Published in: Think Africa Press 

Accra, Ghana: In February 2012, a census estimated that the number of street children in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, has reached 61,492 – an astronomic rise from little over 4,000 in 1990. These street children, often migrants from rural Ghana, live in dangerous and degrading conditions and tend to lack the opportunity to improve their situation.

Ghana’s political class often overlooks this growing problem. Child Rights campaigner Bright Appiah has criticized successive governments for failing to implement policies that would improve the living standards of these children. However, Stephen Adongo, head of the government’s Social Welfare Department, contends that a lack of available funds prevents the government from formulating an effective response.

Escaping from poverty

Alex is a social worker for Street Girls Aid, a Ghanaian NGO that looks to provide support for girls and young mothers living on the streets of Accra. He grew up with his family in Ada Foah, a small town on Ghana’s coast, but a lack of employment opportunities forced his parents to move to the capital. Once in Accra, Alex’s father lost his job – leaving his mother, a saleswoman, to support the entire family.

Alex’s parents did not want him or his two siblings to end their education prematurely due to their financial difficulties. But with his father unable to find employment, Alex tells Think Africa Press that he had to start working on the streets:

“It was not easy. I started to work directly after the school had been closed. In Accra I was carrying logs and had to join a construction company, where I was digging trenches, which allowed me to earn some money… all of these experiences enabled me to finish both the Junior and Senior Secondary School. I was a little over 18 years by then.”

Alex’s childhood experiences left him determined to combat the plight of the street children of Accra. After a few years of working with street children, he eventually established Rural Attention Ghana (RAG) in 2007, an NGO whose mission is to educate and raise awareness among the disadvantaged children in his hometown of Ada Foah.

Alex considers a lack of employment as the main factor forcing the youth to migrate into Accra. To overcome this problem his NGO organizes skills training in sewing, mechanics and electrical engineering for the local children, giving them an opportunity to learn a profession, start their own business, and potentially stay in their family towns. The efforts of Rural Attention Ghana and similar projects aim to discourage the migration of children into Accra, where young migrants often fail to find homes, and are forced to live on the streets.

Life on the streets of Accra

The street children of Accra live in poor and demeaning conditions. Children often have to bathe in metal bowls in the middle of the streets. Only one in ten citizens of Accra has a toilet and a shower at home; therefore, most people have to use the public toilets. Entrance to public sanitation facilities is charged, making them mostly unaffordable for the street children, who must spend what little money they have on food.

The challenge for street children in Accra is often not the day spent on the street, but surviving the night – when children can fall victims to violence, sexual abuse or human trafficking. Child prostitutes, who are forced to work at night, go to NGOs like Catholic Action for Street Children (CAS) during the day to have safe place to rest.

According to Brother Jos van Dinther, director and co-founder of CAS:

“Life on the street has its own rules. There is a hierarchy in place created by children, as well as their own language and principles. Therefore working with them requires a lot of patience and time.” He continues, “The fear of strangers and lack of trust are the biggest challenges we face. Sometimes it takes a year for them to build a trust between us and unfold the truth about themselves”.

One girl, who spoke anonymously, gave an account of life on the street. To be able to survive, the girl had to enter into a sexual relationship with one of the boys from the street. In exchange for having intercourse with him, he protected her from other men. Many girls living on the streets of Accra share this fate. But this girl considers herself comparatively lucky, as she does not have to sleep directly on the street but inside of one of the shops after it closes.

Conditions are often at their worst at the beginning of the summer, the height of Ghana’s rainy season. Heavy rainfall leads to sewers overflowing and flooding. There are no shelter facilities for the homeless, and there are not enough social organizations or NGOs that can offer help. The Ghanaian government urgently needs to find the resources to try to address Accra’s ever-increasing numbers of young homeless people, or what already appears a near-helpless situation could spiral out of control.