The story of Grace, a survivor of sex slavery in Ghana
Every day Challenging Heights deals with children who have been traumatized and abused in the worst forms of child labour. The most horrific cases and the most difficult to treat are often cases where sexual slavery or sexual abuse is involved. Recently Challenging Heights was confronted with one of the worst cases of this kind.
This is the story of Grace*, who at the age of 12 was trafficked into the hands of fishermen slave-owners.
Grace was 13 when we first met her at Challenging Heights. She arrived as a survivor of trafficking, slavery, the worst forms of child labour and horrific sexual abuse. While she has shared with us some of her ordeal, there are some things that are so traumatic she may never be able to speak about them.
Grace told us she was only 12 when she was trafficked from her home and into the hands of slave owners. She says she was tricked by a man who asked her to help him carry his luggage to the bus station. Once they arrived the man tricked her into getting onto the bus by telling her he was going to buy her something. Before she knew it, Grace was far from home and in the hands of fishermen slave-owners.
She spent nine months in enslavement. She told us she was
forced into extremely dangerous fishing practices. She was made to cast and drag nets, remove fish from nets and paddle the canoe. After a day of carrying out these strenuous and dangerous tasks, she was forced to cook and do all other domestic work for the fishermen. She was constantly abused and beaten. She was deprived of food for days on end.
While the slave owner and his children stayed in safe, sheltered rooms, she was forced to sleep in a building with no roof. She shared this room with five young men. Not long after she arrived in the fishing community, some of these young men began sexually abusing her. This sexual abuse continued almost daily for nine months. Whenever she complained or tried to run away, she was subjected to more beatings and abuse.
For the whole nine months Grace was enslaved, her mother was frantically attempting to get her back. These attempts eventually drove the trafficker to pass Grace on to another person out of frustration. She was then dumped her back in her village to find her parents.
Challenging Heights has now helped Grace enrol as an apprentice dressmaker. While her life is turning around, she still bears many of the emotional scars of her abuse. Challenging Heights is trying to help her come to terms with her ordeal through its counselling and support programs.
Challenging Heights is now helping police to find and arrest the trafficker.
Grace’s story is repeated every day in Ghana and all over the world. While all survivors of the worst forms of child labour need special care, those who have been sexually abused like Grace need even more. We hope that with specialist care and further education, Grace will recover her self-esteem and gain her independence.
*The girl’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
An interview with James Kofi Annan which first appeared on essence.com
“If you educate children, then they will know their rights," says James Kofi Annan, founder and executive director of Challenging Heights. "And the chances of them being forced into labor will decrease.”
“Their future will be brighter because they have a way to avoid poverty,” says Annan, whose Challenging Heights School currently enrolls 251 students between the ages of 4 and 15. He estimates nearly 50 of those children would have been sold into child labor had they not attended school.
“I’ve been there and I know how it feels,” says Annan about his years in slavery. “I don’t want any child to go through that experience.”
“I decided that whatever the consequences,” explains Annan, “I would resign and devote all my time to my organization.” He’s given this young man (pictured), who was enslaved for years, a chance to be educated with the hope of having a better future.
After-school programs help students stay away from local traffickers. “I also use the youth to encourage other children so that they are mentors among themselves,” explains Annan.
“If we are getting more and more children from those homes, then it means that the trafficking has been reduced,” says Annan. Here is just one of the many lives he has affected.
“If I should be the sacrificial lamb to protect and rescue another generation of children, then I’m prepared to do that,” says Annan. Children who attend the Challenging Heights School also receive help with homework, sports and art programs.
“I realized that working at the bank was occupying most of my time,” says Annan. “Challenging Heights was my true passion.”
Leah MacLennan, Australian volunteer
More than a month ago I travelled to Ghana and started work with Challenging Heights. From catching the crowded tro-tros around Accra to eating banku with my hands, living and working in Ghana been a steep learning curve. But the most important things I’ve learnt in the past month are to do with Challenging Heights’ mission. The problems of child trafficking, child labour and child enslavement are not problems that often confront Australians. In Ghana, child labour affects a large portion of the nation’s children. It’s a problem that stems from poverty and lack of education.
Challenging Heights does a lot of work in the coastal fishing village of Winneba, a known source community for child traffickers. Children are often taken from Winneba to Ghana’s Volta Lake to work in the fishing industry. Here they are enslaved and abused. The children who are rescued by Challenging Heights are usually suffering from disease, injuries and emotional scars.
I travelled to Winneba and met some of the children who have benefitted from Challenging Heights’ work.
I met two brothers, a 9 and an 11 year old, who had been sold by their mother to child traffickers for about $US60. They were quiet and withdrawn, still on the road to recovery from their experiences. Challenging Heights has found them a safe place to live, is providing them with counseling and rehabilitation services and is sponsoring them to attend school.
Next I met a 13-year-old girl who had been working for fishermen for 6 years. She had been rescued and rehabilitated and reunited with her family. Unlike the two brothers, this girl was smiling, laughing, a picture of health. She’s attending school and has a stable life in her community. We visited her home and her mother was out at the market, using microfinance provided by Challenging Heights to create an alternative income for her family. Meeting this girl, I thought, I hope those two brothers will one day be smiling and laughing like this girl is now. I think with continued help they will.
To me, the problem of child trafficking in Ghana seems like huge but every day I’m inspired by the optimism of the people I meet who are fighting it. Challenging Heights isn’t just looking at the problem, it’s looking at the source of the problem. By providing support to affected communities and helping families send their children to school, Challenging Heights has already reduced the number of vulnerable children in communities like Winneba. I only hope that my time spent here at Challenging Heights will help them in some small way to achieve their goal.