Tag Archives: Childrens’ Rights

A woman collects dumping fees at Bantama. Her child stays with her at the site.

Day Cares and Dump Sites: Sanitation Problems in Kumasi

This week, my colleagues and I decided to examine urban sanitation and the associated health issues for Ultimate Radio’s Morning Show. We knew of several waste sites around town that were particularly concerning, so we went out to find them – recorders and cameras in hand.

First, we visited a garbage dump in the residential neighbourhood of Bantama, where no one has come to collect the rubbish for over a month. The woman who takes dumping fees at the site told us that nobody knew who exactly was responsible for removing the rubbish, or why they had stopped.  We also spoke to local residents and food vendors, who expressed concern over the smell, sight, and the possibility of food contamination there.

Next we went to the “Wewe” stream, which feeds the city’s main waterworks. The stream has been turned into one of Kumasi’s major drains, and its banks are covered in garbage. We noticed some Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA) workers cleaning the roads nearby. They were employed to sweep away dust on the side of the road while, meters away, no action was being taken to clean up the stream.

We followed the water up to the neighbourhood of Ahinsan, where we found a refuse site, measuring 50 by 40 meters and about 10 meters high. It is used by nearby market workers and local inhabitants, as well as fishmongers who smoke their fish there. It is enormous, and sits right on the banks of one of the city’s major drains.

Perhaps most worrisome, however, was the daycare centre we found just meters away from this dump. Comfort and Alexon Kidd-Darko opened the Comkid Daycare Centre years before the site became a refuse dump, but now they must spend a great deal of their time–and money–on fighting the authorities over it.

“Because of the children, I’m not happy with this. When we came, there was nothing like this. If the place had been like this, I wouldn’t have put money here,” said Mrs. Kidd-Darko.

She also noted the damage that the site has been inflicting on their business.

“Now the children are not coming because of this, and my work is down. So now we are helpless,” she told me.

She said, however, that the centre takes every precaution to keep the children safe and healthy. They have fenced the place in and installed netting around the building to keep flies and mosquitoes away. They also never let the children play outside of the compound.

This is important because, according to Doctor Franklin Asiedu-Dekoe, children are especially at risk of illness resulting from sites like these.

“Children like to play on these refuse dumps,” he said. And they are more likely to fall ill, he explained, “because children are less likely to wash their hands with soap and water before anything enters their mouths.”

He also noted that malaria could spread in the area, if garbage prevents the stream from flowing properly and creates a build-up of still water.

We spoke to an official of the Ahinsan Market Committee – the ones in charge of managing the dump, according to the Kidd-Darkos. But he blamed the KMA members for the site’s mismanagement.

“We would be grateful if the Assembly officials could get this dumping site well managed or even get it relocated for us,” he said.

But he later admitted that his committee is in fact responsible for managing the site, and that all proceeds made from the dump go to them–not the KMA.

According to Doctor Asiedu-Dekoe, everyone is responsible for the maintenance of such urban waste sites – even the individuals who choose to dispose of their waste there.

Mrs. Kidd-Darko expressed a hope that the relevant authorities would soon be held accountable for the dumping site. She said its removal would not only be in the best interests of her daycare, but also of all the residents and market vendors in the area.

“It’s not healthy for even the residents here, and the market itself, let alone the children,” she said.

When Household Chores become Human Rights Abuses

A young girl carries a load on her head in Kejetia Market

At eleven years old, Thema, a native of Kumasi, hopes to be a nurse when she grows up. Currently, however, she is employed wandering between taxis and tro-tros at rush hour, carrying packs of ice water on her head and selling them for 10 pesewas apiece. Though in the mornings she attends school, her afternoons are spent maneuvering through traffic with practiced ease; she has been doing this for four years.

Child labour is on the rise in Ghana, and particularly in urban areas.  According to UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children Report, 34% of Ghanaian children aged 5–14 years are engaged in child labour. That figure is up from 23% in 2003, as recorded in a Ghana Statistical Survey. In Kumasi, 8% of children engage in regular work, though its harmful impacts are widely acknowledged.

“It infringes on the rights of children, it affects their health, and it may result in injury,” explained Emilia Allan, a Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Ghana. “It prevents and interferes with their education, and it leads to other protection concerns such as sexual exploitation, violence, [and] child trafficking,” she said in an interview with me for Ultimate Radio.

