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IMG_6341There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the soft haze of Harmattan had settled above the waters of Lake Volta. Water levels were higher than they were the last time our rescue team visited in June, covering some of the tree stumps and making navigating the water a bit more dangerous. With the list of children who he had collected background information on tucked safely in his breast pocket, Stephen Adoo, the Rescue and Community Engagement Manager instructed the team to set out for a village an hour’s boat ride away.

The navigator of the boat expertly directed us to a village, using only his memory and 30 years knowledge of the lake. Upon our landing, we made our way to the chief of the village, to introduce ourselves, explain our mission and request for his assistance. His wife sympathised with our mission, saying that sometimes even she felt bad for the children who were forced to fish and endure abuse. The chief called the master of the two boys who were on our list.

The master came and our negotiations began; we explained that the parents and families of the boys had called for the boys return and asked for our assistance and that he needed to turn over the boys to us, and that if he didn’t we would return with the police. After some negotiating, he turn the boys over to our rescue team and they set off for the next village to find the next boy on the list, for the process to repeat.

_DSC1450 (2)The rescue team spent a total of 10 days on Lake Volta, traversing the lake and searching for the children who they had gathered information on. With the assistance of the Ghana Navy, they were able to rescue 18 children. These children arrived at the shelter just in time for the Christmas celebration. The rescue team handed them off to the skilled and capable shelter staff and the reintegration team began the process of tracing and preparing the families for the children’s ultimate reintegration.

Once we have rescued children from Lake Volta and they are recovering at our Hovde House shelter, our reintegration team works on tracing their families. During this research and investigating, the underlying reasons for why the family sent their child away come to light, and frequently that reason is the inability to provide for their children. So, when we prepare the family for the child’s reintegration, we provide them with a microgrant to ensure financial stability going forward.

These microgrants can take a variety of forms, but ultimately we ask the woman in the household what kind of enterprise she would like to pursue. We specifically target the women of the house because studies show that women invest more into the family than men and men often already have some kind of manual labour profession. Most often, they are interested in smoking fish and selling it, but sometimes they want to make soap or bread or sell sodas and biscuits at their shop. Once they have determined what it is that they want to do, we purchase the materials they need for their enterprise, be it fish, flour, soap bottles or bulk soda packages, and provide the goods as their microgrant.

Rose Attah Profile 01Rose has received two microgrants from us in the form of dried maize, which she mills and sells the cornmeal. Through the microgrants, she has increased her monthly income to 500 GHS, which allows her to pay for the school fees for all 8 of her children and the children she fosters. Before the microgrants, two of her children were unable to attend school and she was not able to foster children, either, because of the financial burden.

Welcome home hugs for Kwabena and Abena.

Welcome home hugs for Kwabena and Abena.

Two of Mary’s grandchildren were reintegrated in August. When they arrived home, she pulled them close into an embrace and her eyes welled up with tears. She was grateful for their return, but knew that they were vulnerable to being re-trafficked by their mother if she wouldn’t be able to keep them in school. We provided her with a microgrant of fish from the CH Cold Store, which Mary smoked and sold and she has used the profits to pay for the school fees for her grandchild and buy more fish to keep them there. With the financial support from Challenging Heights and support from the children’s aunt and uncle, Mary is able to ensure that they are on their way to success.

Fighting modern slavery on Lake Volta takes more than just rescuing children from the fishing boats and villages. Their families need to know that they are in a position to provide the best possible life for them upon their return and our livelihoods programme is able to make that happen.

Each year, December 2 marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. This year, James Kofi Annan, the president and founder of Challenging Heights was invited to participate in a panel hosted by the U.N. Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery titled, “Revealing the Child Faces of Modern Slavery.”

James spoke about his life story, having been trafficked at age 6 and escaping seven years later to then pursue his education. His story is one that truly does put a face on the problem of modern slavery.

James Kofi Annan, president and founder of Challenging Heights, addressing the U.N. Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery on 2 Dec to mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

James Kofi Annan, president and founder of Challenging Heights, addressing the U.N. Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery on 2 Dec to mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. credit: ILO

“Each time I made a mistake as a child fisherman, I was tortured,” he told the room. “I escaped, but there are so many children still stuck in slavery. This is why I created Challenging Heights, rescuing one child at a time.”

So far this year, Challenging Heights has rescued nearly 30 children from modern slavery on Lake Volta and our team is set to go on another rescue mission at the end of this week. Between the children we have rescued and partnerships with other anti-trafficking organisations, nearly 100 children have passed through our rehabilitation shelter this year.

