Archives For

Three years ago Kofi*, then 13, had completed his time at the Challenging Heights Hovde House. He was ready to go home and continue on his path to recovery with his mom and dad in Winneba. Now at 16, Kofi has excelled in school and is nearly at the top of his class.

Kofi had previously been forced to work as a fisherboy on Lake Volta and had never attended school. After spending time in our rehabilitation shelter, our teachers determined he was able to enter into primary class three (P.3). “When I first arrived at the shelter, I felt like maybe my opportunities were limited because the school was so small. I didn’t know that they were preparing me. When I came to the mainstream school, I saw my opportunities open up, especially since I like a bit of competition with the other students,” Kofi said.

He started schooling in P.3 at Challenging Heights School (now Friends International Academy). After the first exam, his teacher and the headmaster looked at his scores and promoted him to P.4. During this time, Challenging Heights was helping to support his mother with livelihoods support and provided him with school supplies which decreased the financial burden on his parents as they gained better financial footing.

The next school year, Kofi transferred schools. The teachers gave him the placement test for P.5, the class he was supposed to enter, and he passed with flying colours. So, they gave him the next test for P.6, which he again passed with ease. It was decided that Kofi would start the school year in Junior High School form 1 (JHS1).

While mathematics is where Kofi excels, his favourite subject is social studies. He really enjoys learning about current affairsand like using his own opinion to answer questions. This past year was particularly special for his social studies class as they followed Ghana’s election. One area that he struggles in is Fante class, partly because his native language is Effutu. However, he doesn’t let his struggles hold him back. He has worked with his Fante teacher to develop some strategies to improve, such as focusing on the phonetics of the words rather than just the spelling, which sometimes are different. With all of this, at the end of JHS1, he was 3rd in his class out of 62 students.

At home, Kofi is happy and comfortable. Most days he helps his aunt sell things in her shop, but he can also be found playing with his siblings and neighbourhood friends. However, he enjoys doing his homework the most.

“My vision in life is to succeed,” Kofi said. “I want to prove to the world that kids who were on the Lake [Volta] can succeed if given the opportunity.”

Kofi’s plans for the future involve passing his BECE at the end of JHS3 and continuing onto Senior High School (SHS). He hopes to get a scholarship so that he can go onto university, where he plans to study medicine and become a doctor. If medical school doesn’t work out, Kofi has a back-up plan: he’ll continue to university and then enter the police force.

When he was working on Lake Volta, Kofi didn’t have any idea of what the future might be, other than fishing. Now, he sees his future as very bright. “I want everyone to know that through Challenging Heights, children can succeed and that there are other children out there that need help.”

Last month, Challenging Heights and their partner Mercy Project reintegrated 30 children with their families after they completed the recovery care programme at the Challenging Heights Hovde House.

The children spent an average of six months at the rehabilitation shelter, where they received therapy, counselling, basic literacy and numeracy education, health care and nutritional care. A number of the children came to the shelter with health problems ranging from bilharzia to wounds from being beaten to malnutrition. With support from the local hospital, all of the children were in excellent health and enrolled in the National Health Insurance Scheme on reintegration day.

Nearly all of the children had spent multiple years on Lake Volta, where they were forced to cast and drag large fishing nets, dive to untangle them, scoop water from the boats and perform domestic chores. For many, their days lasted nearly 18 hours, every day of the week and they survived on a single meal for the day, often just enough to get by. All of them experienced some kind of abuse, typically verbal abuse and often physical abuse.

Prior to reintegration day, our reintegration team spent months tracing the families of the children and preparing them for when the children would return home. The week before reintegration, our recovery team met with the caregivers to share with them information about how children experience trauma and how it can affect family ties. They also talked about financial planning strategies to save money for the future. All the the caregivers were asked what kind of livelihoods support they would like to receive in the form of in-kind goods to sell and our team got to work to procure the goods for them.

On reintegration day, our bus was loaded up with the children who would be returning to Winneba and the surrounding communities and their belongings. We set out and made our rounds to each of the children’s homes where they were greeted by their families with smiles, hugs, handshakes and shouts of joy.

In the coming weeks, our reintegration team will be back at the children’s houses, helping to enrol them in school and apprenticeships and providing them with the necessary materials for them to be successful. We’ll also follow up to provide advice and support in the coming years to make the transition as smooth as we can.

We’re excited to watch as these young people grow and and succeed in their new, free lives.

At Challenging Heights, we believe in and support the protection of children’s rights, particularly their right to an education. We’ve seen that children who are in school are less likely to be trafficked, or even re-trafficked. By ensuring children’s access to education, whether it was through advocating for the elimination of school fees more than 10 years ago or our current focus of addressing corporal punishment in schools, we have been working at a very broad level to protect this right for children.