But many families in Ghana must depend on their young ones for financial support, and the government does not take a zero-tolerance stance on it. Instead, the recently launched National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, based on the ILO Convention No. 182, recognizes that immediately eliminating the phenomenon is not feasible, and aims to protect those children who do work from physical, moral, and mental harm. And though the minimum age of employment is 15 years, the 1998 Ghana Children’s Act in fact states that children aged 13 and older may engage in some forms of light work.

[pullquote]“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour.”[/pullquote]

The legislation is therefore realistic and rational, but does it go far enough to protect working children from harm? Should it apply to those engaged in household work – cooking, cleaning, running errands, or caring for younger siblings? What about children like Thema, who work part-time and attend school on a shift system? Are they considered child labourers, and protected under the law?

“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour,” Allan explained.

“The Ghanaian Children’s Act ensures that every child has the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to his health, education, or development,” she said. “So if a child is . . . going to sell and then going on the shift system, the child goes to school tired and sleepy. That is affecting the child’s education, because it is not performing,” she explained, adding, “They don’t have time to do their homework.”

She also noted that, when a child is given a load to carry on her head, though considered light labour, it can affect her physical growth and pose a threat to her development.

Legally, then, children are protected from doing any kind of work – whether “light” or “hazardous” – that might cause harm.  And as part-time and light labour can inhibit a child’s development, these should be regulated as well.  So why is child labour still rampant?

According to Mr. Jacob Achulu, the Ashanti Regional Director for the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, the root of the problem is poverty.

“The legal framework is there,” he said.  “The problem is the enforcement, and I think it’s because poverty is widespread in most parts of our country. So the ILO interventions and NGO interventions are welcome, but there is the need to have sustainable activities that will make sure the families are able to keep their children in school.”

He pointed to some district-level programs in the Ashanti region, designed to work with the parents of child labourers and help them earn additional income, rather than sending their children to work.

So while the government acknowledges that, for many families, children are important breadwinners, and continues to pursue a pragmatic approach to reducing child labour, it might be prudent to develop new ways of addressing household poverty and stymying the problem at its source.

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village.  Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone".  Photo by Karissa Gall.

“Mind the gap” – The crippling impact of HIV/AIDS on family composition and elderly Malawians

The old “respect your elders” adage has customarily been an important part of Malawian culture, with the elderly able to depend on the social and economic support of their children and the community.  However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a crippling impact on family composition and tradition.

While the 2012 Malawi Country AIDS Response Progress Report found that from the start of the epidemic the number of deaths per annum had been reduced from nearly 100,000 to approximately 48,000 in 2010, the report also found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS has been on the rise.

Antenatal Clinic sero-surveys (surveys of blood serum) found that the number of children orphaned by AIDS increased from 576,458 in 2010 to 612,908 in 2011.  And with over half of orphans being cared for by their grandparents, men like Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village will be celebrating their 70th birthday before that of their retirement.

At 68-years-old, Dimiano is still working three jobs to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.  He works as a guard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at a nearby church, goes to the garden to get maize for his family, weaves baskets to sell at the market and then, does it all over again.

“I cannot sleep, so it’s hard,” Dimiano said.  “As a night guard, I need to always be awake because sometimes there are thieves in the dark.

Still working three jobs at 68-years-old to support six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village demonstrates panga knife techniques he uses as a night guard. Photo by Karissa Gall.

“When I knock off in the morning I go to the garden, when I knock off in the garden I eat and then I start making baskets so I can make more money, but it’s still not enough to care for all six grandchildren.”

In the same township of Chigumula, 55-year-old Mrs. Kandikole has also lost children to AIDS; her oldest daughter passed away in 2005 orphaning one grandchild, and her second oldest daughter passed away in 2010 orphaning three grandchildren.

“I’m the one who’s left looking out for them,” she said.  “And not only those four; I have other grandchildren at my home who have only a mother but not a father.

“It’s very difficult for me to look after these children because I’m very old.  I’m not working,” she continued.  “Things are very expensive here in Malawi.  Food is very expensive.  I cannot manage to buy clothes for them.  It is very difficult for me to take them to the hospital.  To get good medicine, one needs to pay money at private hospitals, but I can’t manage to do all those things.”

Kandikole said she had been working at a nursery school, but had to quit when her daughters died because “(her) grandchildren were alone, so (she) had to look after these children all by (herself).”

