Over the past few years, Ghana’s economy has steadily grown. This marked improvement in business dealings means that more foreigners now travel to the West African country. Yet, something disconcerting lurks underneath this international attraction – child prostitution.
It is estimated that there is somewhere in the region of 100,000-200,000 underage prostitutes in Ghana – some as young as 9-years-old.
One such girl: 13-year-old Melphia, who lives in a slum in Kumasi – the second largest city in the country – was featured in Spiegel and spoke candidly about her experience. At the time, she had been working as a prostitute for three years. When she was 10-years-old, Melphia travelled to the city because her parents could not afford to feed her and her 12 siblings. As soon as she got off the bus in Kumasi, a man approached her. Within hours, he had sex with her – an encounter that Melphia recounts as being so agonising that she could barely walk afterwards. That man would later become her pimp.
Melphia’s life has become a humdrum routine of survival and sex. She sleeps for most of the day, and when night falls, she must go in search of men with whom to have sex. There are as many as five or more clients a night – both locals and tourists. Preference tends to be for the latter since foreigners pay more (around 25 euros compared to roughly 5 euros that the locals pay), and are less likely to display signs of violence. One of Melphia’s friends was savagely slashed with a machete. From time to time, girls turn up dead.
Like most pimps in the region, Melphia’s takes almost all of her money. The paltry amount that she is left with goes towards the rent for the tiny ramshackle hut (which she shares with four other girls); her one and only meal for the day; and her 5 minutes showers costing 20 cents in a roofless cement cell. All of her worldly possessions fit into a single black bag.
And it is not only the pimps who profit from the exploitation of these young girls. A seedy web of hotel owners, crooked authorities, and drug dealers are all entangled in the illicit industry.
In some areas, girls are kept in brothels where clients knowingly seek them out. Almost a decade ago, a newspaper ran a story about a brothel, which employed minors. The story sent shock waves around the world, prompting Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare to respond to the widespread furor. They rescued 160 girls and put them into care. Yet, just two days later, the girls were back on the streets. The daunting task of providing shelter for 160 children proved to go beyond their resources.
A report by the ECPAT stated that increased development of Ghana’s tourism industry has made Ghana one of the most popular child sex tourism destination countries in Africa. Lack of reporting mechanisms and poor enforcement of child protection legislation make it an “ideal destination” for travelling child sex offenders and the production of child pornography. Often, Ghanaian children suffer sexual abuse from expatriates and international tourists in exchange for the payment of school fees. It said:
“The government should address the increased vulnerability of children to sexual exploitation within the ongoing phenomenon of street children.
“The immigration status of children should not prevent them from accessing basic social services or otherwise leave them in a position of vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.
“The ICT policies of Ghana should expressly condemn the sexual exploitation of children online and prohibit child pornography.
“Ghana should establish a child sex offender registry and actively share this information with other countries for prevention and monitoring purposes.
“Additionally, Ghana should enhance education efforts to ensure that officials do not blame child victims of exploitation.”
Despite Ghanaian laws that outlaw child prostitution, it continues to prosper in a society, which continually turns a blind eye. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children stipulates that children must be protected from sexual abuse and exploitation. Yet, it appears that little strides are being taken to rectify the issue in Ghana.
Sometimes, desperately impoverished families with many mouths to feed – like Melphia’s – willingly send their daughters so that they can afford to buy food and other necessities. In an exposé documentary, Dr. Apkabli Honu, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of Ghana alluded that the breakdown of extended family support systems could also be contributing to the growing number of girls on the street. He said:
“The family as the first point of socialisation is very important and so that is why it is important that we bring children [up] the way we want them to be. The extended family system is diminishing. The family system is becoming more and more nucleated. It boils down to child-rearing practices, particularly, when the child is becoming an adolescent.”