However, in spite of the encouraging work that NGOs like Challenging Heights are doing to end slavery in Ghana, the government’s response and actions to end trafficking have been abysmal. The 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report from the US State Department placed Ghana on the Tier 2 Watchlist for the second year in a row, because of the low number of trafficking investigations and the lack of convictions. Though there are laws in place ensuring the criminality of trafficking, enforcement simply is not happening on the government’s part.

“The time to act is now. Everyone in this room has a part to play,” James said at the panel in Geneva. We couldn’t agree more.

_dsc1058Earlier this year, Family for Every Child released the Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration, which Challenging Heights had a part in producing. In September, we hosted a workshop for the policymakers, with the intent to share knowledge with the people who are setting the direction of government policies and major organisations within Ghana. Last week, we met with the practitioners to share the Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration with those who are on the ground and doing the work of reintegrating children.

The workshop, organised by our Advocacy Officer Akua Boatemaa Duah, was attended by 34 people from 26 different organisations, ranging from other anti-trafficking NGOs to members of the Department of Social Welfare to community members and traditional councils. We presented them with the guidelines as a tool to use when reintegrating children that have been separated from their families, particularly by being trafficked.

Bismark, representing Free the Slaves, sharing his thoughts on the Guidelines on Children's Reintegration.

Bismark, representing Free the Slaves, sharing his thoughts on the Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration.

The participants participated in a lively discussion around the guidelines, determining how to best implement them in their individual work and how to collaborate with the other organisations in the room better. Everyone was committed to working together to combat trafficking and modern slavery, the question became how to best work with each other to achieve that goal.

The Guidelines on Children’s Reintegration were developed by Family for Every Child, a network of organisations around the globe committed to protecting children’s rights. They were created with help of 14 different organisations and agencies, and endorsed by 14 more, through interviews and and input from 127 individuals, including children themselves. The dissemination of these guidelines was supported by Family for Every Child.

_dsc0861-2In a survey of coastal community residents 71.2 percent of respondents said that extreme poverty would be a reason why a family would traffic their child. When the parents are unable to provide for their children, sending them to live with a relative, as is a cultural norm in Ghana, is an attractive solution. Unfortunately, in far too many cases those relatives then use these children to work for them fishing on Lake Volta or doing domestic work, interfering with their education and depriving them of their rights.

Seeing that financial hardship is frequently at the root of a family’s decision to send their child away, we knew that we needed to address it. Studies show that when women are economically empowered, they reinvest their money in their families, such as buying food and clothes or paying for school fees, at a much higher rate than men. That is why we focus our economic empowerment programme on the women of the coastal areas.

In a survey of women in Winneba, we found that many women saw fish mongering as the most economically lucrative and an area that we were able to target support.

_dsc0874-2One of the issues that the women face is that their smoke ovens are often made of mud and clay and are out in the open. When it rains, the women are not able to smoke fish and the ovens would disintegrate. Both of those things would cut into the profits. So we decided to build a 58-oven covered smokehouse with the ovens made from blocks and concrete instead of mud. We also built more than 90 ovens at the homes of established fish mongers. The smokehouse is free for women in the community to use, through small cooperatives.

Additionally, we built and opened a cold store, which allows the women to have easy access to fish year round. Even though Winneba is a coastal community, the fishing season is surprisingly short, with big catches happening only from August to September. Low catch volume has forced the women to find their fish supply elsewhere, usually travelling four hours one way to the Tema port to buy fish. By operating a cold store in Winneba, we are able to provide fish to the women year-round and they are able to spend the time that would be done travelling working and care for their children.

Since the completion of these two projects earlier this year, the women who use the smokehouse and come to the cold store report that they are able to afford the fees associated with school for their children and that it many financial difficulties have eased. That is how we are working to prevent trafficking.

James Kofi Annan, the President of Challenging Heights, displaying the AGI overall Social Enterprise award

James Kofi Annan, the President of Challenging Heights, displaying the AGI overall Social Enterprise award

Challenging Heights has received the Best Social Enterprise award at the 5th edition of the Association of Ghana Industry (AGI) awards. This is in recognition of the organisation’s innovative and sustainable approach to addressing the issue of child trafficking in Ghana, and how the organisation has developed a number of livelihoods and income generating ventures to support its operations.

