Feature Story

21 May 2012

Seeking a New Life, and Finding Hardship, in the Marketplaces of Ghana

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The 15-year-old girl Sharifa, left fled the north after her parents died and her grandmother tried to marry her off. Sahada, right, also fled after she was married off against her will.  Photo: Shira Levine

ACCRA, Ghana --- Sixteen-year-old Sahada was pulled out of school when her family arranged a marriage for her.

But it wasn’t what she wanted. “I wanted to remain in school and learn,” she said through a translator. “My family took me from school and told me it is time to be married.”

In spite of her resistance, Sahada was kidnapped into marriage with a man from another village. “In some cultures in the North, when a man falls in love with you, he just grabs you by force,” explains Mohammed Salifu with the Kayayee Youth Association as he translates her story. Sahada managed to escape on her own, making her way to Accra.

Facing harsh working conditions

Leaving home and the only life they’ve ever known wasn’t easy for Sahada, or other young women who now carry the burdens of others in the sprawling Agblogloshie market. But for Alima, Hikma and Nafisa, as well as Sahada and so many others from rural northern Ghana, escaping early marriage, harmful cultural practices, gender-based violence or other complicated family situations by moving to the capital city of  Accra seemed like the only option.

Life here has been harder than they may have imagined. Like so many other young girls and women who migrate to Accra, their goals were simple: to enjoy a better quality of life and live in dignity. What they discovered was a whole different set of life challenges and safety concerns.

“These young girls are like thousands of other women who come from the north,” says Gloria Deh-Tutu with the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA). “They come here alone with nobody to help them, and they find unskilled work in places where they can be exploited and violated.”

On their own, with little education or skills

With little or no education and few skills, the young girls and women are vulnerable and frequent targets of violence and exploitation. Some manage to find menial labour, however, and work as porters within markets in cities including the Agblogloshie market in Accra. As kayayees (head porters) they carry heavy loads of food and household goods atop their heads for little money and no recourse if something goes wrong.

“These young girls will carry anything just to earn a little money,” says Doris Mawuse Aglobitse of UNFPA Ghana. UNFPA is working on the Kayayee Programme with SWAA Ghana and the youth association to improve conditions for the young girls and women. The Fund also supports the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, which helps to coordinate programme interventions for kayayee countrywide.

Large numbers of young girls living on their own

Girls as young as eight and up to 35 years of age work as head porters. Most are homeless and live in squalor. Their work precludes school and exposes them to sexual violence, unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

In the Greater Accra area, 30 per cent of girls ages 10-14 are living on their own (without either parent), and many of them (4.3 per cent) are not attending school either, according to the most recent data (2008 Adolescent Data Guide). The research shows that about three times as many girls as boys are in this situation.

As they get older (15-19) only about half of girls are in school (51.6 per cent) compared to 63.4 per cent of their male counterparts. About 10 per cent of girls in that age group are illiterate, and 1 in 5 has experienced physical violence. According to Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare, the number of street children in Accra has doubled since 2007 to more than 54,000. Nearly 8,000 of them work as head porters, and the Kakayee project reaches about 6,000 of them. 

In Ghana, many children, younger than 13 are illegally enslaved in other forms of menial labour as well, from domestic work and fishing to customary or ritual servitude, small scale mining and quarrying, and commercial agriculture. Some are trafficked into sex work.

Understanding their own human rights

Through the Kayayee Poject, the young girls and women can learn skills that can help them pursue other options. Those who cannot read are taught using materials related to important subjects: physiology and anatomy, hygiene, sexual and reproductive health and prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. They are also coached about how to report gender-based violence.

The Kayayee Project works with the girls and women to clarify the human rights they are entitled to and advocates for their fulfillment. The project includes a strong focus on peer education for the programme as well as voluntary HIV testing and counselling, conducted by SWAA Ghana in partnership with UNFPA.

By educating and teaching the young women and girls how to protect themselves while working as kayayee, the project aims to give them the confidence and skills to help them to restart their lives-- either while temporarily away from their families or to safely establish themselves as independents away from the threat of child marriage and violence in unsafe households.

Alima married at age 17, but soon found that she wasn’t safe with her husband. “I wanted to leave him,” she said through a translator. “He used violence. His mother was violent to her too, so I had to leave.”

Now aged 22, Alima is a peer educator who shares her knowledge of safe sex practices, and protection against sexual violence. She is working as an apprentice hairdresser. The results of the Kayayee Project have demonstrated many successes in light of the harrowing realities.

Learning how to assert and protect themselves

“We have more than 40 peer leaders now,” says Mohammed proudly. Recently several of the peer leaders participated in training sessions where individual confidence building and business skills were further developed. Through the assistance of the Kayayee Project, a few of the young girls have passed the Senior School Certificate Examination.

The women and young girls have a stronger understanding about the risks involved with sexually transmitted infections and HIV, Ms. Deh-Tutu reports. This year, she said, only one case of HIV has been reported among the kayayee, a lower number than in the past.

The Kayayee Programme is also providing the young women and girls small stipends to pursue literacy classes or to further education or vocational training. Some pursue sewing or fashion, others learn to style and cut hair. These skills offer the potential for better employment opportunities and living conditions. They also encourage confidence, dignity and a sense of self-worth.

“When they come from the North, they can come into the hands of hooligans, or men who want to rape them. But with the knowledge and education SWAA has given them, they are less likely to be taken advantage of,” said Ms. Aglobitse.

--reportage and video by Shira Levine