She said her husband, 57, is still working as a telephone operator but “he makes very little money.”

“I don’t think he will be able to continue working much longer because he is now 57 years old and his body is very weak.  He is very sick,” she said, adding that they both suffer from chronic bouts of malaria.  “Before, we could manage to do all those things, but not now.”

Without the proper means or support, Kandikole said she “couldn’t manage to send (her) grandchildren to school, because when you want to send a child to school these days, even a government school, you need to buy a uniform, pencils, exercise books and the child needs to eat porridge.”

She said her grandchildren “were just staying at home” until they were accepted at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, a free primary and secondary school in Malawi providing education and daily meals to orphans.

“If we did not have Jacaranda, these children would just be doing nothing at home,” she said.  “They go to school without taking anything.  If Jacaranda didn’t provide porridge I don’t know what we could do.  Before, I thought my children would go to school up to college and help their children by themselves.  But their deaths brought everything down.”

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village suffered in the same way.

Deaf and blind, M’maligeni struggled to care for herself yet alone her grandson, Vincent, who was orphaned by AIDS.  In March, at the age of 105, M’maligeni passed away and Vincent lost another primary caretaker.

The late Nelley Daniel M’maligeni of Che Mboma Village waits with her daughter-in-law for her grandson Vincent to return from school. Photo by Karissa Gall.

According to M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law, M’maligeni and Vincent had been sleeping in a small hut.

M’maligeni’s daughter-in-law said her family was able to give extra food to M’maligeni and Vincent once a week, but “sometimes it (was) hard because there (was) not enough money.  Sometimes M’maligeni (could) not eat.

“Sometimes we just (bought) panado, because panado is cheap,” she said.

Dimiano, Kandikole and M’maligeni are each representative of the ways that elderly Malawians are struggling to survive in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  According to the Catholic University of Malawi’s December 2010 report “Impact of HIV and AIDS on the elderly: a case study of Chiladzulu district,” 59 percent of the enrolled elderly people had difficulty sourcing money for school uniforms, food and hospital bills for orphaned grandchildren; 55 percent were affected through the sickness and death of their children; and 22 percent had to halt their own development to take care of orphaned grandchildren, spending their reserved resources to make the lives of their grandchildren better while impoverishing themselves in the process.

When asked if there can be greater relief for elderly Malawians struggling to care for themselves and their orphaned grandchildren than panado, an over-the-counter pain medication, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said that government has put in place safety net programmes that target both the elderly and other vulnerable people in the 2012/13 National Budget.

“These programmes are aimed at assisting the poorest in our communities to cope with life,” he said, adding that during the 2012/13 fiscal year  programmes will be scaled up to capture those that may have fallen below the poverty line due to devaluation.

“A total of K27.5 billion has been provided for four programmes, mainly the Intensive Public Works Programme, the School Feeding Programme targeted towards 980,000 pupils in primary schools, the Schools Bursaries Programme targeting 16,480 needy students, and the Social Cash Transfer Programme which will reach over 30,000 households across the country.”

Lucius Dimiano of Kafupa Village. Roughly translated, "kafupa" means "hard as bone". Photo by Karissa Gall.

But until social cash transfers can be expanded to cover the whole country or non-contributory pensions can be provided to ensure income security for the majority of elderly Malawians who have never worked in the formal sector, government will continue to miss men and women like Dimiano and Kandikole who are fighting for the survival of their family and against the intergenerational transmission of poverty, often without sufficient resources or physical strength to do so.

As Dimiano put it: “If I still had children that could help me, I could have just stayed home, but there is no one to help me, I’m only working because of my grandchildren.

“The only ones who can decide if I stop working are my grandchildren.  Maybe they will see that we are very old and cannot work anymore and they will help us.  But maybe they will finish school and go away.

“At the moment, I do not know.”

 

With files from Richard Chirombo.

When beggars should be choosers – How the promise of remuneration is heading off freedom of movement and free choice of employment in Malawi

Not long after cutting their teeth, North American children are encouraged to call forward their dreams and consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The kindergartners’ query is not a foreign concept in Malawi – in fact, up to December 2010 Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s (BNL) Saturday paper Malawi News regularly ran a “When I Grow Up” piece encouraging parents to help their children picture and pledge their ambition for the future.

