Combating child trafficking in Ghana

Mercy Project, founded by Chris Field, focuses on the rescue and rehabilitation of child labourers in Ghana’s fishing communities.

by Aisiri Amin

Chris Field, founder of Mercy Project. ©Gretchen Nickson/Mercy Project

Back in 2009, while reading a memoir, Chris Field, came across child trafficking in Ghana for the first time. Compelled by the reality he was unaware about, he tracked down the author and asked her if they could visit Ghana.

“I had done a lot of work in the US around poverty, especially around youth in poverty. But I had no idea that there were children in the world who were trafficked. During that time, no one was really talking about trafficking like they are now,” Chris said.

While visiting the Lake Volta, the world’s largest man-made lake, in Ghana, Chris met these little boys and girls who had been trafficked into the fishing industry. “These fishing communities use children for labour as they are inexpensive and their small hands can do some of the key tasks like sewing fishing nets and untangling nets stuck on trees under the water, among other things,” Chris explains.

Chris came home with an overwhelming awareness of this reality that had clenched his heart. “ I came home and started crying and asking my wife, who was pregnant with our first child, how we could keep going on with our lives, and be normal, knowing that this terrible thing was happening. I just felt like we had to do something.”

Interactions with child labourers at Lake Volta sparked the idea of starting Mercy Project. ©©Gretchen Nickson/Mercy Project

And so they decided to raise money for an organisation working for a similar cause. But during the fundraising process, they realised that no one was really solving the problem in a way that was sustainable.

“The solutions were very basic and simple. The complexity of the solutions did not match the complexity of the problem. And so we were on this crossroad and wondering what do we do now? It was then we decided to work towards bringing the change we wanted to see. I quit my job and we started Mercy Project.”

That was in September 2010. In the last decade, Mercy Project has visited the fishing communities in Ghana that are using children for labour and showed them a new way to fish through aquaculture cage fishing. This basically replaces the need for children so they can make more money with just the work of a few men than they can make with the work of several children.

“By creating this new financial opportunity for them, it allows them to voluntarily let go of trafficked children back into their families. And after the reunion, we focus on rehabilitation and empowerment of these children.”

Mercy Project have worked with 14 fishing communities and rescued and reintegrated 158 children as of last year. We caught up with Chris Field, the Founder of Mercy Project, to talk about child trafficking for labour in Ghana, Mercy Project’s alternative solution, and the future plans.

INKLINE: Child trafficking is deep-rooted in the socio-economic fabric of these fishing communities. How receptive were the communities with the alternative solution and what kind of hurdles did your face during the implementation?

Chris Field: I think the reality is so much of it is poverty-driven. It’s lack of opportunity, understanding and awareness. And so the community needs to have their paradigm shifted, they need to see that the world is bigger than their fishing community. And so many of the fishermen who own the children were trafficked as children so they understand how limited their own opportunities in life have been. Because they understand that they only ever got the chance to fish, they’re very receptive.

When we come in, we tell them about our idea to bring about new opportunities that they haven’t had access to. But we tell them that it is going to require them to do a few things differently, and also make them understand that we can’t make this investment in this community if they are not willing to make an investment in the futures of these children.

So, I think a lot of it is really just about offering new ideas, new frameworks for thinking. And helping everyone realise that they have access to more resources than they are aware of and once they can access those resources, and make more money then it becomes pretty straightforward. When they see that the critical need for the children isn’t there anymore, they agree to send them back to their families.

The child labourers are rescued, reunited with their families and empowered through education and vocational training. ©Gretchen Nickson/Mercy Project

I: Once reunited with the families, you work towards rehabilitating the children. What does that process encompass?

C: We reintegrate the children back into their families and then we have social workers all over the country, who help their families during this time to make sure that the children have what they need. So all the children are enrolled in school, and if they’re too old to go to traditional school then we will send them to learn vocational skills.

So essentially, we want to give them the tools either through education or the jobs training, which will help them break the cycle of poverty that their families have been in.

The parents of these kids have very little education, which is part of the reason they’re trapped in poverty in the first place. And so even though Ghana has some services available, they don’t necessarily have access to those or have much understanding of how to make use of them. They struggle every day to survive.

So it is equally important to ensure that the parents are financially stable enough so that the kids don’t go back into child labour.

I: Like you said, along with rehabilitating the children, it’s crucial to empower the parents so that the children aren’t trafficked again. How does Mercy Project work towards that?

C: The reason we go through the entire process with the social workers, the microloans, and educating the parents is to help them out of poverty. We equip them with life skills, help them understand budgeting, finances, health insurance, and the resources that are available to them.

One of the things the parents tell us is that they never had any hope for their child’s future as they couldn’t afford to enrol them in school. But as soon as they’re able to see their child going to school every day and learning English, their perspective changes.

They start to believe that maybe their family doesn’t always have to live hand to mouth. Some parents get happy when their child can then teach them how to write their name because they have never even been able to write their own name. They begin to believe in a future for their family that they never thought was possible.

And so, along with the great job that social workers are doing, one of the reasons why none of the children we have rehabilitated has got trafficked again is because they now have hope for a better future and hope is a powerful thing.

In September 2019, Mercy Project rescued the 150th child labourer. ©Gretchen Nickson/Mercy Project

I: What has been the most challenging part of this journey for you?

C: One of the challenges was figuring out just how to work in another country. Every culture has things that are part of the norm for them but are different for people from other cultures. And so coming to Ghana and working with them, honouring their local culture, but also knowing that the reason we’re there is because there is a problem that’s not getting solved was quite challenging. Finding that balance took some time.  

But, we are proud that in less than 10 years, we’re fully run by Ghanaians. We don’t have any Americans on the ground in Ghana. That shows that we’re empowering them to solve their own problem and not trying to tell them how to do it, necessarily.

Mercy Project aim to create jobs for underprivileged families to ensure child trafficking is not an option for them. ©Gretchen Nickson/Mercy Project

I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey? Is there an experience or instance that made you realise that you are accomplishing what you set out to do?

C: Seeing an emotional reunion between a parent and a child is very moving. To know that both parent and child wondered if they would ever see each other again and now they are together–that is enormously gratifying. Also the success of some of our children. One young boy has gone from fishing on the lake to being number one in his class at school. Another is determined to become a doctor. To know that they now have a future is why we wake up every day excited and grateful to continue this journey.

I: What is next for Mercy Project? What are your future ambitions for the non-profit?

C: The sky is the limit. We expect to be able to rescue another 200 to 300 children in just the next five years. We are also launching a job creation programme this February where we are teaching entrepreneurship to Ghanaians in rural areas. We aim to create hundreds of new jobs in the coming years to keep underprivileged families from even considering trafficking their children.

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