Ending woes of Kayayei in Ghana: A fight we must all strive to win
“A Kayayei reported to my office and within three weeks she died just because her parents had put pressure on her to abort a pregnancy she was carrying for a man whom she was not legally married to. They warned her, if she ever made the mistake of keeping the pregnancy, she will regret for the rest of her life.”
“The last time I saw of her was when she walked into my office trembling and asked: “What I’m I going to do to survive after giving birth to a baby, and who takes care of it?. I then told her it is okay that she should go ahead and deliver the baby with hope that someone else might take care of it”.
“She left home, return the following day which happened to be Saturday morning and said to me, “Boss, see oh! the pressure is becoming too much for me”, immediately upon hearing that, I told her not to worry at all that there’s hope after delivery knowing very well she might put to bed by the end of the month”. However, on Sunday morning, when I arrived at my office, I’ve realized they were searching for her all around without hope”.
“Then I heard someone said he saw her bleeding profusely the previous day and managed to pick up a motorbike heading towards unknown direction. Realizing the search had proved futile, they however, managed to approach a doctor at a nearby hospital on Monday morning only to be told by surprise that she gave up a ghost while on admission the previous night and her body subsequently deposited at the morgue”, Founder of Kayayei Youth Association of Ghana Mohamed Isaac Salifu, narrated a gory experience he had about one of the Kayayei’s who died a painful death as a result of undue pressure from her parents because she is a teenager.
“I was drugged and rape one night when I slept outside on cardboard during a hot weather as we usually do. What I saw in the morning was just an evidence of rape without any idea who the perpetrator was”, said a 12-year-old Mariama Yusif, a Kayayei who hailed from the Upper West Region of Ghana but currently resides in Accra.
“I escaped narrowly from the grips of my ‘madam’ who wanted to sell me to ritualists to be used for ‘medicine murders’ after working for her for five months without pay. I overheard her in a phone conversation planning to give me out for a fee. When I mentioned to her I wanted to return to my hometown, she beat me up mercilessly and locked me up in a room. However, she run out of luck and mistakenly left her phone in the room and I quickly picked it up and dialed a fire service number she saved on it and they came to my rescue. She was later arrested and handed over to the police”, 13-year-old Zenabu Sawodogo, a Kayayei in Accra revealed.
These are just few out of thousands of chilling stories reflecting the lives of Kayayei’s in Accra, and other parts of the country that will shock you to the bone.
The term Kayayei is used to describe women and girls who have migrated from northern Ghana to urban areas to earn money by carrying loads on their heads in lorry parks and markets.
Kayayei is made up of two words; the Hausa word ‘Kaya’, which means load, luggage, goods or burden, and the Ga word ‘yei’ which means women or females.
Kayayei predominantly originate from the three northern regions of the country i.e. the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions and their primary destinations are the markets of Greater Accra and Ashanti Regions.
The majority of these young women and girls tend to leave their home state around the age of 13-17 and stay in their destination cities for a maximum of five years.
They tend to have little or no education and have no formal qualifications. The key motivation for this migration is economic, to provide for both herself and her family. The decision for a girl to migrate to work as Kayayei is sometimes made by the entire family, rather than by the girl herself.
Girls also become Kayayei to acquire the household items regarded as necessary for marriage, which may in part explain the gendered nature of this phenomenon. Kayayei represent a highly marginalized and vulnerable group of girls and women in Ghana.
The work is precarious, they have no job security, are poorly paid, and live in terrible conditions. Kayayei are confronted with myriads of challenges in their quest to make a living.
The worst forms of challenges these unfortunate girls and women are exposed to include stigma and discrimination from their employers and the public and are also highly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
For them the prospect of migrating to become Kayayei, to earn an income and send remittances home, often outweighs the potential cost of discontinuing education and living and working in unsafe conditions. Thus their numbers in Accra have steadily increased over the last decade, in line with families increasing struggle to support themselves as subsistence farmers due to impact of climate change on rainfall patterns.
The Kayayei phenomenon is a matter of concern for that matter a big issue which needs to be tackled with urgency to save our future generations.