At the same time the query is not yet ubiquitous – as a country that ranks in the lowest group on the Human Development Index (171 out of 187 countries in 2011), problems such as poverty and underdevelopment mean that for many, filling their stomach is difficult enough to do without considering the most fulfilling way to do it.  And for 21-year-old Alinafe Phiri and her friends at the Nkhata Bay boma, it means that when you ask what they want, they simply tell you how it is instead.

According to Phiri, it isn’t uncommon for girls to be taken from their homes in Nkhata Bay to “faraway places” where they work as house girls.  Others are taken from their homes to work in bars.

“This is considered normal because they are paid something at the end of the day,” she said.  “Isn’t it normal for someone to be taken from their homes for work in faraway areas?  What about those that leave their villages and work elsewhere in cities or otherwise?”

No mention is made of the use of force implicated in being taken to faraway places for work – a form of human trafficking – or of unrealized universal human rights to free movement and free choice of employment.

On May 16 Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre to discuss where and why human trafficking occurs in Malawi. Photo by Karissa Gall.

To raise awareness of such rights abuses, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) held a public discussion at the Nkhata Bay Conference Centre on May 16.  Three panellists were on hand: Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) District Manager for Nkhata Bay Wezzie Mtonga, Nkhata Bay Police Station Community Policing Coordinator Brown Ngalu and NCA Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman.

During the discussion, Mtonga said that the area is a “hotspot of instances of human trafficking” for the purposes of labour, sexual exploitation, organ removal, or domestic servitude, and that Malawian women like Phiri are the most vulnerable to being victimised “because of their vulnerability when it comes to economic issues.”

“One of the reasons people fall victim to human trafficking is they are looking for greener pastures, and when they go there, things are different,” she said.  “Malawians are vulnerable and they don’t have access to (anti-trafficking) laws.”

Osman, one of the commissioners involved in the drafting of an anti-trafficking bill in 2007, took the opportunity to stress that “the bill is ready, cabinet approved it, so what we need is parliamentarians to discuss it and pass it into law to give us a framework on what should be done and who should be doing what.”

Norwegian Church Aid Programme Coordinator for Human Trafficking Habiba Osman. Photo by Karen Msiska.

“The problem is huge, it is diverse,” she said.  “We need awareness, we need a lot of capacity building not only for the police but other service providers, and we also do need proper data collecting mechanisms.

“We do not have people coming to report on cases of human trafficking because they have been not been trained to collect data, they have not been trained to identify the victims; they have not been trained to identify the traffickers,” she continued.  “Even our parliamentarians also need training on these issues.

“A new cabinet means that new people are in place.  We need to put pressure on them to tackle these issues.”

In the interim, Osman cited Section 27 of the Malawi Constitution, which prohibits slavery, as a standing protection against human trafficking or “modern-day slavery.”  She also cited the Employment Act, the Penal Code, the Corrupt Practices Act, Immigrations policies and the Corrupt Practices Act as statutes that criminalise certain transactions appearing in the various forms of trafficking.

***

Despite Malawi having adopted the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in 2005 and making progress towards the guarantee of protections for children with the launch of a universal and compulsory birth registration process this March, the International Trade Union Confederation 2011 report for the World Trade Organization on Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Malawi found that, “Trafficking is a problem and is conducted mainly for the purposes of forced labour for males and commercial sexual exploitation for females, as well as child trafficking which has also been steadily rising.”

“Typically the traffickers deceive their victims by offering them false promises of employment or education in the country of destination.  In Malawi there are also estimated to be between 500 and 1500 women and children who are victims of internal trafficking,” reads the report.

“In 2009 the authorities arrested and prosecuted child traffickers who intended to deliver boys to cattle herders.  Other usual destinations of internally trafficked persons are the tobacco plantations, domestic servitude, and small businesses.”

The United States Department of State 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report for Malawi further found that while government “is making significant efforts” the country still “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“Adults in forced prostitution or forced labour and children exploited in domestic service and prostitution still did not receive adequate attention and the government prosecuted no such offences during the reporting period,” reads the report.

“While one trafficking offender received a short prison sentence, most convictions resulted in sentences of fines or out-of-court settlements with compensation to victims, both of which failed to provide an adequate deterrent.”

While comprehensive anti-trafficking law enforcement statistics were unavailable, the report found that some individual districts provided data on their actions, totalling 18 prosecutions, 11 of which concluded with convictions.

