Protecting Children’s Rights in the context of Ghana’s Fisheries

Guest blog post for the IYAFA partnership on small-scale fishers’ human rigthts By Felix Nana Kofi Ofori, PhD; REACT Humanitarian Network, Oxford, UK.

This blogpost explores the responsibility of the Ghanaian government to protect the human rights of children to education and against exploitation in the context of the challenges confronting Ghana’s fisheries, especially local communities, where fishing is a major source of employment and livelihood.

Challenges facing Ghana’s Fishing Communities

Several challenges confront Ghana’s fishing communities; pressing among them are rain storms, very cold weather, and risk of drowning. Children face  daily beatings; some are held in debt bondage, others are sexually exploited. According to USAID/Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project (SFMP) – “the practise of open access fishery in various coastal communities of Ghana provides avenue and opportunities for violate[ing] children’s rights and dignity”.  Simply put, “open access fishery” means that harvesting fishery in the Ghanaian coastal communities is unrestricted. The free and unregulated nature of fisheries pose further threats to children who are often dragged into this activity, due to the following factors:

  • High poverty rates in fishing communities (due to lack of sustainable socio-economic activities to offer durable and permanent job opportunities for parents during the lean fishing season) compel parents and guardians to give up their children into child-labour and to trafficking recruiters;
  • Limited educational and vocational training institutions and facilities in the affected communities to train and equip children with employable skills; and
  • Poor political leadership coupled with weakened institutions to supervise and sanction offenders.

Although the above factors are not exhaustive, Dominic Kulczyk, in Ghana: How Trafficked Children are Enslaved in Lake Volta’s Fishing Industry (4 March 2109) opined, that: “The Lake, which was only created in 1965 with the construction of a hydro-electric dam, is home to an estimated 20,000 child slaves. Children as young as five are sold to human traffickers and made to work as fishermen for up to 12 hours a day, seven day a week. They are beaten. They are abused.  They eat scraps off the table and sleep on the dirt. Some of these drown when forced to dive under water to untangle fishing nets. These forgotten children become yet another anonymous corpses resting at the bottom of the lake.”

The harrowing status of the affected children not only reflects a failing governance but also distorts the ‘blue fishery’ scheme which seeks to protect the socio-economic wellbeing of people and children. Similarly, in FAO (2011) ‘Tackling Child Labour in the Fisheries: Background and Aquaculture paper’, it is argued, that: “poverty… is a major root cause of child labour throughout the fisheries value chain, but poverty must be understood multidimensionally in the context of labour. Lack of access to education, healthcare and other services are common in aquatic-food producing communities which are often located in underserviced rural areas.” The pervasiveness of child abuse and child-labour in local fishing communities has attracted foreign support, including the United Sates’ Agency for International Development Fund-funded Ghana Sustainable Fisheries Management Project, which was established to work with local organizations to promote efforts by the Ghana Government in eliminating child labour and trafficking throughout the country. Furthermore, the US government donated USD$5 million to help fight child labour, as it was estimated that around 2.7 million children are currently engaged as child-labourers, with the largest percentage in the fisheries sector, cocoa and artisanal mining respectively. Against that backdrop, the following sections express concerns about the extent to which Ghana’s political leadership has not complied with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as against child labour.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), was adopted on 29 November 1989 and entered into force 2 September 1991. According to the United Nations Treaty Collection, Ghana was among the first states in Sub-Saharan Africa, to sign and ratify the UNCRC on 29 January 1991 and 5 February 1991 respectively. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is of the view that over the span of 30 years, the UNCRC has substantially transformed the lives of children globally by compelling governments to develop and implement domestic policies aimed at protecting children socially, economically, politically and culturally. Article 32(1) of the CRC requires that: “States Parties shall recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or to be harmful to child’s health, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” In addition, Article 32 (2) states that: “States parties shall take legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to: (a) provide minimum age or minimum age for admission to employment; (b) regulate hours and conditions of employment; and (c) institute appropriate measures to protect the welfare of children at work.” However, the proliferation of child trafficking, child exploitation and related child crimes in the context of fisheries in Ghana raises the question as to whether the government and its associated agencies are violating the human rights and dignity of affected children. Paragraph 27 of General Comment No.16 (2013) on States Obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on Children Rights, clarifies that: “the obligation to respect also implies that a  State should not engage in, support or condone abuses of children’s rights when it has a role itself or conducts business with private enterprises.” The situation is even more worrying because of the absence of effective penal sanctions to deal with the violators of the UNCRC. As discussed in the next section, this situation also affects children’s access to education.


Educating children through compulsory primary school to secondary and vocational levels, is a human right obligation under the UNCRC. Lack of effective and accessible educational facilities and resources in most coastal regions of Ghana results in children being easily attracted to work in the fishing sector, where they are most susceptible to exploitation, abuses and trafficking. This raises the question of non-compliance with the ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No.138) , which stipulates the various legal age limits in both developed and developing countries, when children should enter the labour market; as well as, requires states to provide regulatory framework to secure the human rights of children. For example, 15 years of age for regular work in developed states and 14 years in developing states; and 18 years for both developed and developing states in respect of work relating to hazardous substances. The UN Committee on Economic and Social Cultural Rights (E/C.12/GC/186, 2006), has clarified obligations under the UNCRC and ILO Convention 138, to protect children against economic exploitation, so as to enable them pursue their full development by acquiring technical and vocational skills that would gain them stable socio-economic opportunities in future lives.

The Way Forward

This blogpost has contended that despite the well-laid out human rights protection afforded to Ghanaian children under the UNCRC and ILO Convention 138, and despite the efforts of the Ghana-US collaboration to eliminate child-trafficking, much more should be done to ensure that the human rights of children are protected in practice. The following recommendations are put forward:

  • the government of Ghana should show political will to enforce its international obligations to protect and promote children’s access to education, by providing substantive educational facilities within fishing communities to stem the prevalence of child illiteracy;
  • The government should investigate cultural practices in fishing communities that contribute to child slavery, debt-bondage, child marriage and child sexual exploitation;
  • The government should collaborate with local leaders, especially traditional chiefs in fishing communities, to ensure children’s access to education and report crimes committed against children for expeditious access to justice;
  • enforcement agencies –the Police Service and Social Welfare department – should be re-trained and adequately resourced for identifying, intercepting and prosecuting the perpetrators of child trafficking, so as to deter such crimes in the fishing communities and through the country; and
  • the UNICEF office in Ghana could offer training for new police officers, social welfare department employees, and fishing communities about the strategies adopted by child-traffickers, as well as their impact on education and the wider society.