Our national and municipal level policy advocacy does not preclude support on an individual level either. A big part of the rehabilitation and reintegration of the children that we rescue from modern slavery is education. While at the shelter, the children all attend school in the on-site classrooms. There they learn basic literacy and numeracy skills. In many of the exit interviews that we conduct upon the children’s reintegration, many of them say that their biggest change was in their ability to write their name and other academic achievements.

However, our support for their education doesn’t end upon their reintegration. Often, the children return home on a Thursday or Friday, allowing them a weekend with their families to relax and enjoy. Then, on Monday morning, our reintegration officers set off to help enrol the children in their nearest school. We talk with the headmaster and the teacher, to help them understand the child and some of the challenges they may face, since for many it is their first time going to school. We then find out from the school what school supplies are required. Later in the week, we return with all of the necessary school supplies and a seamstress to take measurements to make their new school uniforms.

This support for our reintegrated children, keeping them in school, significantly lowers their risk of being re-trafficked. Not only that, but with this level of support, the majority of families are also then able to ensure that all of their other children are enrolled in school as well. This goes a long way in promoting change among the community and helping to foster a value of education, which in turn can help to prevent trafficking.

We at Challenging Heights have reached a crucial point in our history. For the past 12 years we have spread our efforts among a variety of programmes, all with the goal of making an impact on child trafficking in Ghana. Today, Friends International Academy, formerly Challenging Heights School, is a community institution and example for all schools in Winneba with its anti-corporal punishment policy and sustained 100% graduation rate. The opening of the CH Cold Store last year had brought new financial opportunities and security to the women of Winneba and the surrounding communities. With a sense of accomplishment in those areas were are setting our sights on an ambitious new goal.

We plan to end child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry in five years, and child slavery in 10.

We have identified nine objectives that fall under three programming areas that will help us to achieve this goal.

Rescue and Recovery

This is an area that we know that we excel at currently. We have rescued more than 1,500 children and more than 400 children have received rehabilitation care at the Challenging Height Hovde House shelter. However we want and need to do more to achieve our goal.

Our main objectives for our Rescue and Recovery programme are a reduction in the number of trafficked children on Lake Volta, all rescued children receive high-quality rehabilitation before reintegration with a loving family, and that family life is good for all reintegrated children, their caregivers and siblings.

We have plans to steadily increase the number of children that we rescue over the coming years. We will continue to run our shelter at the high standards of care that resulted in it being rated the number one shelter in Ghana by the US State Department. In fact, with the increase in the number of children that we plan to rescue we will need to expand our facilities there. Finally, to ensure that family life is good for all reintegrated children, we will continue our current programme of advising and supporting the children we reintegrate and will be folding our previous livelihoods programme into the reintegration support more seamlessly.

We know that it is not possible for us to reach all of the children who have been trafficked to Lake Volta alone, which is why we are partnering with other non-governmental organisations in Ghana to support their rescue and recovery efforts. Our shelter has rarely reached capacity based on our rescues alone, and so we are providing our rehabilitation services to other NGOs as well.

By the end of the next five years, we plan to have rescued a total of 700 children from Lake Volta, have rehabilitated 1,000 children in our shelter, and support 4,900 children, their caregivers and families.

Prevention

In order to end trafficking, we will need to do more than just bring back children from Lake Volta. We will need to actively pursue prevention of trafficking by tackling the root causes that leads a family to traffic their child and to work with the government so that criminal consequences are a deterrent.

Our main objectives for our Prevention programme are to tackle the root causes of trafficking with a prevention programme in and around Winneba, and to work with the government to ensure prosecution of traffickers.

Eliminating all of the root causes of trafficking would be an impossible task for any organisation, which is why we are focusing our attention on some of the main causes that we have identified, such as poverty, naivety and family separation. We are actively seeking partnerships with other organisations to effectively address the causes that we don’t have the capacity to commit to.

Additionally, the current number of trafficking investigations and convictions has made trafficking a low-risk and high-reward activity. We want to work with the government to focus their attention and efforts on enforcing the laws that are already on the books, so that traffickers and slave masters know that there are consequences for their actions.

We will count our success with a measurable reduction in the root causes of trafficking in the communities where we work, and knowing that Ghana’s government does all that it can to prevent trafficking, reduce slavery, and prosecute traffickers and slave masters.