“Although the government prosecuted and convicted offenders using existing legislation, only one of nine convicted offenders served jail time and sentences varied widely across district courts,” the report continues.  “Additionally, labour inspectors and child protection officers were trained to seek remuneration for workers in labour dispute cases – including forced labour – rather than to refer to law enforcement for prosecution.”

According to the report, “the government’s continued failure to seek criminal prosecution of forced labour offenses with significant prison sentences hinders an effective response to Malawi’s trafficking problem.”

In Malawi, the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Human Trafficking, led by the Ministry of Gender, Child Development and Community Development; the National Steering Committee on Orphans and Vulnerable Children; and the National Steering Committee on Child Labour have responsibility for trafficking issues.

***

Individuals who are aware of any incident of human trafficking in Malawi can contact the YONECO anonymous National Help Line for assistance by calling 8000-1234.  YONECO encourages victims of human trafficking to call the help line as the centre will mobilise to free them and provide counselling and support.

***

With files from BNL-Mzuzu Bureau Chief Karen Msiska

Ending Ghanaian child labour

A girl sells water while, behind her, other children play soccer. An estimated 6.36 million children in Ghana work.

Working children are everywhere in Accra. They collect the fares for trotros, mini-vans turned into buses. They stand in intersections, balancing baskets full of water sachets on their head. They sell bundles of plantains in the market. Although I’m usually unable to guess a Ghanaian’s age within a decade, these workers are clearly children.

Child labour is on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Global Child Labour Report. Troublingly, one in four children in the region is a child labourer. Although the Ghanaian numbers are better than this average, the problem is endemic to the country.

“Ghana has made some progress, but the challenges are always there. We can do more,” said Stephen McClelland, the Chief Technical Advisor for the Ghana Project of the International Labour Organization.

According to a 2003 Ghana Child Labour Survey, an estimated 6.36 million children, between five and 17 years old, are engaged in economic activities. That means that half of children in rural areas work, and 1/5 of urban children work. However, not all this “child work” is considered child labour – labour performed by a child that directly impedes the child’s education and full development, jeopardizing his or her physical, mental, or moral well-being.

Twenty per cent of all children in Ghana, however, are involved in work that meets this definition of child labour. They work mostly in agriculture, sales, and general labour, but also in ritual servitude or commercial sexual exploitation. Out of these child labourers, over 242,000 work in conditions deemed “hazardous.”

According to McClelland, fighting child labour is about protecting children’s dignity, but is also about national development.

Eliminating child labour is “important for countries that are developing. If you ignore the development of your children, then you are condemning your country to difficult development challenges ahead,” he said. Working children perpetuate a cycle of uneducation and poverty.

The International Labour Organization has declared June 12 the World Day Against Child Labour. In anticipation, Ghana’s Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare outlined their way of combating the problem: the “National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour” (NPA).

The plan admits that Ghana has a problem, but also proudly mentions that Ghana has ratified both the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The NPA strives to honour these conventions and eliminate the “worst forms” of child labour by 2015 through enforcing labour laws, improving the education system, extending “social protection measures,” and developing standard procedures and protocols in dealing with child-labour cases.

McClelland says it’s a good plan, but needs to be turned into an action plan. And then into results.

“One thing that has struck me is that Ghana has gone a long way. It has good experiences with building up a policy and legal framework against child labour. I am encouraged [by the progress], but I’m also a realist.  We haven’t got all the solutions,” he said.

He added that, in order to decisively end child labour, Ghana need to make high quality schools readily available and has to better redistribute its new found wealth.

“Undoubtedly child labour is caused by poverty, and some of the best of ways of overcoming poverty is to have a good, comprehensive, social protective system,” he said.

Children in Malawi run away due to lack of food

Tikhala Chilembwe - former street kid turned aspiring doctor

Tikhala Chilembwe used to be one of many street children in Malawi, but he has since returned to school. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

Co-written with Sibongele Zgambo from Zodiak Broadcasting Station 

Its 10 p.m. in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and the nighttime vultures that characterize the city at night are out in full force.

Prostitutes prey on drunk men stumbling out of dimly lit bars, while stray dogs are on the hunt for scraps leftover from the hustle and bustle of daylight hours. These desolate streets are no place for a child to grow up, yet many often do.

