Abolishing Modern Day Slavery at BUSPH

On Monday, October 26, the Boston University School of Public Health held an event entitled Abolishing Modern Day Slavery.  Emmanuel Otoo, West Africa Regional Coordinator for Free the Slaves, was the keynote speaker. Panelists included: Benjamin SkinnerAuthor of a Crime So Monstrous, Fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard Kennedy School; Dr. Timothy McCarthyDirector for Human Rights and Social Movements, Harvard Kennedy School; and Susan Goldfarb – Executive Director for Support to End Exploitation Now (SEEN).

Mr. Otoo gave a riveting presentation on modern day slavery in West Africa.  “Almost a quarter of the children in Ghana are engaged in hazardous labor.  Many of them have been trafficked from various regions in West Africa and work as many as 14 hours in a day,”  he said.  Mr. Otoo emphasized that slavery is predominantly rooted in poverty and that many of these children are attempting to pay off family debts that increase daily.  Most of his efforts with Free the Slaves focus on slavery prevention through community development, education, and empowerment.

Mr. Skinner has traveled extensively on five continents researching modern day slavery as a journalist and is one of the few people that has infiltrated the ring of traffickers themselves.  Mr. Skinner has often posed as an interested customer to draw into the light what is hidden in the darkness of brothels.  After uncovering the staggering details of how these humans are exploited, Mr. Skinner took his facts to the local authorities and said, “Here is the information.  You can either deal with this the right way or I will make you famous.”

Dr. McCarthy, award-winning teacher and advisor at Harvard Kennedy School, spoke of his personal journey of discovering modern-day slavery.  After years of researching the history of slavery, he was shocked when he read Kevin Bales’ Disposable People and realized how little he knew about the slavery that existed today.  He stated, “We are so hesitant to call what is happening today slavery because America has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from our past with this issue.  Using the word ‘slavery’ acknowledges that we haven’t done enough work.  By using that word, we admit that we are complicit, that we are the demand.”

Ms. Goldfarb struck a chord in the audience when she wrapped up the evening by relaying countless stories of slavery and exploitation among women and children in Boston and its surrounding areas.  “Slavery is not something that just happens in Southeast Asia or Africa.  It’s happening in our own backyards,” she said.   Ms. Goldfarb emphasized the fighting slavery must be a collaborative effort between all relevant interest groups.  “There may not always be a lot of love between government agencies and non-governmental agencies who are working on this issue, but we must lay all of our differences aside and come together over the common goal of eliminating slavery.”

All of the panelists agreed that the first step in abolishing slavery is letting people know that it still exists today. Mr. Skinner ended the evening with a challenge that had recently been posed to him by a colleague.  “If all of you tell 10 people that human slavery still exists, then those 10 people will tell 10 people, and those people will tell 10 people…”  If we ignore slavery or pretend that it does not exist, we are just as guilty as the perpetrators.  We must tell the stories.  We must acknowledge that we are the demand.

This event was a collaborative effort between Free the Slaves and BU’s Rotoract and Health and Human Rights Caucus, with the help of Emily George.IMG_0431


Abolishing Modern Day Slavery Podcast

Believing in Justice, Believing in You.

IMG_3964I recently read the book This I Believe, a collection of  essays taken from the NPR program initially launched by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s.  Naturally, this prompted my own reflection on what belief I would want to proclaim to the world in 200 words or less.

In my short life, I have witnessed some of the worst acts of human degradation.  In Bangkok, I worked with sex slaves and saw women and children who were victimized daily by men in ways that could only be mentioned in hell.  I met 18 year old girls that had undergone complete hysterectomies because STDs had ravaged their insides.  I witnessed men take little girls by the hand and lead them into hotel rooms.  I listened to women tell of the endless sexual violence and abuse they endured nightly only to receive $10 on payday.

In Ghana, I saw 4 year old children scooping water out of boats for hours without eating a single meal.  I saw children sleeping on the ground with scorpions while their masters slept on a bed within four protective walls.  I heard these children’s stories of repeated abuse, and touched the scars that were on their heads and backs from being beaten with oars or pushed into open fires.

After sharing these stories with people, I often am asked, “How can you not lose hope when you see such immense suffering?”  The answer is simple.  The answer is because of you.

