Faustina Ayene, a 15-year-old girl with short curly hair, weaves between traffic near the Adabraka TUC intersection in a sweaty and tattered skirt and blouse. She holds the hand of Teresa, a blind woman in her 50s.
She moves swiftly, protecting Teresa from wild ‘trotros’ and motorcycles as they beg for coins through car windows.
But make no mistake; Faustina is not Teresa’s daughter. They are business partners. Faustina, though she is a young girl, is an expert at her job after almost three years of begging.
“The people I beg with are many,” she said. “If someone brings his mother or father I can go with them to make some money. It is scary moving in traffic but would you rather go hungry?”
Faustina is one of the more than 100,000 children living on the streets of Accra, who do everything they can to survive, from stealing, carrying loads and begging, to wiping car windows and prostitution.
But the situation of those children begging on the streets of Accra is much more complicated than most Ghanaians think. Though many people are used to seeing them, their situation is a flagrant violation of human rights, as guaranteed under the 1998 Children’s Act.
Finding permanent solutions to this complex problem, however, are more difficult than it would seem, as more and more children arrive on the street every year – joining thousands of those who have been unable to improve their lives.
Many of the children who accompany the beggars may seem like their own biological children, but the reality is that the children are business partners who pose as the sons and daughters of the beggars to earn the sympathy of potential donors.
Teresa, who came to Accra from Bolgatanga with her four children after her husband died, acquired the services of Faustina after a year of begging with a twelve year old boy called Albert. She was motivated to come to the capital by her blind friends, who had good stories to tell about begging in the city. She tells me that finding a child to beg with her is not difficult.
“Our fellow blind people at CMB (Cocoa Marketing Board) have been using these children to beg,” she said. “When I came from Bolgatanga I was idle and a friend of mine asked Albert to go begging with me when he had time on his hands.”
Many homeless children converge at CMB, a centre near Makola market, to look for blind adults with whom to beg. The children do this because they make more money than begging on their own.
Every morning at the TUC intersection, as many as 11 children gather to render services to the blind. Faustina, for instance, has lost count of the number of beggars she has worked with. The money made at the end of the day is meant to be split between the two, with the children getting 40 percent. But the children in most cases end up hiding some of the earnings from the adults.
The Children’s Act guarantees every child the right to education and well being. The children have the right to health and the right to shelter. These categories of children have fallen through the cracks in a system designed to guarantee then the right to a better life and the broader problem of street children keeps getting worse as more and more children land on the streets instead of being in school.
According to statistics from Catholic Action for Street Children (CAS), a non-government organization that works with street children, the number of children on the streets doubles every five years. A greater number of these child migrants travel to seek greener pastures, But end up in an endless cycle of begging, poverty and sometimes crime.
Human rights lawyer Adwoa Yeboah, in an interview with The Weekend Globe, says Ghana cannot pride itself as a country which upholds the rights of its citizen when street children remain unattended to.
“We have failed,” said Yeboah, who works with the Human Rights Advocacy Center, an NGO. “The proper institutions that are supposed to make sure these children get off the street turn a blind eye. I think the institutions have failed.”
At the same time, getting children of the streets and into schools is not a simple task. Complicating the situation, CAS has found through its research that girls get pregnant younger and more often when they are living on the streets. Its sister organization, Street Girls Aid, sees an average of seven hundred girls visiting with babies every single day in Accra. Jos Van Dinther, director of CAS, said the youngest pregnant girl he has seen was twelve years old.
The streets can be dangerous, and for security girls often get boyfriends, who in turn get them pregnant. Mary is an example of girl who got pregnant on the street. She has a three month old baby boy and told The Weekend Globe tearfully that she got pregnant with a boy who offered to buy her food.
“We had nothing, that is why we were on the streets,” Mary said. “So if you have nothing and someone offers to buy you food? That is how I ended up pregnant.”
A number of the street children I spoke to still harbour dreams of sitting in the classroom and being taught by a teacher. Some have dreams of becoming medical doctors, and pilots. For some they just want to become beauticians, caterers and shoemakers.
“After begging in Accra, my father will take me to Kumasi and when I grow up I want to be a doctor” says Kwodwo Joshua who dropped out of school at age seven.
But many of these children are already quite independent. They are used to controlling their time and money, making it extremely difficult for them to listen to any authority figures. A handful show commitment and relinquish life on the street, but many others leave the shelters set up by NGOs and return to their previous life.
The government has a social welfare department that is meant to take care of some children, but it tends to do very little, and sometimes refers children to private shelters.
Multiple requests for comment from the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection over the course of two months were not granted.
The issue of street children is complex, but some observers think government and human rights organizations still need to intensify efforts to curb the influx of children onto the streets in order to give children like Mary a chance at a better life.“I wanted to go to school,” Mary said, sitting with her baby on her lap near the shaky, blue wooden shelter where they both sleep. “But I just didn’t have the opportunity.”
By: Betty Kankam-Boadu/citifmonline.com/Ghana