Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The home economics of child labour

You can't stop child labour without confronting household poverty

Raphel Ahenu
4 April 2022, 6.00am
Hayford Telli. All rights reserved

Raphel Ahenu is Founder and CEO of the Global Media Foundation, a human rights and media advocacy organisation based in Ghana. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with Raphel as part of our feature on child workers in the country to learn more about the children’s context and the impact of NGO interventions on them. His remarks were translated out of Twi and lightly edited for clarity.

The Global Media Foundation uses the power of the media to fight for the rights of disenfranchised Ghanaians, particularly among deprived communities in the Ahafo region. Ahafo is one of the main agricultural areas of Ghana, and we are involved with children and youth working in cocoa and other farming here. There are also small-scale mines, lorry parks, and other jobs that the government doesn’t want children to do anymore. We work with youth in all these communities.

Most of us at the foundation were working children too. I personally acquired my education and training as journalist by working as an agricultural labourer. Working was simply normal when we were young men and women, so the young people now struggling to make it in life through work are very dear to our hearts. Their rights are central to our advocacy and humanitarian activities.

How do you see child labour in the region, and in your experience what is the best way to support working children?

We know from our own experience and through community outreach that if you want to assist a working child you must support their whole household and community. Addressing child labour is difficult, but it’s much easier if you go about it in the right way.

Unless we increase support for poor families, child labour will not go away.

A lot of the households and families we meet are in difficult circumstances. Most are unemployed or, even where they have jobs, things are not going well. They are trying their best to put food on the table and ensure their children go to school but there is no support for them to achieve this. As a result the whole family must work together as farm labourers or in other jobs to make ends meet.

The children are supposed to be in school and, now that education is free in Ghana, it is easy to blame such families for breaking the law. But in reality we are just blaming them for being poor. We have to face reality and admit that unless we increase support for such families, child labour will not go away no matter how hard we preach against it.

Why is that?

There are a lot of misunderstandings around child labour. Some people believe that children are working because they’re bad apples or truants. Others say that child labour in Ghana is due to child trafficking or child slavery. These sorts of claims amaze me. People aren’t just trafficking children or forcing them to become slaves. Children work due to poverty and hardship, and most of the ones we see have no other alternatives.

Now, there are adults who take advantage of them. Those of us working at the grassroots level are well aware of this. But these opportunists get the chance because of the situation that the children and their families are in. Household poverty is the root cause and we are not doing enough to tackle that.

That’s why you have to help the household if you want to help the children. If the family isn’t in a good position, you can’t just put the child in school or stop the child from working and expect that everything will be OK. That sort of intervention doesn’t end well for these children.

We’ve seen this so many times. A well-meaning person or NGO comes in and sponsors a child. There is a lot of fanfare at the beginning, but after a short while that child will be back in their former place of work or not attending school regularly because things are not OK at home. Unless the benevolent party just keeps on sending funds throughout the child’s education, that initial help doesn’t go anywhere.

Many NGOs are active in the region around child labour, including your own. What drives and shapes their work?

The ways that NGOs access funding in Ghana is a major problem. We need money, and very often funding comes from overseas partners with strings attached. Funders usually expect you to implement a programme according to their wishes. But that doesn’t mean they have the right solutions.

For example, they may direct you to use the funds for sensitisation programmes around child labour. This may be useful to an extent, but we can question whether children are really working because they lack knowledge about the evils of child labour. My experience makes me doubt that. Instead of sensitisation events, the funds could have more impact if, for example, they are given out as micro-finance grants or as seed capital to struggling families. Many of the women we meet are very resourceful, and giving one of them even 2000GHS (approximately $200) to start something could make the difference between their children having to work or not. As an activist on the ground you may see this clearly. You may even raise this with the funder. But they have their own agendas and don’t always listen.

As much as we should address bad work, we must make sure that we don’t demonise children’s work completely.

The other problem is that funding is coming less and less to grassroots NGOs such as ours. Rather than staying in their countries of origin and partnering with locals, Western NGOs are increasingly opening branches all over the world. And these local branches now receive the lion’s share of funding because of their connections with funders back home and because they have teams of people writing applications for them. I ask myself why they have chosen this route over partnering with us. Do they not trust our ability to work in our own country?

Now, their presence here isn’t all bad. Many of them employ Ghanaians who understand the problems of child labour in our country very well. But the way they tackle child labour issues tends to be different from how NGOs which are directly formed over here would. They tend to use strategies that don’t always work well in our culture. And, as I said, they make it more difficult for indigenous NGOs to attract funding. In short they undermine the chances for indigenous organisations to develop and thrive.

This series features many working children’s views on how to address their situation. As practitioner and activist, what do you think should happen?

As I said before, most child labourers don’t have any option because of their household situation. If we target that problem and support the whole household, we can drastically reduce the number of children who work in the most dangerous jobs.

The government’s free education policies have helped, but in very poor communities more needs to be done to enable children to attend school without having to worry about what they will eat when they come back home. In many situations I would recommend a programme of soft loans and grants so that deprived households can begin petty trading and other income-generating activities. This would lessen the need for children to top up the family income through work.

Another thing is that we must understand our culture and traditions. This is one of the issues I have with the increasing reach of Western NGOs into our territories. As much as we should address bad work, we must make sure that we don’t demonise children’s work completely. We must find the right balance. Right now, you will hardly meet a child who says they want to become a farmer or work in any of our traditional industries, even though these have sustained us for a long time. Even farmers’ children don’t want to have anything to do with farming in the future. They look down on this sort of work, in part because we have approached child labour abolition by demonising children’s place in these jobs.

I worked throughout my childhood and youth in agricultural labour and other jobs – jobs which our government, the ILO, and others now suggest that no child should be allowed to do. Through these jobs, I successfully completed my diploma in broadcasting and journalism, which I decided to put to the benefit of the marginalised communities in my area through the formation of my NGO. Combining agricultural work with my education didn’t diminish my future or violate my rights. Instead, I now have the best of both worlds. I can survive by farming if I need to. And I am also putting my educational training to use. There are good and bad sides to everything, and we need to find the right balance.

We need to take all working children into account when putting policies in place.

Our approach to child labour over the last couple of decades has also created a situation where many young people complete school but fail to find work in the formal sector afterwards. They also lack livelihood skills. Is this the bright future we promised these children when we told them to go to school and forget about agriculture, petty trading, etc. because their future would be ruined by these activities?

Some young people are starting to see this problem and want to learn livelihood skills in addition to schooling. But the law now says they can’t do these jobs before they are 18. So how are they going to learn these skills? These children are not the ones we see in the child labour campaigns. We only hear from those whose opinions match those of the big NGOs, who are demonising everything. We need to take all working children into account when putting policies in place, or the problems I have highlighted will only get bigger.

If we want to eliminate the most harmful jobs, we must make sure the whole household is in a good place. The children may still work but at least not in the most dangerous work, or they may not have to work as much. I think that with this approach we can achieve the balance I was talking about, whereby they can pick up vital livelihood skills, their families can do well, and they can attain an education so that their choices for the future are better.

About the Artist

My name is Hayford Telli and I'm a self-taught artist in Accra, Ghana. At 11 I was inspired to draw by the cartoon series Captain Planet, and my first sketches were of the show's characters. I continued to develop my skills by doing portraits of friends. Eventually I began to earn income by busking as a sketch artist on the street and by selling my own work. Art has opened up my life opportunities after much adversity as a child. I am now an entrepreneur in street art and digital designs. I also offer other youth life chances by giving them training and employment. We hope to extend our services and horizons beyond the borders of Ghana and welcome anyone who is interested in working with us.

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