By Isabella Agyakwa
The initial idea of a western-style lockdown, as a measure of containing the COVID-19 pandemic, immediately divided opinions.
This type of lockdown has proven to be a saviour in several western societies struggling with the disease, hence the question was “Why would anyone fight the only known remedy for a disease, which is proving to be a formidable opponent to the modern world?”
Bear in mind that this disease has no cure and no known vaccine, hence the only known effective preventive measure is social distancing, which takes the form of residents of communities sticking to their immediate home environment.
The critics to the implementation of this western-style lockdown in Ghana pointed to one issue, which is the country’s housing challenge, especially in its urban areas where the disease was first detected, namely Accra and Kumasi.
Accra houses the only international airport in the country and remains the only route into Ghana for persons flying in from outside the jurisdiction. It was therefore not surprising that Accra recorded the first case.
“How do you lockdown Accra and Kumasi with the huge numbers of people living in the street?” w as among the key questions raised by critics.
These numbers include persons living in makeshift structures built on lands they do not own. It also includes those who have sleeping arrangements but no living arrangements.
The key question that confronted the government was how to find decent accommodation for these people who live in the streets before instituting a total lockdown. It was therefore not surprising when the government took the option of a partial lockdown.
Even the partial lockdown was not enough to convince the residents who live on the streets to stay. Hundreds of them left Accra and Kumasi few hours after the announcement. Some young ladies from the North were so desperate to leave Accra that they agreed to be transported in a cargo truck on the Monday that the restrictions kicked in.
A group that has not been factored into this discussion is the huge population of children on the streets engaging in all kinds of menial labour and, in most cases, begging. These children encounter both the rich and poor and then interact with their parents/guardians who, in some cases, live in the streets themselves.
It was assumed that this group of people will be forced into lockdown with their parents or accompanied back to the rural areas during the rush out of Accra, as we witnessed. One thing for sure, is that we have not yet talked about them in the entire COVID-19 debate because not all children in Accra’s streets have some form of guardianship.
The issue of street children is not new, but needs to be re-emphasised for the sake of the efficiency of the fight against this pandemic. It is important that we identify the minefields in this fight and address them properly, if we are to succeed, and I believe street children are one.
The Double-Tongue Dictionary describes the term “Streetism” as the leaving of homeless or unmonitored children on the street, especially when related to drugs, disease, juvenile sex, crime, or delinquency.
It is a broad term used to present the desperate and often tormenting situation of children who are forced to spend most of their lives outside their homes, engaging in menial income-generating activities and begging in order to make a living.
UNICEF, the United Nations agency responsible for this area, defines children as those under the age of 18.
The key attribute of street children is the lack of monitoring that is evident when you encounter them in the street, exposing them to a lot of social vices. Delinquency is rife among street children because of their exposure to bad role models and criminal characters.
Many of these children are actually in the street, on the instruction of their parents, to carry out menial labour or beg for alms. Majority of these children either have parents who are poor or guardians who exploit them. Their labour or begging is intended to generate some money for their homes or their “exploiters”.
Some of these children end up in the urban areas on their own and are under no form of guardianship.
There are several reasons for the phenomena of street children, but I will single out unplanned pregnancies because the key difference in their lives has been the lack of proper guardianship and parental guidance. It would be anticipated that parents would place the safety of their children above everything, but that is not the case with street children and one of the biggest contributors to that are unplanned pregnancies.
An unplanned pregnancy has been defined as the kind of pregnancy that is reported to be either unwanted or mistimed.
A study carried out by Lancet Global Health in 2018 revealed that between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 65 out of a 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 were prone to the incidence of unintended pregnancies.
In Ghana, it has been identified that about 37 per cent of all pregnancies are unintended, comprising 23 per cent mistimed and 14 per cent unwanted pregnancies. Consequently, thousands of pregnancies are aborted, while more than 300,000 infants are born because of unintended pregnancies in Ghana.
Ghana, like most African countries, considers child bearing an essential aspect of a union between two consenting adults through either marriage or cohabitation. Against such a backdrop is the problem of children living in the streets of the capital without the benefit of monitoring by any adult.
Available data from the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) estimate that the total number of street children in the Greater Accra Region was about 90,000 in 2018.
Reports say 5,768 street children were counted in Ashaiman, Nungua and Tema administrative areas, while 939 were in the Ga West area. Another 2,031children were also counted in the Dangbe West district. In the Accra Metropolitan area, 50,997 street children were counted. The phenomenon is no different in Madina, the Ga East Municipal area, where 1,757 children were identified to have fallen into that category.
