With a Third of All Children Engaged in Child Labor, Ghana Steps Up Commitment to Eradication


Article Highlights

ACCRA, GHANA – Isaac Asemaku, 17, is a third-grade student at Dago District Assembly Primary School in Ghana’s Central region.

By the age of 9, he was engaged in child labor for his father, who was a farmer. Instead of attending school, he helped his father on the farm by weeding, planting crops and sometimes fetching firewood. But after some time, he began to have back and neck pains from the heavy labor.

“I then complained to my father that I will rather go to school than help him in the farm, of which he agreed,” Asemaku says.

But before he could enroll in school, his father died after a short illness. His mother remarried, and his stepfather, a fisherman, made Asemaku spend long hours at sea with him on fishing trips.

“Sometimes we [got] a lot of catch, and other times we [didn’t],” he says. “We [went] fishing in the sea all the time, except on Tuesdays, when we [rested].”

He says he did not want to do this labor because, like farming, it also gave him back pains. He sent the money he earned to his mother, a petty trader, to help her to take care of his younger siblings. But all he wanted was to be in school.

Today, he has received his wish.

International Needs Ghana, a nongovernmental organization that works to rescue children from trafficking and to reintegrate them into society, rescued him, persuaded his mother and stepfather to enroll him in school and paid for his uniform.

Asemaku says that some of his third-grade classmates tease him because of his age. But it does not deter him from his goal of gaining an education and becoming an architect.

In order for students like Asemaku to stay in school, he asks the government to provide children with school uniforms, textbooks and school shoes because their parents sometimes can’t afford it.

As child labor increases throughout Africa, the majority of child laborers in Ghana work in agriculture, namely the cocoa industry. The government, international organizations and local associations used World Day Against Child Labor last month to pledge their commitment to eradicating child labor and enrolling children in school. Although international conventions and national plans are in place, they agree that reaching these goals requires community-wide mobilization, including active participation from parents and children themselves.

In Ghana, 34 percent of children ages 5 to 14 are engaged in child labor, according to The State of the World’s Children 2012, a report by UNICEF. The net attendance ratio for children in primary school is about 75 percent in Ghana.

Francis Eshun, a former child worker, spoke at the World Day Against Child Labor event last month in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Francis used to help his father in fishing. Aside from fishing, his role was to bail water out of the boat when there were any leaks and to dive into the water to disentangle nets when they got caught on tree stumps.

One day, the boat capsized. Francis’ leg got entangled in the fishing net, and he was badly injured. The doctors had no option but to amputate his leg. Like Asemaku, Francis was also rescued and enrolled in school through the help of International Needs Ghana.

Steven McClelland, chief technical adviser for the International Labor Organization, says that child labor is a problem worldwide.

“There are over 200 million children worldwide who are working as child laborers, and many of them are doing so on a full-time basis and are not in school,” he says. “They also have little or no time to play. More than half of these children are exposed to the worst forms of child labor, and this includes hazardous work, slavery, child prostitution and the likes.”

He says these figures are increasing throughout Africa.

“The sad thing is: In many countries, the number is reducing,” he says. “But in Africa, that number is actually increasing. And that is a serious challenge.”

In Ghana, one out of every three children are child laborers, he says. Children who are more likely to suffer from child labor are those in rural and agricultural areas and those whose parents are migrant workers.

“ILO Ghana is running a few projects in enforcing child-labor elimination in areas of employment, social development, protection, and HIV and AIDS to support Ghana to promote the decent work agenda,” McClelland says.

Amelia Allan, child protection officer at UNICEF Ghana, says that the agricultural industry employs 70 percent of child laborers in Ghana. The biggest employer of child labor in Ghana by far is the cocoa industry, which is the country’s main economic activity.

“About 186,000 children in the cocoa-growing areas of Ghana were engaged in at least one hazardous cocoa-specific activity, such as heavy lifting,” says Allan, citing two annual surveys conducted from 2006 to 2008.

She says that even child laborers who are enrolled in school show poor academic progress.

“Other studies also indicated that about 92 percent of children in cocoa-growing communities attended school regularly,” she says, “although 54 percent were illiterate.”

The mining industry also employs many children, she says. In addition to the large-scale mining of gold, diamonds and manganese in Ghana, there are also small-scale miners, known locally as galamsey. Allan says that many operators of these smaller, illegal mines engage the services of children between the ages of 10 and 18.