When those former sex slaves or child slaves would run to me and embrace me and I would look into their eyes and kiss their faces, I never forgot for a moment where they had come from.  Their hope, their joy, their laughter, their dreams, their very life was a miracle in itself.  They were products of someone’s great mercy and compassion.  Some human, somewhere, made it possible for them to be free…to sleep in a bed with a full belly and wake for school each day. Some human made it possible for them to feel safe, loved, and wanted.  And that is why I do not lose hope when I see injustice.  Someone, somewhere is making justice possible every day.  And I am very grateful for that someone.  I am very grateful for you.

Child Slavery in Ghana: The scope of the problem


Child Slavery: Approximately 25% of children ages 5-14 years in Ghana were working in 2000.  In rural areas, children can be found working in picking, fishing, herding and as contract farm labor. Children also work as domestics, porters, hawkers, miners and quarry workers, and fare-collectors[1].

The Children’s Act sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years.  The Children’s Act prohibits children under 18 from engaging in hazardous labor.  Employers who operate in the formal sector must keep a register with the ages of the young people they employ.  Failing to keep this register can result in a fine of 10 million cedis (USD$1,121) or 2 years in prison.  However, child labor laws are not enforced with any effectiveness or consistency.  Labor authorities carry out routine annual inspections of every workplace in the formal sector, but seldom monitor the informal sector where working children can be found.  Furthermore, other law enforcement authorities, including judges and police, lack adequate resources to prosecute and are largely unfamiliar with child protection laws[2].  The U.S. Department of State described enforcement of child labor laws within Ghana as “inconsistent and ineffective[3].”

Child Trafficking: Sufficient data is unavailable determining how many children have been trafficked in this region, but some organizations have put this number in the thousands.  In 2005, Ghana passed the Human Trafficking Act prescribing a minimum of 5 years imprisonment for all forms of trafficking.  However, according to UNHCR, arrests for suspected traffickers have been minimal.  Numerous reasons for lack of prosecution have been cited by government officials, including the need for more national sensitization to the law and insufficient evidence to convict trafficking suspects[4].

Presently, several international organizations and non-governmental organizations are rigorously advocating for increased prevention, protection, and prosecution.  The U.S. Government Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed Ghana on their Tier 2 Watch List in the 2009 Trafficking in Persons report.  This means that Ghana is making efforts to combat trafficking, but does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

[1] TheChildren’sAct, Sections89-90.

[2] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports- 2006: Ghana,” Section 6d. See also U.S. Embassy- Accra, Ghana:

Update on Worst Forms of Child Labor, para 3B.

[3] U.S. Embassy- Accra, Ghana: Update on Worst Forms of Child Labor, para 3B.

[4] Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 Ghana


The Process of Rescuing a Child from Slavery

IMG_3181Many of you have asked, “How do you actually rescue a trafficked child from slavery?”  In this post, I will do my best to explain the process. (Thank you, Liz, for your amazing editing.)

George Achibra founded PACODEP, a non-governmental organization based in the Volta Region of Ghana, which was initially focused on caring for orphans and widows.  The issue of child trafficking and slavery became his passion after a former child slave, John, showed up at his door after running away from his fishing master.  John had been beaten severely and was covered in bruises and blood.  George cared for John and eventually found his mother and returned him to his family.  A few months later, George learned that John was re-trafficked and sold again to another fishing master.  After hearing this, George was determined to find John and rescue him again.  He began renting a boat several times a week and scouring Lake Volta for this young child.  During these visits, he saw hundreds of “Johns,” and was desperate to end this cycle that is ultimately rooted in poverty.

More than half of the people in Ghana live below the poverty line, so when parents hear of work opportunities on Lake Volta, they do not hesitate to send their children because it is one less mouth to feed.  They often view it as an opportunity for their child to learn a skill and earn income, even if it means they miss out on their education.  However, most parents do not know that their child is sleeping outside, working 12-16 hour days without pay, eating only one meal, and subjected to various types of abuses.

In order to search for these child slaves, George rents a boat on a weekly basis and journeys out onto Lake Volta.  He stops when he sees a boat with children working and questions the fishing masters about the children.  George asks common questions about their age and where they live, but mostly he is studying faces.  It is often said that George Achibra never forgets a face.