As a matter of fact not a day goes by without a Kayayei losing either her precious life or that of her child, being brutalized, discriminated or sexually abused.
In fact, the risk factors and occupational hazards these young ones are exposed to daily are very alarming which include sexual abuse, poor health, risk of accidents, physical abuse, poor and hardworking conditions and risk of theft. However, despite all these potential challenges, Kayayei’s appear vulnerable, helpless and desperate in the fight for survival knowing very well there are no other options than to sacrifice.
A walk on the streets of some parts of Accra or Ashiaman, Kumasi, Techiman, Tamale and Volta Region would remind you of the harsh conditions these migrants in search for greener pastures live in.
Internal migration in Ghana has been a pervasive phenomenon for decades. Unique and particularly concerning, is the migration of women and girls aged between 10 and 35 years to become Kayayei or head porters.
Internal migration and north-south migration in particular, has been prevalent in Ghana since the pre-colonial era. 80% Ghanaian migrants stay within the country while 70% of these move from rural to urban areas, to seek jobs and other economic and educational opportunities.
More than half of the internal migrants in Ghana travel to Accra and the Ashanti Region. 75% of migrants originate from rural areas but, in contrast to expectations, migrants from the Upper East, Upper West and Northern Region only account for 10% of all internal migrants. Compared to other countries, the level of urban-to-rural migration in Ghana is high.
This suggests high levels of return migration and circular rural-urban migration. In Ghana, numerous factors influence migration but centered on economic incentive.
The majority (47%) of migration is in order to find work, most commonly in manufacturing sector or in sales. Education is the second and marriage the most common motive for internal migration, although women are generally more likely than men to migrate for marriage. Some forms of migration are on the rise, which is the case for young women migrating to Accra to work as Kayayei.
Ghana as a nation has had its fair share of the cake as far as underdevelopment is concerned due to a number of factors. Although both past and previous governments have succeeded in implementing quite a number of projects and interventions to harness growth and bring about development to the nation, it appears little or no development can been seen after over sixty years of independence.
So what could be the underlying factor impeding Ghana’s growth and the inability to meet its developmental agenda?
Ms. Selina Owusu, a Gender Analyst with the UNFPA Ghana, believes failure on part of the government to cater for the needs of its human resource base which Kayayei’s are represented is a contributory factor.
According to her, a country which seeks to attain development must invest resources into people who represents its human resource base; consisting largely the youth to grow so it can in turn benefit from them. She explained most of these Kayayei’s between the ages of 13-35 deserve to be taken a good care of so they can also raise the next generation but if care is not taken and they are not properly looked at, they are likely to die young or produce children who will become a burden to the society instead of being a source of hope.
It is very sad to see these adolescent girls go through difficult situations without any help from above. What is more disturbing is that under the very watch of authorities, these young girls suffer a lot of abuse just to make a living under horrendous situations.
Obviously due to hardship, most of these young girls and women are forced into prostitution and other forms of social vices which are highly injurious to their health and upbringing. Others are also forced into early marriages by parents which is unlawful.
According to the 2018 situational analysis report on Kayayei in Ghana recently launched by three key NGOs championing advocacy and women’s rights in the country; Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (Forward UK), ACDEP and the Purim African Youth Development Platform (PAYDP), the majority of the push factors identified by the Kayayei’s that put them at risk pointed out to financial reasons for migration. The lack of economic opportunities in the north, coupled with the harsh and unpredictable climate means that if the girls stay in the northern regions they face a life of poverty with no means of finding decent work to earn the money they need to become self-sufficient adults. A desire to better themselves and to pursue higher education was frequently referenced by all the groups, and Kayayei is seen as an attractive short term solution to earn money to pay for school fees that they could not otherwise afford.
The research which was carried out in four regions of Ghana with in-depth interviews and focus group discussions in three regions of northern Ghana, from where majority of the Kayayei originate also highlighted the plight of these young girls and women from their own perspectives.
The report, an eighty (80) pages book titled “We are treated as if we are not humans” was based on study findings, suggests actions to slow down the phenomenon of migration of Kayayei work giving room to support existing Kayayei.