“One estimate counted about 2,000 children engaged in galamsey in the Western region of Ghana alone,” she says. “Children working in mines and quarries include those who have never been to school, those who drop out of school to work and support their families, and those who go to school and also work to raise money to support themselves and their families.”

She says that in many cases, it is relatives forcing children to work.

“Children are sent to live with members of their extended family, and these children are usually exploited,” Allan says.

The eradication of child labor therefore requires the engagement and mobilization of communities, she says.

“It is on these bases that UNICEF supports community-based teams to actively protect children,” she says. “The family is the first line of child protection. Whether children will go into labor or not, it starts from the family.”

She also says that the children themselves are essential in this process. Children need to receive education about what constitutes child labor as well as what the effects of it are. When they are informed, they can educate other children as well.

Both children and adults gathered in Accra last month to commemorate the 10th anniversary of World Day Against Child Labor.  

Ghana’s Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare sponsored the event in partnership with the ILO. Other notable participants included UNICEF, the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare’s Child Labor Unit, the World Cocoa Foundation, Ghana Employers Association, Ghana Trades Union Congress and the U.S Embassy. 

McClelland says that the day aimed to encourage the countries that have ratified the 1999 ILO Convention 182 for the prohibition of and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor to implement its stipulations.

Representatives from various local, national and international stakeholders spoke at the commemorative events.

M.V.V.K Damanyo, the acting general secretary of the Ghana National Association of Teachers, where the event was held, said in his welcome address that education was a human right, and children must receive assistance to access quality education since they lack the resources to do so themselves. He said that the country needed funding for quality public education, which meant strong infrastructure, free school uniforms and books and qualified teachers.

At the same time, he urged parents and guardians to support their children and not to leave all responsibility to the government. In turn, he also called on the government to create an enabling environment for parents to earn a sustainable living so that they can afford to support their children in school. Poverty is a main cause of child labor, he said.

Joseph Wilson of the Ghana Employers Association called for more vigilance in implementing existing international and national policies in order to sustain efforts by nongovernmental and civil society organizations to combat child labor.

“It is only when we recognize child labor as human rights issues that we could develop appropriate policy responses in order to eliminate the menace,” he said during his remarks.

Takyi Sraha, technical adviser of the World Cocoa Foundation, which promotes sustainable and responsible cocoa-growing practices, said in his statement that the foundation had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare to formalize their collaboration in developing and implementing comprehensive programs in the cocoa-growing communities to empower and strengthen them and curb child labor. The foundation has made additional efforts through an educational program for children and adults known as the Empowering Cocoa Households With Opportunities and Education Solutions Alliance.

Elionai Abena Adu Labi, director of finance and administration for the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, said in her statement that children were crucial to the nation’s future.

“Development will be meaningless if it is not targeted at promoting the fundamental rights of children,” she said.

But various barriers impede efforts to end child labor.

“Some of these barriers include poor parenting, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation – FGM – and existence of witch camps with children being accused of witchcrafts, ‘trokosi’ and the likes,” she says.

Trokosi is the practice of giving daughters, usually virgins, to priests as lifelong servants in exchange for the forgiveness of family debts.

Adu Labi says that the government’s National Plan of Action for Elimination of Child Labor, launched last year, aims to eliminate child labor by 2015. For this to be achieved, the government must strengthen the existing structures that protect children, such as laws and conventions, and allocate more budget funds to the plan, which includes initiatives such as free textbooks. In exchange, the government needs the full commitment of employers, organized labor, the media and parents.

In addition to the national plan, Ghana is signatory to two ILO conventions: Convention 182 and Convention 138, which requires states to specify in law the minimum age for employment. This must not be younger than the age of finishing compulsory education, which is 15 years old in Ghana. 

Oduro Boachie Yiadom, director of the government’s Child Labor Unit, said in his statement that efforts would have little impact without the sensitization of the public and mobilization of its support to combat child labor.

“There is also the need to rehabilitate children who have been trafficked and reintegrate them into the schooling system and make sure schools are relevant to local needs,” he said.

Schoolchildren also participated in the events to voice these needs. Mary Nuvor of the St. Steven Roman Catholic School ended the occasion by reading a communiqué that she and other children developed during the children’s forum several days earlier. The communiqué asked the government to severely punish perpetrators of child labor and to pay more attention to children rescued from child labor.

The children also asked parents to give birth to the number of children whom they can care for and to consider the best interest of the child when sending them to live with relatives. The children themselves pledged to educate their peers on the harmful effects of child labor and to use the opportunities and livelihood schemes that the government has created.