Caught in slavery’s nets

March 21, 2017

On Ghana’s Lake Volta, thousands of children are exploited in the fishing industry, forced to carry out dangerous jobs that put their lives at risk. Here is the story of a boy who managed to escape.

Photo: Lake Volta, Ghana (Christine Bedenis, Challenging Heights)


Kobina is only 15 years old but has a lifetime of hard work and violence behind him.

For seven years, he worked on Ghana’s Lake Volta – one of thousands of children trapped in forced labour in the communities around the lake. Many of them are traded by their parents from other parts of Ghana and Togo, in return for much needed cash and in the hope that their children will learn a trade.

Lake-Volta-for-websiteWith the fishing industry in decline, children are used for cheap labour on Lake Volta – Credit: Christine Bedenis, Challenging Heights

“I was born in Ivory Coast, but my family is from Winneba in coastal Ghana. My father brought me back to Ghana when I was about 5 or 6 years old,” Kobina explains. “After my father died, my uncle took me to Yeji on Lake Volta. I don’t remember how we got there, but I remember seeing things and not knowing what was going on.”

Beaten and insulted, he was forced to wake in the early hours, working between 4 a.m and 2 p.m. casting and dragging nets and risking death while diving to untangle the nets from the tree stumps on the bottom of the lake.

“One day, I saw another child drown,” Kobina recalls. But with no money, there was no chance of escape.

He began scraping together some money by secretly selling fish on the side.  Then he waited for an opportunity to run away.

“One day, my uncle returned to Winneba on the coast to attend a funeral, leaving me with my aunt. When my aunt went to the market, I used the small money I had saved to buy a ferry ticket and then make my way to Accra and then Winneba with the help of a friend.”

“When I arrived in Winneba, I went to another aunt’s house. This aunt knew I was supposed to be with her brother on Lake Volta, so she asked what I was doing there. I told her that I wanted to go to school. But my uncle found me and became violent.”

However, his aunt decided to help him when she learnt that the uncle was planning to re-traffic Kobina. So she told him to run away.

At first he did not know where to go but finally he met someone who took him to a rehabilitation shelter run by Challenging Heights, a non-profit organization working to help children escape forced labour in the Ghana’s fishing industry. Challenging Heights contributed to the elaboration of the ILO guidelines for addressing the worst forms of child labour in the country.

Kobina-fufu-for-websiteKobina helps to pound fufu at the shelter – Credi: Christine Bedenis, Challenging Heights

In spite of never having attended school, Kobina reached the highest class level at the shelter.

With the help of Challenging Heights he is now back with his aunt and has started an apprenticeship to become a tailor.

Kobina-tailor-for-websiteKobina at his tailor apprenticeship – Credit: Christine Bedenis, Challenging Heights              

“There are thousands of children like Kobina who have been trafficked to work on Lake Volta, been abused and deprived of an education. We are not only rescuing and rehabilitating these survivors, but are also working to address the root causes of trafficking and slavery in the coastal source communities. We are using our holistic approach to end child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry, reduce child slavery and promote children’s rights,” says James Kofi Annan, President of Challenging Heights.

About Challenging Heights

Challenging Heights is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation in Ghana that works to protect children’s rights and end child trafficking, founded by former child labourer, James Kofi Annan, in 2005.Their main efforts focus on addressing the trafficking of children who are forced to work in the fishing industry on Lake Volta.

 In Ghana, the ILO has provided government and social partners with technical support in combating child trafficking, including to develop anti-trafficking legislation. In particular, the ILO has partnered with the General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU) of Ghana and the Inland Canoe Fishers’ Association to combat child labour throughout the fish supply chain.