Per the data, 28.5 per cent of the children were from the Northern Region; 19.5 per cent from Greater Accra; 10.2 per cent from Volta Region; 7.5 per cent from Upper East Region; and 7.3 per cent from Ashanti Region.
The rest are Central Region, six per cent; Upper West, 2.9 per cent; and Western Region, 2.4 per cent, whilst foreign nationals accounted for about three per cent. The GSS was of the opinion that the huge numbers identified by the study probably revealed deficits in the implementation of the country’s safety net.
The data also reveal an interesting phenomenon which may have come to the surface in the fight against COVID-19. This has been the story of the “kayayes” who decided to smuggle themselves out of Accra in a cargo truck that was intercepted at Ejisu in the Ashanti region. The group had over 20 children with them.
To get an insight into streetism, all one needs to do is to take a stroll around the streets of Accra. The street children are present.
While these alarming figures of street children continue to increase, one will wonder whether authorities have established the necessary correlations between the phenomenon and unplanned pregnancies. The question remains whether addressing the phenomenon of unplanned pregnancy would largely be crucial to addressing streetism.
It must be admitted that several moves and strategies have been deployed over the past few years to attempt to address the phenomenon of unplanned pregnancies. The other question lingering is what to do to transform the children and young adults from the streets and shape them to become responsible individuals.
That is why steps to separate young head porters from the adults and put in schools under the government’s Free Senior High School initiative is a step in the right direction.
“After everything, we are going to separate the younger ones from the older ones… for the younger ones, we would let them go back home and go back to school,” the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Mrs Cynthia Morrison, said when updating the public on measures taken to help the vulnerable in the wake of the partial lockdown.
Available evidence shows that Sexual and Reproductive Health education plays a vital role in dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Majority of research conducted in the health sector indicates there is limited education on the use of contraception.
Inequalities and poverty
It should be noted that my focus on unplanned pregnancies is not to say that it is the most important factor in streetism. That pride of place should go to the inherent inequalities in our country. The young women from the North, who end up in the streets of Accra and Kumasi, are not escaping unplanned pregnancy. Unplanned pregnancy is sometimes the result of the pursuit of a better life or escaping exploitation.
Another factor is poverty. Poverty sets the tone for parental neglect. In other words, children from economically disadvantaged homes are compelled to engage in economic activities in order to fend for themselves and supplement the income of their parents or guardians. Ultimately, they find themselves in the streets where they engage in selling commodities or simply begging for alms.
There is neglect because of irresponsibility. Some parents are just completely irresponsible and abandon their responsibilities. Some parents simply dump their children onto the streets and leave them to fate. In some cases, guardians, out of sheer wickedness, exploit these children.
It should be noted that not all unplanned pregnancies result in poorly or unmonitored children in the streets.
The ones we are worried about mostly happen in the streets. Take the case of the several young women who travel from the North to work as head porters and the many more who leave their native regions in search of better conditions in our cities without a foothold. The moment they get pregnant and are not lucky enough to escape the streets, their children will definitely add up to the numbers in the street. In such cases, which are one too many, the phenomena of unplanned pregnancies gives birth to streetism.
We are all witnesses of how living in the streets exposes a lot of citizens and residents to insanitary conditions and illiteracy while creating fertile grounds for child prostitution, drug abuse, child trafficking and child labour.
To the rescue
What can we do to manage, eradicate, or control the situation?
Dealing with the issue will require combined efforts from the government, the family and civil society organisations.
The Ghanaian government, through policy and planning, has sought to provide leadership in dealing with this menace.
However, the government needs to step up its efforts by developing strategies that are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, especially 1, 3, and 4, which focus on poverty, good health and well-being and quality education respectively.
This should provide the leadership needed to activate the collective responsibility required from the society. We need more stakeholders with primary concern for the welfare of children, to create avenues for the holistic reintegration of street children into their families and schools, through empowerment programmes and vocational training.
Above all, public education is key, as it helps the individual to shape his decision and reduce streetism. Programmes such as the ‘Good Life’, ‘Yolo’, which help to create awareness among parents, guardians, children and the entire society, should be reintroduced, intensified and sustained so that everyone will become aware of the effects of streetism on the development of the child as well as sexual and reproductive health.