A 10-year-old boy who didn’t want to give his name says he has been sleeping in a gutter outside a popular grocery store for the past three years. He says poverty pushed him into the streets after he lost both his parents to AIDS.

“Most of the time, I beg for money to buy food because I have no one to look after me,” he says. “The problem is some men at night will beat us up and take all that we have sourced throughout the day, leaving us with nothing at all”

Chimwemwe, 12, also left home with dreams of finding a better life in the big city, but his experience has been more comparable to a recurring nightmare.

“Some men rape us night,” he says “Others beat us and tell us to go away saying that we are thieves in town”

According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8,000 children living on the streets in Malawi’s major urban centers. Most of them are boys, and 80 per cent are AIDS orphans. These youngsters are often labelled by locals as purse-snatching, thugs, but the reality is that many of them have suffered unimaginable physical and sexual abuses.

Dr. Joseph Bandawe, a clinical psychologist at the Malawi College of Medicine, says that homelessness disrupts the sense of safety and security that children need, and as a result, they wander through life lacking self-confidence and being wary of adults.

“The trust and confidence that good things will happen to them is not there,” Bandawe says.

“This affects their social interactions – defining the way they’re able to relate to other people, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.”

Bandawe’s explanation might explain why many of Malawi’s street kids are tempted by a life of crime, but he also suggests that building trust and restoring family ties is imperative when returning troubled kids to school.

Chisomo Childrens Club is a local non-profit working on child poverty issues, and their main mission is to integrate youth back into an ordinary way of life. According to Irene Ngumano, a senior social worker for Chisomo, the biggest challenge in terms of rehabilitation is working with families who were willing to let their children go in the first place.

“Many families that we are working with are poverty stricken families who typically don’t have three meals a day,” says Ngumano.

With Malawi’s escalating economic problems, inflation now stands at a staggering 10.9 per cent, causing the prices of essential commodities like bread and sugar to skyrocket. This implies one thing: the number of street children is set to increase unless there is radical policy change.

But Ngumano adds that if families are facing financial difficulties, Chisomo provides monetary assistance which enables them, at the very least, to feed their dependents.

Such was the case with 17-year-old Tikhala Chilembwe who ran away from home in Grade 3. He slept under a bridge for years, until he was discovered by Chisomo social workers who reunited him with his legal guardians and resumed his education.

“My life is okay right now,” says Tikhala, with a smile. “When I’m finished school, I want to become a doctor and I am going to work hard to achieve my goals.”

Ghanaian police covers up child abuse, says legal expert

A child abuse case is being covered up by Tamale’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DVVSU), a Ghanaian legal expert says.

Saratu Mahama of the International Federation of Women’s Lawyers (FIDA) says the unit is not pursuing the case because of outside influence.

“I believe there was some pressure,” says Mahama, from FIDA’s office in Kalpohin Estates. “I think there is someone, either from the family or an opinion leader, that is coming in to withdraw the case.”

Mahama learned this information last week during a phone conversation with a DOVVSU staff member.

The case in question involves the vicious beating of an 8 year old girl. On April 13, a witness reported that the victim was beaten by her uncle, says Inspector Lawrence Adombiri.

[Editorial note: The name of the suspect has been withheld as he has not formally been charged.]

The witness heard screaming from a neighbouring house and forced himself inside. He found the girl’s grandmother barricading a door shut. The child’s screams could be heard from within. The neighbour forced the door open and the girl ran outside, blood rushing down her face. The uncle followed her out of the room, a car fan belt in hand.

The victim suffered a fractured right wrist, deep abrasions on her back and a gaping head wound. The girl was treated at the Seventh Day Adventist’s Hospital and released into her father’s care.

According to Adombiri, the suspect told police that his niece is a “spoiled child” and she was being punished for stealing 2 cedi (approximately $1 CAD). Despite this testimony and the eye-witness’ report, the suspect is out on bail.

As a condition of the suspect’s release, he is required to report to the police daily. The suspect did not report to police on April 20, says Insp. Adombiri. He says his unit is continuing to investigate the case.

As a case-worker on domestic abuse issues, Mahama says she frequently sees cases that are not investigated properly.

“Most of the time, we see the [alleged] perpetrator being freed, without being presented in court and it’s very frustrating,” says Mahama.

Iddrisu Inusah of the Commission for Humans Rights and Administrative Justice says the suspect should have seen a judge before being let out on bail.

