“Any person who says there is child labour here is probably not aware of how we survive on these islands or the person is being misled or misinformed. I am the assemblyman for this area and I have lived here for over thirty years now. I’ve never seen any child working to collect money or forced to work for anybody. Our source of living is fishing, but we don’t allow children of ages below six on the lake, we don’t hire children to work in our farms either. The child labour issue is never true.”
Those were the words of Hon. Emmanuel Donkor, Assemblyman for the Foase Torganu Electoral Area on the Dwarf Islands in the Afram Plains North District in the Eastern Region, where there has been an alleged widespread child labour on the Volta Lake and on farms.
The Dwarf Islands, as it is commonly called by the locals, is the biggest island in Ghana, and itis located north-east of the Volta Lake in the Afram Plains North District. It houses several cottages and communities mostly owned by local farmers from different tribes of Ghana.
The residents don’t have water treatment facility. Their source of drinking water is direct fromthe Volta Lake and they have been drinking that water since time immemorial, but it has very high mineral content. The only means of transportation is by water on the Volta Lake.
There’s no electricity and no phone signal. Until now, most of the people refer to education as “prestigious goods,” and only study to the end of elementary school, the highest level available on the islands. Their schools and health facilities are all built out of the mud through communal labour. Some of the education structures are weak and broken down, while lack of teachers is the greatest challenge.
Nonetheless, parents who can afford some funds through their fishing and farming business could now send their children from the islands across to the mainland for schooling up to the tertiary level. They cross to one side of the lake at South Dayi District or Ho in the Volta Region and another side at Donkokrom, the district capital of Afram Plains North.
While Ghanaians promote the Volta Lake to the world as the biggest man-made lake, local people on the islands feel abandoned. They rarely see government officials in theircommunities.
According to interviews with the local elders and some nurses, they have lost hope in the Government of Ghana and have therefore placed their destiny in the hands of God and on their own effort to survive.
Their main occupations are fishing and farming, as well as rearing of animals, just to feed and to sell for other basic domestic needs, like salt, medicine and clothing.
The issue of child labour has been widely reported against residents in most of the communities. Some of such affected communities are Menekokpe and Canna, where it was reported that parents allow children as young as six to venture into fishing expeditions on the lake.
The children were rescued and the adults allegedly involved were arrested. The accused have since been released; the children sent to some schools in the cities where they can supposedly have quality education.
The non-governmental organization (NGO) that led the rescuing mission did not take time to find out the facts and tradition of the people. They were ignorant about the subject as to what child labour is and its consequence on a child. They never had any form of education or awareness, and, therefore, may not be wholly blamed for any act resembling alleged child abuse.
Recently, the Canna community on the islands was once again hit with such action led by a foreign-based NGO, International Justice Mission (IJM). In the process, children numbering about 24 were forcibly taken away from their parents and detained, while about 11 adults were also arrested for allegedly being involved in child labour on the lake.
Reports had it that the NGO did so in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and assisted by some armed police personnel from the Ghana Police Service.
The adult residents and the alleged child labour victims were said to be returning home from various places on the lake at the time. Little did they know that their only means of transportation with the children could be mistaken for abusing the well-being of their biological children. They were later sent to Ho, the Volta Regional capital, for interrogation. After interrogation, the adults were granted bail, pending investigations.
With curious eyes on the issues pending and winding around the child labour and abuse, The Republic took the decision to find the true story from the people of the Dwarf Islands, their tradition and ways of survival, the laws of the land and the international laws on child labour, and if they are privy to such laws, though ignorance is never an excuse.
Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 1989, ratified by 191 countriesincluding Ghana, stated that, “every child (anyone under 18) has the right to be protected from work that threatens his or her health, education or development.”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, ratified by 136 countries, prohibits the most extreme forms of child labour that involve children being enslaved, held in bondage, separated from their families, or exposed to serious hazards and illnesses.
According to the ILO, child labour is, “any work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. It also refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by, depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, obliging them to leave school prematurely or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”
It further explained that the basic minimum legal age at which children are authorized to work is 15 years and 14 in developing countries. For light work, thus only a few hours from time totime and the limit is fixed at 13 to 15 years, 12-14 in developing countries. But for hazardous work, the limit is pushed up to 18 years, 16 years under certain conditions in developing countries, like Ghana.
Undoubtedly, Ghana is a leader in children’s welfare and protection in the world and was the first country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, hence a comprehensive, Children Act 560, for the protection of children in the country.
However, the locals of Dwarf Islands said, though they appreciate the effort by the NGOs in their attempt to bring good living condition to their children, the raid occurred at a time their children of school going age were on vacation, stating that the NGO acted illegally for they never involved in child labour or child abuse.
For them culture is at the centre of Dwarf Islands society. Communal, clan and family ties remain strong with the existence of the modern day system.There is a thrill in the very words! And, in truth, that is the great work which for so many years they have been doing their best tosurvive and carry on their lives.
Togbe Mene III is the chief of Menekokpe community. He said their tradition abhorred child labour and they are fully aware of the laws and will never indulge in such activities, or aid any person to do it, or shield any person from arrest for engaging in child labour.
For him, he felt very sad and at the same time disappointed that an NGO invaded the area on child labour mission and could not spend even a minute with the indigenes to know what their tradition is, so they could separate what is child labour from normal upbringing of a child.
He corroborated Samuel Donkor, the Assemblyman’s concerns, emphasizing that, the locals themselves have rules of engaging children on the lake and on their farms and wondered why the NGOs do not have the courtesy to seek a little understanding from the local people before embarking on the alleged child labour raid.
Per their traditions and norms, The Republic gathered that, children of age below 10 are not allowed alone at the lake, or to go inside to swim or to fetch water.
Further, those aged below 12 are not allowed to go with their parents on fishing expedition, unless they are on the same boat to cross to another community for school or other family purposes than fishing.
“Anytime you see a child on the lake with an adult, they are either going to or returning from market in another community or they are attending to family issues in another community, ” Togbe Mene III stated.
He wants the NGO to return the children back to their parents for it has no right to take away children from their parents in the name of combating child labour.
“How could a man with four children, care for them since their infancy, pay for their schooling and, in some instance, the elders are either in JHS or SHS, now turned to be abusing them, in which way, we train our children to be able to fend for themselves in the future, so where is the child labour here? Togbe Mene asked rhetorically.