|Some 50,000 children are believed to be living rough in Ghana
ACCRA, 6 March 2007 (IRIN) – Thirteen-year-old Joshua Anderson is confident, even cocky, about his life on the streets of Ghana’s largest city, Accra. But he struggles to hold back tears when asked why he left his family in the countryside nearly one year ago.
His mother wouldn’t let him keep going to school, he said. Instead, he was forced to go to work with her at the market.
So one night he quietly left. He went to Accra where he hoped he would find someone to support his education.
Instead of school, Anderson had to work. He lugs boxes and cases, often taller than he is, in one of the city’s bus stations. In exchange he gets a handful of coins.
At night, he sleeps on a cardboard mat in front of a meat shop.
Anderson’s best friends are also 13 years old. They stick together for protection, but sometimes it’s not enough.
"Sometimes the grown-up boys beat us, even take our money and that sort of thing," he said. He also risks being raped and sexually abused.
Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare and local NGOs believe there are 21,000 children living and working on Accra’s streets without a parent to protect them.
Nationwide there could be as many as 50,000, the department said, with many of them in Ghana’s second city, Kumasi.
"There are enormous groups of children on the streets," said Jos van Dinther, director of Catholic Action for Street Children (CAS), an NGO based in Accra. "This is a very bad sign for the country."
Place of birth, ethnic group and religion do not appear to be important in deciding who ends up on the streets as family stability and poverty.
More than 80 percent of under-sixteen’s working the streets in Ghana left home because of family problems, such as neglect or parents’ separation, according to CAS surveys.
Other causes cited by CAS are the collapse of rural livelihoods as traditional industries like fishing go into decline, lack of jobs, poor schools outside the cities, and forced marriage.
The breakdown of traditional African family structures, wherein it used to be normal for children to be sent to cities to live with distant relatives, is another factor that has contributed to growing numbers of street children throughout West Africa.
But social workers are quick to add that ultimately parents have the responsibility to care for their children and keep them off the streets. They say Ghana’s street children symbolise a failure on the part of the country’s parents.
"There are many nice slogans – rights of the child, right to education," said van Dinther. "But these are just ignored. They have no rights."
Once on the streets, children receive no formal education, are at increased risk of illness, have poor diets and hygiene, and must struggle to earn money for food. Many of them experience theft and violence, and girls are frequently raped.
The man tasked with dealing with this problem, Stephen Adongo, deputy director at Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare, is sanguine about the government’s chances of curbing the problem.
He said the department’s social workers have too much work and too little resources to adequately respond to the needs of street children, much less to stop the problem from continuing.
He said his Child Rights Protection Division, which is one of three in the department, has a nationwide operating budget of about US$1,700 for the first quarter of 2007, which parses down to $170 for each of the country’s ten regions.
"We are forced to do sedentary social work," he said. "You sit in your chair and wait for people to come."
Adongo said Ghana’s policymakers who control the government’s purse strings do not appreciate the problems of street children and have not made the issue a priority.
“It’s an issue that is far away and doesn’t touch them,” he said.
"If we had more people and more resources, we could do preventive social work. With more funding, the department could intervene before the children land on city streets,” he argued.
The department does support periodic public sensitisation campaigns and workshops for street children on topics such as health and hygiene. But any sustained efforts in Ghana for now, he said, is coming from NGOs.
Hitting the streets
For the meantime it is NGO’s like CAS that send out field workers to comb the streets of Accra every day.
They know where the street children work and sleep, earn their trust and then invite them to the organisation’s day care centre, or House of Refuge.
The refuge caters to about 80 street children per day. It is the nearest thing to a home for them, where they can bathe, wash their clothes, rest, and play games.
"I come to learn and for the library," said Nancy Mensah, 15, who has been in Accra for less than a month and was told about the refuge by a friend. She said she left her family because as the seventh child she was neglected.
At the refuge, the children participate in formal class work, such as literacy and mathematics, and in workshops like weaving and pottery. There is also a modest library and computer centre.
Many of the children just use the place as a safe, clean place to rest.
But those children who show they are serious about leaving the streets are sponsored to go to CAS’s Hopeland Training Centre.
At this separate facility outside Accra, the children get more one-on-one attention and do intensive class work that is intended to prepare them for entry into vocational school or formal education.
Once their training is finished, graduates are given a modest amount of money to start a business or assisted in job placement. About 1,500 children have been freed from the streets through the process.
But for every child assisted by CAS or other NGO like it in Ghana, many more go unassisted.
"The urgent action should come from politicians, from people in authority," said CAS’s van Dinther. "We want to know where is the button we can push so something changes."