The newly introduced award category, sponsored by the British Council, is aimed at encouraging social entrepreneurs whose businesses focus on grassroots development through sustainable investments that create employment opportunities.

The President of the AGI, Mr James Asare-Adjei in his keynote address said Ghana’s prospects for job creation will improve if local industries experience sustainable growth to alleviate the graduate unemployment situation.

Mr Asare-Adjei urged the government to provide special fiscal and financial incentives to give local industries some edge over the prevailing competition.

The British Council, in its solidarity statement said that start-up social enterprises in Ghana are increasingly becoming vital parts of local economic growth and employment as well as active change agents in communities around the country.

The statement said early stage social enterprises face a stifling range of interconnected challenges such as harsh regulations, non-existent early stage investment opportunities and a lack of relevant market insight.

“Inclusive growth remains at the heart of the British Council’s support to the local social enterprise ecosystem,” the statement said.

James Kofi Annan receiving the Social Enterprise Award on behalf of Challenging Heights from the Country Director of British Council

James Kofi Annan receiving the Social Enterprise Award on behalf of Challenging Heights from the Country Director of British Council

The British Council said it supports the social enterprise award due to its efforts to recognise business that has society at its core.

The President for Challenging Heights, Dr James Kofi Annan, in an interview, said Challenging Heights would continue to be driven by its passion of delivering social justice interventions to children, women and underserved communities in the coastal and farming communities of Ghana.

He said through the establishment of sister companies, namely, Run-Off restaurant, CH Cold Store, Nyce Media and the Friends International Academy, Challenging Heights has created sustainable means to support the organisation’s goal of ending child trafficking on Lake Volta, while at the same time generating income for its own operations.

“Challenging Heights is currently the highest private employer in Winneba. The establishment of these enterprises has created jobs which are aimed at empowering communities and breaking the cycle of poverty; a main cause of trafficking,” he added.

Dr Annan urged the Government to create conducive environments for local businesses to operate and create more job opportunities to deal with the country’s high unemployment rates.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Kwame works on the engine of a taxi at his apprenticeship.

Kwame props the hood of the taxi up and bends at the waist to reach into the engine. He fiddles with the wrench loosening parts to get to the thing that is causing the problems. A fellow apprentice works alongside him, helping him and asking questions that Kwesi is able to easily answer. In the year and a half since being reintegrated, Kwesi has risen from his start as an apprentice to being the second chief apprentice at this mechanic’s shop. He’s learning a lot of skills and how to diagnose a multitude of problems on all of the taxis that are regularly brought here to be serviced, and he hopes to one day own his own mechanic shop.

It was two years ago that Kwame was rescued by Challenging Heights. At 15 he had been working on Lake Volta for nine years already, casting and dragging nets, diving to untangle them when they got caught in the tree stumps and even selling the fish from 4 am to 10 pm everyday. His uncle had told his mother that he would put Kwame in school, which seemed like the best option at the time. She was struggling to provide for her nine children. It wasn’t until Kwame arrived at Lake Volta that he realised he wasn’t going to be going to school.

He found some solace when his brother and cousin joined him on the Lake, but was not happy that they too would have to endure the brutal treatment he was experiencing. However, it was the stories of his cousin nearly drowning that made their way back to his aunt that prompted his mother to come to Challenging Heights for help. We were able to rescue Kwame and his family members, after which they were brought to the Hovde House shelter for our recovery programme.

After successfully completing the programme, we reintegrated Kwame with his mother, a traditional medicine maker, and his father, a fisherman, in Winneba. Kwame was enrolled in the mechanic apprenticeship, where he has excelled. We know that he will be able to achieve his dreams of opening his own shop in the near future.

Earlier this year, the students of Castle View High School in Castle View, Colorado choose Challenging Heights as the recipient of their annual Make a Difference Week fundraising campaign. In just a short week, these committed student were able to raise more than $30,000 for Challenging Heights.

We were able to use those funds to build three new classrooms at what is now Friends International Academy, the school that Challenging Heights founded 10 years ago. As the reputation of the school and the high levels of the students’ performance has spread throughout Winneba, enrolment has steadily increased. The growing student body has triggered a need for more classrooms, which we were able to make a reality with the help of Castle View High School.

This strong connection between Castle View High School and Challenging Heights prompted some of the teachers at CVHS to consider a fundraising and service learning trip to Ghana with Challenging Heights. Once again, the generosity of the students was great, and 16 students were able to raise more than $8,000 for Challenging Heights to combat child trafficking and modern slavery.

