Figures from Business Africa suggest that the inflation rate in Ghana in 2008 was 17 percent with about 78 percent of Ghana’s population living on under $2 a day.

As a result, some parents with low income send their children into the streets daily to supplement the upkeep of the family. Girls who sell ice water after school usually make a daily profit of $1.45 per day, but their peers who spend the whole day selling water make twice the profit.

The Way Forward
Advocates and educators agree, education is key to keeping girls off of the streets. The local government here is making efforts to ensure that all children are in school by introducing opportunities such as the Capitation Grant, School Feeding Program and the Free School Uniforms Program. Although the Ministry of Children and Women’s initiative to send girls back to school is in place, advocates say the program needs to be strengthened and properly monitored.

There are also various projects and programs bybeing instituted by international agencies, local organization and individuals that are aimed at reducing the number of girls on the street in Ghana through literacy classes, skills training, early childhood care, health education and capacity building.

Abiba says she is constantly looking for support from local agencies. With their help, she says, her dream of earning money by braiding hair and returning home to establish her own business can be realized.

*The girls in the story used only their first names for safety reasons.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.