Head of Global Advocacy and Partnerships at Forward UK, Mad. Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse, launching the book maintained although the findings of the report do not focus on the total eradication of the practice of the Kayayei, however, it explores how the government, International NGOs and local organizations can do more to support Kayayei and to give young women and girls other options and opportunities apart from the notion that Kayayei is the only way to survive.
She called on the authorities and the general public to endeavor to treat Kayayei’s fairly and accord them with dignity and respect since they also contribute to the tax net of the country.
Also speaking at the launch, Mad. Aku Xornam Kevi, the National Coordinator of PAYDP disclosed the methodology used for compilation of report was based on peer research giving actual picture of the challenges Kayayei are bedeviled with.
Ending the issues of Kayayei has lots of perks to offer Ghana as a nation; first in meeting its SDGs target 5 for the Agenda 2030 which seeks to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere, including eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation. It will also brighten its chances as a nation to develop rapidly and above all help secure a better future its children both born and yet to be born. The sustainable development goals seek to change the course of the 21st century, addressing key challenges such as poverty, inequality, and violence against women.
So what really must we do to end the woes of these unfortunate young girls and women?
Mad. Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse observed tackling holistically the issues of Kayayei in the country would require effective collaboration between all stakeholders including Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Corporate Organizations, Government and its Development Partners, entrepreneurs and the citizenry towards development of a coherent long-term strategy which will then be implemented to achieve result.
She also added that: “We’ve got to look not only at issues of the south but more importantly issues of the north as well and we have to ensure that we are not only dealing with Kayayei who are here at the south but including those from the sending communities within the three north regions of this country”.
Mr. Mohamed Isaac Salifu, Founder of Kayayei Youth Association of Ghana also expressed similar view shared by Mad. Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse. According to him, all interventions coming to the south should rather be directed to supporting Kayayei’s from the north since that’s the source of the whole problem. He therefore appealed to all NGOs (both local and foreign) in the country including government and its key partners to concentrate on tackling poverty in the north which is the root cause of Kayayei’s problem.
“If you have any intervention to support Kayayei, let’s send it to the North because that’s the source of their problem compelling them to move down south. So if you don’t tackle the root cause which is over there and you are here tackling it, it wouldn’t help” he stressed.
Addressing the needs of Kayayei’s would require a number of interventions in place but first looking at the needs of Kayayei returnees and those at risk of becoming Kayayei in the location of origin. Some of the key interventions are as follows: increasing the investment in the northern Ghana to encourage economic growth, increasing provision of specific skills training and livelihood opportunities for young women and girls living in the northern regions, improve provision of education and subsidized where appropriate and creating awareness programmes to dispel myths around Kayayei. Others include increasing the provision of safe houses and standardized accommodation for Kayayei, making specific and relevant services available to Kayayei, improving policy services and law enforcement as well as redistributing tax to support Kayayei.
For her part, Mad. Aku Xornam Kevi, the National Coordinator of PAYDP, believes the fight towards ending woes of Kayayei’s in the country is not far from being achieved if government shows utmost commitment towards the development of a policy framework intended to serve as a guideline to the upkeep of Kayayei’s in the country.
This, she hopes will pave the way for NGOs, CSOs, UN Agencies and other developmental agencies and key partners in the country to join the fight, take action and together give their support towards ensuring full implementation of the framework.
Mad. Xornam Kevi also wants government to expedite action on the ongoing mapping exercise it is undertaking which include listing of Kayayei’s across the whole country with the view that their issues can be tabled and addressed holistically.
She is also praying for government to get some entrepreneurial support and accommodation for the girls as soon as mapping exercise of Kayayei’s in the country is completed.
A Gender Analyst with the UNFPA Ghana, Ms Selina Owusu, professing a solution holds the view that the media through its agenda setting role can make a great impact in the turning the situation around for the head porters. For her, effective utilization on part of the media through its various mediums to shed light on these issues of concern so that government and its actors including the policy makers can take action to resolve them is key.
The fact remains that the woes of Kayayei are real and the earlier we deal with them, the better therefore it behoves on all of us to put our hands to the wheel and support our girls and women to rid them of the burden.
