Ghana: How listening to those “left behind” changed our thinking

BY Bianca Juhl Andersen | May 17, 2017|Comments 0

A 14-year old orphan girl told us her story. When her parents died, she was forced to drop out of school. She was 10 years old. In a desperate attempt to earn money to provide for herself and her younger siblings, she became a sex worker. She charges GHS 5-12 (USD1,25-3) per customer – barely enough to even cover her expenses. She sleeps outdoors, despite the high risks of theft and sexual assaults – especially during the frequent power cuts in Accra, Ghana’s capital, leaving the area dark and dangerous. Her dream is to go to school, and to gain skills to get a good job. But first she has to deal with her daily need to earn money, the ever-present danger of assault and violence from customers, and health risks.

These are some of the stories we have been hearing during a consultative process we as the UN in Ghana have convened over the past several months. We have been listening to human rights experts, advocates and representatives on the human rights challenges in Ghana; on both current and future challenges. Based on these expert inputs, we reached out to excluded groups who have little or no voice in Ghana: people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTIs), underage sex-workers, prisoners, and injection drug users.

We wanted to consult representatives of groups of people, whose human rights are at risk of not being respected, and have little or no access to decision makers in Ghana. For the first time, we used our networks to identify people from these hard-to-reach groups and met with them to better understand the human rights challenges they are facing.

Obscured by data gaps

We met with representatives from three of the identified groups, where we had vast data access difficulties: underage sex workers, the LGBTI community, and injection drug users – about 50 people in total.  We asked open-ended questions because we wanted to understand the challenges they face with respect to their human rights. While challenges differed across the three groups, there were common concerns such as security and personal safety, stigmatization from society, the need for education and skills training, and the lack of access to health facilities and medical care.

When we talked to, for instance, the underage sex workers, they all shared a common wish to stop working in the sex industry. They wanted to go to school instead – they wanted a “normal” life. But to stop working as sex workers and return to school, they need to get an income to provide for themselves and their families.

In our work in Ghana, the UN is committed to ensuring that human rights are recognized and protected. Human rights are at core of the UN’s pledge to support Ghana in meeting its commitment to the sustainable development agenda. Despite our ongoing programmes, these harrowing stories were new to us, as we hardly even knew that underage sex workers — or intravenous drug users for that matter — existed in Ghana to the extent they do.

The need to check in with those we serve

Engaging with people who face these issues changed our thinking. We assumed they wanted to be taken off the street and given educational opportunities. But that was not necessarily the case — at least not in the short run. The main objective of the underage sex workers was to ensure an income for their families – and to stay safe. In the long run, they want expanded opportunities, but in our strategies, we need to consider interventions that preserve the income they provide to their families.

We are now exploring how best to enable government and other partners to address the problems we heard, in the UN’s next strategic plan, the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) 2018-21, via interventions by UN agencies working together to make sure that no one is left behind in Ghana. The UNDAF will be finalized in partnership with national stakeholders in 2017. We will keep you posted on how we will address the issues heard in our consultations. As we move forward, the UN will support Ghana to ensure that human rights challenges are fully addressed – so that no one is left behind.


Bianca Juhl Andersen
Bianca is Youth Policy Analyst at UNDP. You can follow her on Linkedin.

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