Advocacy

In the past much of our advocacy efforts have focused on influencing national policy and to a lesser extent on changing attitudes. Ghana largely has the legal infrastructure to address trafficking and modern slavery from a national level, and we need to focus more of our attention on the social norms around trafficking.

Our objectives for our Advocacy programmes are that the Ghana public is actively opposed to child trafficking and supportive of child rights, that anti-trafficking NGOs work together, global best practices are developed and used in Ghana, and there is a deeper understanding among stakeholders of the nature, prevalence and solutions to trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry.

We are already quite skilled with our communications, but will need to step up our efforts and target and plan our messaging more effectively. We’re reaching out to both NGOs in Ghana and abroad to built support and plan actions to reaching the goal of ending trafficking. Research both using the data and files that we have as well as out in the community are being planned and in the works for the coming years for all interested and involved to better understand modern slavery in Ghana’s fishing industry.

In five years’ time, we plan that 80 percent of Ghana will oppose trafficking, 80 percent of anti-trafficking NGOs in Ghana agree that we are good partners, that we have established a global network of 120 anti-trafficking NGOs, and that one piece of research has been published each year.

 

All of at Challenging Heights are excited and energised by this new goal and focus. We know we are setting an ambitious goal, but we believe it is achievable. However, we can only do it with the help and support of our friends. If ending child trafficking in Ghana is something that you would like to be a part of, we would encourage you to become a monthly sponsor or get in touch to find out other ways you can help.

Throughout the years that we’ve been rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of modern slavery on Lake Volta, we’ve heard stories and accusations of forced marriage and child marriage occurring in the fishing communities on Lake Volta. Last year, we received funding from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives to take a closer look at this issue and use our findings to educate the communities about what we learned.

To better understand the issue of child marriage and how it related to trafficking, it helps to start with understanding child marriage in a global context. An estimated 700 million women were married as children plus 22 million girls who are married. An estimated 280 million girls are at risk of being married before they are 18 and 15 million girls are married each year. Over the last 30 years, the proportion of girls in marriage has been declining, however because of population growth, the number of girls at risk is not changing. Even if the current efforts were sustained, the total number of at-risk girls would remain the same for another 30 years.

In light of that reality, more must be done to understand and combat the problems of child marriage, particularly in Ghana where 27% of women were married before they were 18. Based on interviews with children we have rescued, members of our shelter team and community leaders in Winneba and communities along Lake Volta, a better understanding of the relationship between child trafficking and child marriage came into view. This allows us to help increase the efforts at raising awareness of child marriage as it pertains to our work.

Our research found a couple of key points. While many traffickers deceive the families of the children who are trafficked by promising school and housing, when pressuring the girls into marriage similar deception techniques are used. The girls are told by their masters to marry a man who will provide for them and their parents, often in exchange for some money. The other key point is that many adolescents, both boys and girls, are effectively encouraged to participate in sexual relationships. When the girls become pregnant as a result of these relationships, then they are forced into marriage.

We also were able to identify some of the main causes that lead to child marriage. They include broken homes, poverty, child labour, high illiteracy rates and the social norms. It should be noted that many of these causes are interrelated and often overlap with the root causes of child trafficking.

We’re using what we’ve learned from this research to conduct sensitisations with adolescents in the community and parents of school children. We’re also planning to work with the media and other stakeholders to share the findings, so that everyone can better understand child marriage and what leads to it and how to address it.

If you’d like to read the research, you can download it here.

IMG_7168There was a buzz in the air all week. Classes had been closed for a few days and the children had set about to learn a new choreography. Ribbons were wrapped around the pillars that support the roof and tinsel and garlands were hung around the doors and windows. Christmas had arrived at the shelter.

Christmas Eve was passed with a church service. The children listened to the story of Christmas and stories from the Bible, sharing the spirit of the season with one another. Many of the children could relate to the relief that Mary and Joseph felt at being taken in. When the church service closed at 1 a.m. the staff and older children set off fireworks and passed around sparklers for the younger children to enjoy as well.

The next morning, everyone got to sleep in a bit. Once everyone was stirring, it was time to begin the day’s activities and celebration. It wouldn’t be a holiday and celebration in Ghana without food, and everyone feasted. Everyone pitched in to clean the house and courtyard for the afternoon’s programme to begin.

IMG_7163Some of the children, who had prepared the choreography, performed their dance for their friends and the staff. Carols were sung by everyone and it was truly a party atmosphere. Finally gifts were given to all of the children. The boys and girls were given Santa hat, watches and sunglasses, which they all wore with pride and joy for the rest of the day.

For many of the children, this was their first of many Christmases to come spend in freedom, and that is something to celebrate this season.

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.