Article 13. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression
Lili* was five or six when I met her. No one really knew her age and she couldn’t tell me herself because she couldn’t speak.
I met her in northern Ghana, at a centre supported by Caritas for children who were orphans, migrants or whose parents couldn’t look after them.
Lili’s parents had tried to kill her when she was little because their traditional beliefs made them think she was a “spirit child”. When they didn’t manage it, they locked her in a dirty room for two years where she had no bed, very little food and very little human contact. Not only were many of Lili’s fundamental rights (eg. to food, to protection, to education) denied, but this abuse early in her life affected her development.
The Centre for Child Development in Bolgatanga, where Lili lived, focuses on child rights and the protection of children. The centre welcomes and nurtures children who have been trafficked, abandoned or traumatised by abuse, as well as street children, from the surrounding area. Poverty and a lack of opportunities in rural areas of Ghana mean that children are at risk of being sent away by parents at a young age so they can earn a living.
Fredrick Amenga-etego who runs the centre says, “We provide a home for children who are vulnerable. We provide them with food, clothes and medication. We talk to them about the dangers of migrating to big cities such as Accra and about living on the street. We try to change their mindset and help them get an education. We try to find them a family in the community.”
Lili’s voice had been taken away from her because of terrible abuse, but some of the other children I met at the centre were very aware of their rights when I asked them.
Marigold*, 12, told me she wanted to be a doctor because children need the right to good health. “When I go to the hospital I see little children,” she said, “they’re slim and they don’t eat and I always feel pity for them. That’s why I want to be a doctor in future so I can help little children.”
Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child focuses on children’s access to healthcare and nutritious food.
Ghana has taken big steps in improving child mortality in recent years, for example, by eliminating polio and neonatal tetanus. However, 40 percent of all under-five deaths are related to under-nutrition. The effective implementation of the Right to Food in Ghana, along with the right healthcare, are key to ensuring that children flourish.
David*, 17 was originally from Burkina Faso. He told me, “I need to go to school because if you don’t have access to education you don’t get to be what you were meant to be.”
Article 28 of the convention says all children should have the right to free primary education.
Around 84 percent of children are enrolled in primary school in Ghana. This is considerably higher than in other countries in the region. However, disparities in access to primary education lie in gender, north versus south and rural versus urban. Poverty means that some families send their children out to work rather than to school.
Samuel Zan Akologo, Executive Secretary of Caritas Ghana says, “While there have been improvements in implementing the rights of the child in Ghana, it is a stark disgrace that for some children life is worse than it was ten years ago. Excruciating hunger means some children can’t concentrate to study and also children with special needs are severely neglected. Real progress means bringing an end to all of these difficulties which affect children’s development and infringe on their rights.”
Despite the fact she’s only 12, Marigold understands that a number of things are needed for a child to grow and flourish.
“You need to eat good food, bathe in good water, wash your clothes and drink good water,” says Marigold. “If you eat you have to take good water. If you go to sleep, you have to pray and give thanks to God.”
Caritas projects across the world work to ensure the fundamental rights of children are protected so that children can grow and flourish. Even if you take away a child’s voice, you can’t take away their rights.
*Names changed to protect identity.