Yet, Inusah says it is difficult to investigate and prosecute domestic violence cases in the Northern Region. He says victims frequently withdraw their statements, for fear of being ostracized by their families or communities.

“The family they will decide ‘oh no, no … this matter shouldn’t go through the court systems, this shouldn’t go through the police’,” says Inusah.

The children of Zion Bata

A young member of the Zion Bata church lies on the floor covering her ears. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

The children of Kachitsa Village, a small village of 1,000 in the northern outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, are adamant about their religious beliefs. Mention God and their shy, soft-spoken demeanor converts to self-assurance and poise.

These children are members of a church called Zion Bata which preaches that prayer is the only effective method for healing the sick.

“Since I was born I have never had any drugs,” says 10-year-old Rezina Emphraim “It would therefore be wrong if I had any vaccination because we made a promise to God that we will never take medicine.”

All members of the Zion Bata church, including 600 children, are forbidden access to modern medical care. Those who do seek treatment for sickness are heavily judged and ultimately kicked out of the  community.

For the children of Kachitsa, their parents’ decision to join Zion Bata has influenced every aspect of their lives.

“When a child is born, we give him blessed water first before he takes anything of this world,” says Mrs. Chigona, the community midwife who would only give her last name “He is blessed first and then he can be breastfed.”

Some members of Zion Bata have never spoken to the media before, largely because their beliefs are highly controversial in Malawi.

In 2011, when the Malawian government made the measles vaccination mandatory, health officials visited the village and found not a child in sight. It was later discovered that they ran away to a nearby mountain to avoid any wrongdoing.

“If I took drugs, it would be a sin against God,” says 13-year-old Enelesi Haswel, “It is not right that I should receive any medicine.”

To an outsider, it seems like the strong commitment to the church is governed by a fear of relinquishment. But the leader of church, Inspector Jamieson Ofesi, says that members have free choice to take medicine.

“If a person has little faith, he can use drugs. We do not prevent them from taking drugs. But if they do [take drugs] we excommunicate them because we know that they do not have faith.”

According the World Health Organization, 110 out of every 1,000 children born in Malawi will die before the age of five.  And for every eight that die, one will be the result of a preventable disease such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, or measles. Which prompts the question: Can the children of Katchitsa risk never seeing a doctor?

The physical appearance of the kids in this village is a testimony to the effects of prohibited healthcare.

The majority of them have scars, wounds or ring worms, and sitting in on the Sunday service is like sitting in a hospital waiting room. Young infants have worrying chesty coughs comparable to adults with bronchitis.

Malawian authorities have done little for the children of Zion Bata because the grey area between freedom of religion and the rights of the child is not yet defined.

Malawi practices religious tolerance, but children’s rights are a fairly recent phenomenon. The country only passed its first comprehensive act on child protection in 2010. Known as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, Article 80 states that “no person shall subject a child to a social or customary practice that is harmful to the health and general development of the child”.  Those found in breach of the article will land 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, no arrests under this act have been made at Zion Bata.

Grace Malera is the executive secretary of the Malawian Human Rights Commission, and she admits to facing difficulties in taking a proactive stance toward investigating whether the children are severely suffering due to their parents’ personal choices.

“A matter like this one needs further and comprehensive research because that kind of research will enable to us to generate evidence which could then in turn inform relevant policy and program interventions.” Says Malera

For child’s rights activists like George Kayange, who is the founder of the Child Rights Information and Documentation Centre, the central focus is the government’s role as a duty-bearer who has ratified the UN convention of the rights of the child.

“Government must take action in terms of ensuring that the best interests of the child – as enshrined in the convention – are being guaranteed,” Kayange says.

“It’s unfortunate that in many developing countries people use religion and culture as an excuse for violating other people’s rights, including children.”

With files from Teresa Ndanga

It takes a village to raise a child… plus foreign aid and government support, of course

(L to R) Hailma Bintu and "Michael"

The tattoo on sixteen-year-old Halima Bintu’s forearm is faded, but you can still see the scars. The thin crooked letters engraved across her dark skin read: “Halima Bintu”, “Takordi”.

It is common for children migrating from around the country to be given tattoos indicating where they came from, but who those details matter to is unclear.

Catholic Action for Street Youth (CAS) is a leader in attempting to keep track of the approximately 60, 000 children living on the streets of Accra though.