George has several “informants” working for him on the islands.  These informants are generally community leaders that know all of the masters and the trafficked children.  The informant will give George the necessary information to find the child’s parents, usually within days.

When George finds the family, he explains the abusive conditions on Lake Volta and that their children are in fact not being paid.  He talks with them about the importance of sending their child to school so they can provide for their families in the future.  In many cases, the families are too poor to adequately provide for their rescued child, so George explains that as an alternative option he can sponsor the child to give them shelter, send them to school and provide them with health care.  Then, the parents sign formal documents stating that they want their children to leave the lake and reside under George’s care.

George then returns to the lake with this documentation to find the child.  Sometimes his search can take six months or longer because the fishing master has fled to another area of the lake.  Other times, the child is easily located and George explains the law, presents the signed documents and asks the fishing master to release the child.  Generally, the masters will release them, but if they are resistant, George can threaten arrest.  So far, George’s rescue process has been successful and he has been able to save every child he has pursued.  These children are sponsored by Touch a Life and reside near George’s home in Kete Krachi.

Please feel free to leave questions, comments or feedback.  More information on George’s work and Touch a Life can be found at: http://www.touchalifekids.org.

When Obama visits the slave castles in Ghana, what will he see?

In just a few short days President Obama will be arriving in Ghana to mark his first presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa.  It is widely known that Mr. Obama has insisted on visiting the slave castles that line the Cape Coast to witness remnants of the horrors from when thousands of African slaves were being sold to Europe and the Americas.

I had the privilege of visiting the largest of these castles, St. George, on my recent trip to Ghana and was overwhelmed by the evidence that remained of human degradation.  Despite the hundreds of years that have passed and the continuous use of caustic cleaning agents, the pungent odor of dead bodies, blood stains and human excreta still remain in many of the rooms. Finger and toe marks still remain on the walls where the slaves struggled for their lives while in chains.

My hope is that when Mr. Obama stares out over the castle walls to the Guinea Sea to reflect on how far humanity has come that he will remember that human slavery has not been completely abolished.  My hope is that he will look at the empty dungeons that once held men and women in chains and see the 246 million children that are still enslaved today.  Mr. Obama does not have to look but a few kilometers away to Lake Volta to witness this slavery first hand.  The children working on this lake may not be wearing chains or kept in dungeons, but they may as well be.  These children, some as young as 4 years old, wake at 3 a.m. to begin their day.  They are fed only one meal and forced to work until dusk.  Some are beaten.  Others are molested.  Most are forced to sleep outside.  None go to school.

The dungeons of St. George castle may be empty, but Lake Volta is still crawling with slaves today.  Mr. Obama, do you see them?


I warmly welcome your feedback.  Please feel free to leave a comment or start a discussion.

The story of Teiko: A 6 year old trafficked girl rescued from slavery on Lake Volta

IMG_3795Recently, Touch a Life partnered with PACODEP, City of Refuge and Not For Sale to rescue Teiko, a 6 year old trafficked girl, from an island community on Lake Volta.  Lake Volta is home to thousands of child slaves who work 12-16 hour days on fishing boats.  The majority of these children are trafficked from various regions both inside and outside of Ghana and receive no health care and no education.

Teiko is an orphan who worked long hours preparing and cooking fish for her slave master in the village of Lala.  At first Teiko was very frightened to leave her familiar surroundings.  She was scooped up and comforted by Johnbull Omorefe, co-founder of City of Refuge where Teiko now resides.  As she was held by Johnbull, I began tracing her face and arms with my fingers and showered her with kisses and whispers.  At this point, I witnessed the miracle of love.  Soon, her eyes had come alive and she began smiling.  She settled into our boat at sunset and we began our journey back to Kete Krachi.  Teiko was taken to Village of Life – home to 35 other rescued children from Lake Volta – and was immediately welcomed by her new brothers and sisters.  I watched in delight as she laughed and played with the other kids and enjoyed the ice cream that was provided to celebrate her arrival.

Six other children were rescued during this visit to Kete Krachi.  Two of them now reside in Village of Life in Kete Krachi and five of them were taken to City of Refuge in Tema.  All will now receive health care, education and an abundance of love.

For more information on Touch a Life’s efforts in this region, please visit: http://www.touchalifekids.org