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DEVELOPMENT-GHANA: No Place to Lay Their Heads

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Jun 25 2008 (IPS) - Agbogbloshie Market is a vibrant market in the heart of Accra, Ghana's capital, where one can buy almost anything. But the market is also the stage for a sad tale of many who gain nothing from the commercial bustle: hundreds of young girls from the northern part of the country who work as porters in Accra's markets.

Annie Mbawinyi is one of the many young women aged between 15 and 25 who have come south in search of opportunity. "I did not come to Accra to become a market porter. Some of my friends who left my home town, Bawku, returned with sewing machines after they worked in Accra, so I decided to try my luck."

What Mbawinyi did not know was that her friends had worked as kayayei – as porters are called in the local language, Ga. They had endured long, difficult hours carrying bags for market goers for little reward; their poverty led them to sleep in front of office buildings, often forced to pay security guards with sex to be allowed even that limited shelter.

"It was when I arrived in Accra that I realized the difficulties that I would face. I did not have a place to sleep and with not enough money I had to do something," Mbawinyi said.

Her friends had told her about Agbogbloshie Market, so she looked for it. There, she met some other girls who spoke her language, Mamprussi, and they introduced her to the trade. "I started carrying loads for people to make some money but it has been tough."

Asked how much she has saved during three hard years in Accra, Mbawinyi said, "Well, I have bought some nice clothes which l am keeping to take back. As for money, l have been able to put down only 80 Ghana Cedis ($80) but l believe things will get better."

Nana Oye Lithur, Africa Regional Coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, is one of many observers concerned about the conditions that these young women live in. "The social impact of this phenomenon is what must be of great concern and since we started talking about it, their numbers have not decreased, they continue to come," she told IPS.

Lithur is worried that these women are vulnerable to sexual harassment or rape. "With nowhere to sleep, some have to beg the security guards who keep watch over offices across the city in the nights to offer them space to sleep and some take advantage of them."

Accommodation is the central concern for Mbawinyi and others like her: "When it rains in the night, sometimes we have to stand in front of buildings," she said.

In January this year, a fire outbreak at Sodom and Gomorrah, one of the sprawling slums in Accra, razed some of the shelter where kayayei had been sleeping.

In response, the residents formed the Federation of the Urban Poor (FUP) to assist the women. The Dialogue on Human Settlements, a local NGO, has taken up the challenge to provide accommodation for the women. According to FUP coordinator Haruna Abu, two hostels are under construction to provide five rooms each to accommodate 10 to 15 women in a room. These hostels are to be provided with wardens to give some protection to the women.

Government officials claim they are also working to improve the living conditions of these young women in Accra.

Marilyn Amponsah is in charge of a project run by the Ministry of Women and Children (MOWAC). "The project is to make those who are under 15 years go back to school and to provide training in various trades for those who are above 15," she said.

Last month, Hajia Alima Mahama, the MOWAC minister, was at Malata market for the passing out ceremony of about 120 kayayei who had completed a three-week skills training programme.

As attempts are made to improve their status in Accra, there are also efforts to stem the drift towards the south at its source.

A local non-governmental organisation, the Regional Advisory Information and Network Systems (RAINS) has started a programme with the support of a UK humanitarian organisation, Comic Relief, to provide equipment to schools in order to keep the young women at school in the northern districts of Savelugu and West Mamprussi.

Many of these women drop out of school after junior secondary either because their marks are not high enough for entrance to senior high school, or because their parents do not have the means to pay their fees. With no other educational alternatives available to them, they are left with no other choice than look for opportunities to make a life for themselves.

The programme Manager of RAINS, Alhassan Musah says the provision of basic equipment like sewing machines to train these women gives them an incentive for them to remain in school.

Musah said her organisation's three year programme provides training in employable skills for the young women that will hopefully lead to gainful employment in the north. It's still unclear how successful the skills training is, as there has been no follow-up with the programme's graduates.

But programmes like these might have saved Annie Mbawinyi – who still plans to become a dressmaker one day – from the dangerous and uncertain path she has taken.

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