The combination of strategies highlighted below, when implemented properly can contribute significantly to ending woes of Kayayei in Ghana particularly in the three northern regions i.e. the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions where the problem is originates.
Increase provision of specific skills training and livelihood opportunities for young women and girls living in the northern regions
Lack of employable skills and jobs are key challenges identified that needs to be tackled to bring relief to Kayayei’s. It is therefore necessary to equip these girls with skills training including hairdressing and dressmaking.
According to a research conducted by Forward UK, some Kayayei expressed the desire in being educated to become nurses, accountants and doctors. Training in healthcare professions would also be of benefit to their home communities where they could become practitioners
Provision of safe houses and standardized accommodation
Lack of secure accommodation has been identified as a major barrier to safety and well-being of Kayayei therefore provision of safe houses and accommodation is a key intervention.
More needs to be done to ensure no Kayayei are forced to sleep on the streets, outside the markets where they are vulnerable to theft, sexual harassment and rape. This could be done by government and/or the private sector could invest in building affordable accommodation for Kayayei and then allocate this employers who would be required to pay to rent the accommodation on behalf of Kayayei they employed.
Make specific and relevant services available to Kayayei
Kayayei’s have limited access to sexual and reproductive health support and services despite the fact that they are at high risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. For this reason health facilities and experienced practitioners must be made available and accessible to them. Health centres should be able to provide confidential services for these vulnerable women. Kayayei, in or out of marriage, must have access to family planning advice and related services, and to other sexual and reproductive health services. Obstetric care, especially in emergencies, must be available to all women – irrespective of whether they are married or not.
Improve police services and law enforcement
Law enforcement agencies should be sensitized to the specific needs of Kayayei and receive training to provide relevant and appropriate responses to reports of violence and abuse, both with regards to prevention and prosecution. Existing laws must be properly enforced to repair the distrust Kayayei currently feel towards police which leads many of them not to report cases of rape and sexual abuse and exploitation. Existing laws to protect all women-including Kayayei-should be enforced. NGOs and local organizations should collect evidence of this to lobby the Ghanaian government to provide resources for their proper compliance.
Address the current flaws in the “Madam” System and introduce laws to protect Kayayei from Labour Exploitation
Addressing the current flaws in the “Madam” system and introduction of laws to protect Kayayei from labour exploitation would also contribute to meaningfully reducing the plight of Kayayei. According to a research, the ‘madam’ system in which most Kayayei operate is extremely exploitative and feeds the social stigma surround Kayayei by setting an example of how Kayayei can be treated in the markets and communities. As with the case with sexual abuse, the abuse the girls receive from the madam is rarely reported because girls are fearful about being sacked and replaced by other girls willing to work in these conditions. To help combat this entrenched mistreatment, the Ghana Labour Commission must extend the Labour Act 2003(Act 651) to cover the informal sector. Institutionalization of minimum wage and appropriate price mechanisms in the informal sector would also contribute to reducing exploitation of Kayayei and ensure that madams are held to higher standards. However when the law is extended it will be important that community awareness initiatives take place to ensure Kayayei know their rights and how to hold the madams to account, and to ensure that the madams know how the law expects of them.
In conclusion, I believe for Ghana to meet the SDGs 5, it would require a lot of efforts and commitment on part of every individual and stakeholders including the government playing active roles in the fight towards ending woes of Kayayei.
Collectively, we must all come on board with a quota to support the fight at all cost. Indeed our girls and women deserve much better treatment, support, care and attention therefore all of us must ensure that stigmatization and discrimination and other forms of abuse against them should cease. They also deserve to be treated fairly, with care and respect just like any human being.
While also commending Forward UK, ACDEP, PAYDP, UNFPA and their partners for their unwavering commitment in tackling issues confronting women in the country there is the need for other NGOs and all stakeholders including the media to join the crusade in the fight against the relieving the plights of Kayayei.
The writer, Joseph Kobla Wemakor is a staunch human rights activist, a Managing Editor of GhanaNewsOne.Com and an intern in the General Office of the United Nations Information Centre, Ghana. He is also a member of the Migration Media Alliance(MMA)
Writer’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org