According to CAS’s founder, Brother Jos Van Dinther, the problem isn’t necessarily this literal head count, it’s that resources for projects like his are drying up and the problem requires much more than foreign aid for support.

In her local language of Twi, Hamila recounts the past few years of her life.

Halima tells me how her sister was murdered in a knife fight brought on by a gang of territorial girls. She describes her work as a hawker on the streets of Accra, where she has peddled sachets of pure water for 10 GH₵ (.06 CAD) per pack. She goes on to describe the brutal rape and violence she has endured – and continues to endure – while living on the streets.

Some might say it’s a wonder she ever left home.

Dutch-born and founder of CAS, Brother Jos Van Dinther, sat beside Halima and excused her from the interview.

“Many people believe that all street children are criminals, he says”. We [at CAS] know that many of these kids are good children. The just need love and support. That’s all. They have a family. They have somebody behind them who could have them if they wanted them,” explains Bro Jos.

Who could have them, but may not want them.

According to Bro Jos, these children come to Accra from all over Ghana and surrounding countries. If you want to send the child back you have to investigate why they left for a variety of reasons – abandonment, broken families, abuse, or perhaps, defilement.

“That’s why we don’t send any child back home. All this ‘reintegration’ is very nice, but it won’t work,” he says. The children return, but the problems in their family homes remain.

During the course of my hour-long conversation with Bro Jos, Halima’s story began to blend with other accounts of children seeking solace at what CAS’ calls their “House of Refuge”.

Established in 1992, Bro Jos and his staff support an average of 40 to 50 children each day at the CAS drop-in centre in the heart of Accra.

“[Often] the children don’t know how to take a bath, keep their clothing clean, speak to an adult,” says Bro Jos, and so CAS teaches them how.

That’s step one in CAS’s approach – teaching basics such as hygiene and health care on the streets, where Bro Jos and his street team seek these children out to let them know – first of all – that CAS exists.

Step two is to invite the children to CAS’s drop in centre where they are given rudimentary education and art classes. For those who show interest, CAS sends willing children to a training centre in Ashaiman – a district in the Greater Accra area – where they are taught vocational skills and begin the prep work for a formal education.

“To send a child to school and to a workshop, that costs €1,160 Euros, and we have to ensure that we have the money to make sure that the child can stay there,” Bro Jos says.

And this is where the plot thickens.

CAS is completely dependent on donations that they acquire through writing to donor organizations, embassies, and associations. They always seem to find support, “but it’s getting less and less”.

According to Bro Jos, the decline of the global economy effects CAS’ work with the Accra’s street children.

“People are very skeptical to see where the money they give is actually going and if it’s really used for the right thing. So, it’s very difficult to convince people that it’s worth while to give money.”

So where is the government in all of this?

Director of Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare (DSW), Steven Adongo, says: “There are several interventions that Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare takes, though there are many things that the general public won’t see that we are doing. That is because the problems are so large. Because even when you deal with a few children, it doesn’t seem like you are doing anything.”

Bro Jos works closely with the DSW and is encouraged by the fact that two years ago they decided to open a subset of their department that deals with street children, but more needs to be done.

CAS conducts it’s own surveys of street children by partnering with other NGOs and the Ghana government to release these statistics.

The service they provide the Ghanaian government is integral to combating the issue, though there are no provisions made by government to hand over that responsibility.

“We as NGO’s can never solve this problem. We as NGOs should not solve this problem. It’s a government problem. A social problem. So, we should find the root causes. Why are these kids on the street? Once we find what these roots causes are, we can solve the problem.”

***

Further Listening: Former street child “Michael” shares his story of hardship on the streets of Accra and how Catholic Action for Street Children helped him.

Grade ‘A’ Empowerment

In June 2009, Accra High School partnered with Amnesty International (AI) for an initiative called the ‘Human Rights Friendly School Project’ (HRFSP) – a program that attempts to integrate human rights values and principles into key areas of school life.

Amnesty International has programs in 14 secondary schools worldwide, in countries like Benin, Israel, Morocco, Denmark and Italy.

According to AI: schools that work towards becoming human rights friendly institutions will act as examples – microcosms, if you will – that such a culture is achievable.

Recently I met with program coordinator Isaac Kwame Nyanteh about the program while the kids prepped for a competition they call the “Constitutional Games”.