Challenging Heights is an anti-trafficking, anti-slavery, children’s rights NGO located in Winneba, Ghana, approximately an hour and a half outside of Accra, the capital. Inspired by the president and founder’s own experience being trafficked and enslaved as a child, the organization serves source communities, which are communities where children are trafficked from, in order to achieve its strategic goal of ending child trafficking in the fishing industry in Ghana in five years and ending child slavery in the fishing industry in Ghana in ten years.
During the Advocates Program, Challenging Heights provided an in-depth overview of every aspect of the organization. Each day, I was amazed by the breadth (and depth) of the organization’s programs. Not only does Challenging Heights rescue children from Lake Volta, rehabilitate them in a shelter, reintegrate them with their families and monitor them after reintegration, it also provides livelihood support to reintegrated children’s families as well as other vulnerable children’s families, conducts a youth empowerment program to tackle the root cause of poverty, campaigns against corporal punishment and child marriage, conducts alternative dispute resolution with slave masters to make sure children are given what they are owed for their labor, distributes 80,000 Tom’s shoes a year to schoolchildren, supports education with its newly independent Friends International Academy, conducts research projects on issues connected to its programs, and advocates for children’s rights locally, nationally and internationally.
The passion of the staff members of Challenging Heights layered each and every session throughout the Advocates Program. The communications officer, in the campaign against child marriage, hands out flyers that include her personal phone number so that people in danger of being married as a child or who know a child in danger of being married can call her for help. The rescue team risks their own lives to go out on the lake to rescue trafficked and enslaved children from slave masters. The shelter manager reminded us of the realities and challenges of shelter life, but when asked about her greatest success said, “Every single day when I see children laughing it’s a success. Even when they are crying, it’s a success because they can express their emotions”.
Despite the dedication and passion of Challenging Heights and its staff, slave masters and traffickers continue to traffic and enslave children without legal repercussion. In 2016, there were no convictions under Ghana’s anti-trafficking law, due to insufficient resources devoted to collecting evidence which hinders investigations according to the State Department. Challenging Heights staff was certain Ghana would be moved to the Tier 3 watch list for trafficking in persons this year due to the government’s lack of action. However, the State Department granted Ghana a waiver because of a written plan that would have an impact if implemented. The Trafficking in Persons watch list levels are based on minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons the US State Department created.
Just this year, the Second Lady Mrs. Samira Bawumia called for the prosecution of perpetrators as a deterrent because sensitization is not enough. The International Justice Mission conducted a study entitled “Child Trafficking into Forced Labor on Lake Volta, Ghana” in which they recommend that the government “prioritize the arrest, prosecution and conviction of perpetrators of child trafficking into forced labor” because “[c]urrently on Lake Volta, labor traffickers recruit and exploit children with impunity”. In order to do this, the government must “resource, equip and empower government agencies tasked with anti-trafficking interventions such as the Anti-Trafficking Unit, Department of Social Welfare and MoGCSP”.
Ghana does have national, regional and international legal duties to protect children from trafficking and slavery as well as the prosecute perpetrators of trafficking and slavery. Ghana itself has the Child Labor and Human Trafficking Act as well as a recently drafted National Plan of Action. Regionally, the African Charter on Human Rights, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, ECOWAS Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, ECOWAS/ECCAS Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2006 Multilateral Cooperation Agreement to Combat Trafficking in Persons in West and Central Africa and Regional Policy for Protection and Assistance to Victims of Trafficking in Persons in West Africa 2009 obligate the government of Ghana to prevent exploitation of people, to prevent economic exploitation of children, to prevent the sale of children, and to combat trafficking in persons. Internationally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and the ICCPR obligate the government of Ghana to prevent the economic exploitation and sale of children, to punish perpetrators of trafficking and to prevent slavery.
Unfortunately, Ghana lacks the political will and the resources required to punish perpetrators of trafficking. Had the State Department dropped Ghana to Tier 3 of the Trafficking in Persons watch list, Ghana would have lost $500 million in Millennium Challenge Compact funds. However, because of the waiver that money was not lost. Ghana should use that money to acquire the resources necessary to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of child trafficking. Additionally, organizations like Challenging Heights could use their experience and expertise in the field to lobby the government to increase the political will needed to increase prosecutions. The community sensitization that Challenging Heights conducts, in addition to raising awareness of the problem, could encourage communities to speak out in order to encourage the political will necessary for the government of Ghana to prosecute traffickers and slave masters. The international community should also remind Ghana of its international legal obligations, whether through advocacy or through treaty body complaint mechanisms.