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Opinions Mon, 8 Aug 2016

Challenging Heights: Open letter to Nana Oye Lithur

August 2, 2016

The Honorable Nana Oye Lithur Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Ministries Accra.

Dear Honorable Nana Oye Lithur,

When would Ghana see an end to Human Trafficking?

I bring you warm greetings from Challenging Heights. I will like to start by acknowledging the fruitful partnership that exists between Challenging Heights and your Ministry. Through our collative efforts over 40,000 Ghanaian children are going to benefit from free shoes distribution along the coastal areas of Ghana, thanks to Tom Shoes.

This letter promises to be the longest I have ever written to you, so I hope you have ten minutes to read through to the end. I planned this letter to be a little personal, and to touch your heart, and to provoke you into action. However knowing how charged our media landscape is, I fear that this letter could be leaked, and probably misinterpreted. I have therefore decided to direct the letter to your office, but also to copy the media, and some partners in this sector.

Before I proceed I will like to thank Ambassador Robert Jackson, the American Ambassador to Ghana, for acknowledging the work of Challenging Heights during the human trafficking symposium. Over the years Challenging Heights has worked closely with the US State Department, the Canadian High Commission, the Australian High Commission, the British High Commission, and a host of other agencies in furthering our fight against child trafficking in Ghana.

Nana, Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act was passed in 2005. It took us over ten years to pass a Legislative Instrument (LI). Following the creation of the Human Trafficking Act, I am disappointed that it appears the Ghana Government has been setting up the consequential Human Trafficking board to fail.

We established the Human Trafficking Fund, and we put in only GHC100,000, and for nearly a decade no other money has been lodged into the fund. This is not only disappointing, but heartbreaking as well.

I love the warning issued by the American government, that if Ghana does not take urgent steps to address the issue of human trafficking in Ghana, we will stand a chance of losing over 500million dollars in aid. It is my hope that other governments will pile similar pressure on Ghana, in order to do what we are supposed to do for our own citizens who fall victim to trafficking.

Nana I have been so disappointed, and sometimes I feel real pains, in our government handling of the issue of Human Trafficking in Ghana. It appears it is a non issue, and therefore government is unprepared to invest any of our tax money into addressing the issue.

Nearly every action that has taken place has been because some donors have provided funding; from the Human Trafficking Act itself, to the LI, to training of the security agencies, to nearly everything. Practical actions, rescuing victims have nearly remained the effort of civil society organizations.

Although we have enacted laws, set up structures, and taken some actions, it appears to me that a lot of government officials either do not believe that Human Trafficking exists, or they do not believe that Human Trafficking is a crime.

I recall that a few years ago, an MP from Sege publicly condemned the police for intercepting a truck load of children who were being sent to Lake Volta for the purposes of Labor exploitation.

Just a few months ago, the DCE of Awutu Senya threatened to arrest me if my organization, Challenging Heights, went ahead to rescue vulnerable children at risk of being trafficked to Lake Volta.

Human trafficking is an international issue, which is currently engaging the attention of every country, including the West. In the last couple of years there is hardly a month that passes by without the US State Department being involved in one discussion or the other on Human Trafficking. The President of America, President Obama, has made Human Trafficking and Modern slavery one of his key focus areas, and regularly makes comments on the issue.

Here in Ghana there is a deafening silence on the issue throughout our governance system. The President of Ghana, President John Mahama hardly identifies with the issue.

Nana, trust me, children are being sold and bought for as little as GHC100 for purposes of Labor exploitation, and this is happening right here in Ghana. On Lake Volta we have boys and girls, some as young as six years, working day and night, some working between the hours of 3am and 8pm. They cast nets, they paddle canoes, they ply outboard motors, they mend nets, they remove fishes, and they dive deep into the lake to remove trapped nets. We have girls who have been thrown into perpetual servitude, and they serve as sex materials for men who work for older child victims, in addition to working as fishmongers and cooks.

We have boys and girls who are oiling the wheels of Ghana’s economy at the expense of their freedom, education, health, development, and future. We have children who have resigned into believing that it is okay to torture children.

Above all, we have boys and girls who are living disposable lives. These children die needless unreported deaths, some through work related risks, others through work torture, while still others die as a result of neglect. Nana, I’m referring to thousands of children trapped in oblivion.

A couple of weeks ago when we collaborated with the police to rescue those four boys who were sold for GHC125 each, we had a bonus child who had been in slavery for five years. Does this tell you anything about the situation? Oftentimes I look at your Ministry’s budget and I don’t see enough financial commitment. Your budget does not give me any hope that we will be able to address this issue sooner.