During their week spent with us, they tackled a new paint job for the Hovde House shelter, reading with the students at Friends International Academy, helping out at the Hand in Hand for Literacy Library and assisting with the distribution of TOMS shoes to children in need in Winneba. They also spent time at the beach, visiting tourist sites and walking in the canopy of Kakum National Park.

The students and chaperones came away with a greater understanding of the problem of modern slavery in Ghana and globally and a sense of commitment to wanting to continue a partnership with CH in the years to come. We at CH are delighted to have gained more than 20 new advocates and ambassadors for our mission and look forward to a lasting friendship.

Years as a domestic servant for fishermen on Lake Volta, Ruth knew cooking and washing. She would take boat trips into Yeji from her small village each Sunday to buy foodstuff for the week. Her master, who was also her grandmother, verbally abused her constantly, and she expected insults from the least provocation. She knew she wasn’t happy, but had nowhere else to go.

While she enrolled in nursery school as a small girl, Ruth’s grandmother asked her mother to take her to Lake Volta, and her mother agreed. She was never afforded formal education.

ruth-6Her life is so different now from when she worked on the lake. Ruth says she now knows what life is. Now that she can learn a trade, she sees what she can become in the future.

In a dream, Ruth says she saw herself sewing. Since then, she wanted to be a seamstress, but she never anticipated that she could until she visited apprenticeship opportunities with the Challenging Heights Hovde House and she began her own within a month of being reintegrated with her family in Winneba. She’s already worked on many pieces and sewn one for herself.

“I’m very happy in everything that I do, especially ironing for my master, and when my master asks me to sew some part of the dress,” Ruth beams. She’s excited to try new skills and hopes to master them so that she can one day open her own seamstress shop and employ children like herself, who had no hope in the future. She wants to give opportunities to those who may have had difficult backgrounds, too.

Thankful to Challenging Heights, Ruth says she won’t let us down. She wants to let the whole world know that children who find themselves on the lake have so much potential, so “there is no need for them to rot on the lake forever.” She hopes Challenging Heights continues receiving support so others like her can be rescued, live with their families, and have a bright future of their own.

As a part of the launch of the Children’s Reintegration Guidelines from Family for Every Child, Challenging Heights called together policy makers and influencers from across various sectors to present the guidelines and collaborate on how to implement the guidelines.

Jonny Whitehead, Director of Challenging Heights, giving opening remarks for the workshop.

Jonny Whitehead, Director of Challenging Heights, giving opening remarks for the workshop.

“What we want to do is improve the effectiveness of getting children back into their families,” Jonny Whitehead, Director of Challenging Heights, said.

The attendants of the workshop included representatives from UNICEF, Mercy Project, Free the Slaves, Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare (DSW), Ghana’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU), Ghana’s Criminal Investigation Department for the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit, the International Organisation for Migration and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives who all have a connection to reintegrating children with their families and communities after being separated because of both emergency and non-emergency situations. There was a desire among the participants to create a standard to be used by all agencies that do reintegration, ensuring that all children receive a high standard of care, and these guidelines aim to inform that standard.

Pomaa Arthur, Recovery Manager, explains the main points of the Children's Reintegration Guidelines.

Pomaa Arthur, Recovery Manager, explains the main points of the Children’s Reintegration Guidelines.

“These guidelines were developed because there are millions of children separated from their families, and as families break down, so does society,” Pomaa Arthur, Recovery Manager at Challenging Heights said.

The Children’s Reintegration Guidelines were developed by Family For Every Child, an international coalition of civil society organisations that aim to improve the lives of vulnerable children, using research, pooled knowledge and consultations with 158 children, 127 service providers and 66 agencies. The guidelines have been endorsed by UNICEF and 30 other organisations that address the well-being of children around the world.

These new international guidelines are broadly in line with forthcoming policy regarding children’s reintegration from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, according to Idduh Abdallah from UNICEF. Representatives from DSW concurred and stressed the importance of adapting the guidelines to a local cultural context and to support the new policy.

The participants ended the workshop with a greater understanding of the guidelines and a desire to ensure that the policy is inline with these new international standards, wanting to create a set of tools to ensure that the guidelines are easy to follow on the ground and suggestions on how to strengthen partnerships across sectors.

Challenging Heights is a non-governmental organisation based in Winneba that is dedicated to ending child trafficking and forced labour through social justice interventions and protecting children’s rights since 2007.