But you need to insist on sufficient budgeting on the issue of Human Trafficking. We cannot continue to hide behind LEAP and Capitation Grants to show how we are addressing the issue of trafficking in Ghana. We have a duty to rescue, we have a duty to rehabilitate victims, we have a duty to create awareness, and we have a duty to prosecute offenders. Therefore we have a duty to provide resources to achieve these duties.

The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection has a responsibility to adequately budget for the activities that will sufficiently address the issues related to Human Trafficking. The government Machinery has a duty to approve such budget, under a renewed urgency, and you have a duty to take action.

When the Human Trafficking Act was passed in 2005, the law made provision for the setting up of Human Trafficking Rehabilitation shelters, one in each of the ten Regions in Ghana. It has been over a decade now, not even a single shelter has been established.

We face a challenge; a challenge of bearing the pressure from the international community, and the embarrassment of knowing that these are our own children deserving of our support, that we are failing to act to protect them.

It appears to me that most of the work being done to address the issue of trafficking is being done by NGOs. My organization, Challenging Heights is currently running a transitional shelter. And I know that a few other NGOs are also running shelters.

So if the government does not have even a single shelter, save the Osu and Madina mixed shelters which are a pale of themselves, then should we be upset if the US government decides to punish Ghana for failing its own people?

What is more worrying in the Lake Volta situation is the dimension in the increasing number of victims who are teenage mothers, and teenage spouses. This, we have observed is deliberately done to either perpetuate the trafficking crime, or as an extension of the cultural situation.

We roughly estimate that for every 100 boy child victims who spends 10 years on Lake Volta, more than 30% of them are likely to be married off by age 17, and for every 100 girl child victims who spends 10 years on the Lake Volta, she is likely to be married off by age 14.

We also estimate that for every 100 boy child victims who spend 10 years on the Lake Volta, nearly 60 girls under 15 are likely to be married off from the source communities to 60 of those boys on the Lake.

These estimates are quite apart from the regular children married off to adults in the fishing communities where we work.

It is estimated that there are over 21,000 victims of child slavery on Lake Volta. So if this phenomena is perpetuating, then we are likely to see a multiplying negative socio-economic impact, and this definitely needs urgent attention.

Honestly I’m tired and in tears that I’m tired. A number of civil society actors have done everything, to support government to address this issue. I for instance had to quit a banking career, risk my life and businesses, being at the mercy of attacks, just to be at the forefront to fight this issue of child trafficking on Lake Volta.

All am looking for is a coordinated effort from the government of Ghana, addressing the issue of Human Trafficking systematically, just for me to gain hope that when the issue is done, it will be done sustainably. Nana, respectfully, I’m tired of this no money syndrome. None of the civil society actors has too much money. Challenging Heights struggles to finance its activities each year. We rely on people’s goodwill, and we struggle each year to survive our budgets.

Yet with our small resources you will agree with me that we are one of the leading antislavery organizations in Ghana. We have so far in our decade existence rescued over 1,500 children. We have supported nearly the same number of women to earn income to prevent trafficking, and we have built the capacity of many communities to resist trafficking of children in Ghana. You will also agree with me that we have raised our voices so loud that even though no one listens to us, at least everyone hears us.

Of course we can see visible progress in reducing the numbers of children trapped in slavery on Lake Volta. This I will mainly attribute to the efforts of civil society organizations, perhaps supported by the Legislative and institutional frameworks created by the Ghana government.

Many of us civil society actors in the human trafficking sector face severe death threats. I personally, in regular instances, resign my life constantly in the hands of God, and I leave my daily life in fear.

If we had strong and well resourced Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit, we would not have to live our lives in fear, and those we face will not have been emboldened to dare our work.

Nana, we have an opportunity. Most foreign agencies in Ghana have been willing to support fight against human trafficking in Ghana. Examples of such agencies are the ILO, UNICEF, French government, the American government, the British government, the Danish government, the Canadian government, the Australian government, and a host of other governments.

The government of Ghana is about to draw its fiscal budget for the year 2017. How much would you put in your 2017 fiscal budget to address the issue of Human Trafficking in Ghana? How much would you budget for the Human Trafficking Secretariat? How much would you ask for Police-Ministry collaborative operations? How many shelters would you like to build in the ensuing year?

In effect, how many victims of child trafficking would you rescue, rehabilitate, and re-integrate in 2017, and how many traffickers would you help to prosecute?

Long live the number of our children we will save in 2017. Long live the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection. Long live Ghana.

Columnist: James Kofi Annan