Tackling Health Consequences of Human Trafficking in Ghana

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TACOMA, Washington — Ghana is a West African country with a population of more than 30 million people with a rapidly growing economy. Behind this economic growth, however, is a booming labor trafficking industry in sectors including fishing, agriculture, mining and domestic servitude. As more research is conducted on human trafficking, the impacts of the crime on physical health continue to be understudied, but Dr. Jody Clay-Warner and a team of researchers aims to fill these information gaps through research on the health consequences of human trafficking in Ghana.

Human Trafficking in Ghana

Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

In 2019, the government of Ghana investigated 137 cases of human trafficking. This statistic encompasses only the cases reported and investigated, not the full scale of the problem in the country. Thousands of individuals, mainly children, are believed to be trafficked in the Lake Volta region of Ghana alone. An estimated one out of every six children in the country is involved in child labor.

There are multiple reasons for the prevalence of labor trafficking, particularly of children, in Ghana. Parents often send their children to live with relatives to boost familial bonds and provide them with opportunities for education and vocational training. However, due to poverty and cultural changes in Ghana, many of these children end up being trafficked by their family members to produce an additional source of income. For the same reasons, many people leave their home regions to look for work and become exploited because of their vulnerability.

Health Consequences of Human Trafficking in Ghana

Dr. Clay-Warner studies the impacts of “criminal victimization” at the University of Georgia and joined a team of researchers working at Lifeline, a center in Accra that assists survivors of human trafficking in reintegrating into society through vocational training and support services, to study the health consequences of human trafficking in Ghana. The research was a longitudinal study in which surveys were conducted among 150 survivors of labor trafficking at three points in time over three years, with each survey being about a year apart.

The surveys asked questions regarding the physical health of the women at Lifeline and discovered not only that the women faced many health problems but also that health was reported to be worse on the second survey than on the first. This indicated that even after being away from trafficking for more than a year, returning home and receiving social services from Lifeline, the health consequences of human trafficking in Ghana persisted and worsened.

“Women reported more physical health complaints, such as backaches, stomach problems, headaches, etc., in the second time period,” Dr. Clay-Warner told The Borgen Project. “It was surprising to find that many health problems emerged long after the exit from trafficking, which suggests the long-term impact of trafficking on health.”

Similar results have been found in studies in other areas of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that occupational hazards due to unsafe working conditions experienced during labor trafficking, such as exposure to chemicals, lack of proper equipment and training, long hours and exposure to extreme weather, can result in a variety of negative health effects. These include “exhaustion, dehydration, repetitive-motion syndromes, heat stroke or stress, hypothermia, frostbite, accidental injuries, respiratory problems and skin infection.” Studies focusing on sex trafficking instead of labor trafficking also note exhaustion, back pain, sleep disorders and headaches as physical effects of trafficking on health.

In addition to physical health consequences, human trafficking takes a toll on the mental health of victims and survivors. The WHO reports that psychological effects include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

To make matters worse, due to the nature of trafficking, health care is typically not provided to victims until they have escaped, leaving health issues to worsen before getting access to treatment. If treatment is accessed while being trafficked, it is often provided by unqualified individuals without proper medical training and standards, putting victims at further risk for negative health consequences of human trafficking.

Combating Human Trafficking in Ghana

The government of Ghana has implemented various programs to combat trafficking within the country under the Human Trafficking Act first passed in 2005. This act calls for the prevention of trafficking, the protection of victims and survivors and the prosecution of those responsible for trafficking.

Through the Human Trafficking Act, funds were granted to provide nearly 700 law enforcement officials in various agencies with anti-trafficking training in 2019 alone. A government-funded shelter for adult women survivors of trafficking was opened in 2019 and employees were trained in how to spot and prevent trafficking. Also in 2019, shelter, food, care, medical treatment and other social services were provided for more than 60 survivors of human trafficking under this act.

Another portion of the Human Trafficking Act directly aiming at preventing trafficking was a government-sponsored awareness campaign in which national and local leaders were trained in prevention methods, awareness events were hosted at all levels of the government and awareness materials were distributed through both television and radio.

One program working more directly at alleviating the health consequences of human trafficking in Ghana is Free the Slaves’ Growing Up Free initiative. The project includes “prevention, rescue, prosecution, rehabilitation [and]reintegration” measures for victims and survivors. Individuals identified and rescued under the Growing Up Free initiative are provided with necessities, including access to medical care. However, this program focuses on children, leaving the adult survivors of trafficking out of these benefits.

Similarly, Challenging Heights is an anti-human trafficking nonprofit in Ghana that rescues and rehabilitates child victims of human trafficking in the Lake Volta region. Its rescue center can help up to 176 children at a time, providing social services and healthcare for up to nine months. As of 2017, Challenging Heights had rescued 1,600 children from child labor and trafficking. Like Growing Up Free, Challenging Heights focuses exclusively on children.

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons calls for countries to provide medical assistance for survivors of human trafficking but does not make this a requirement, leaving many survivors without access to healthcare. Access to medical care is critical to supporting survivors and limiting the health consequences of human trafficking.“

Trafficking is a complex phenomenon whose implications for health are not straightforward. Thus, it is important to understand the various pathways through which trafficking affects health, as well as how (and why) health effects are delayed,” Dr. Clay-Warner said. “Persons who have been trafficked should receive medical attention not only in the immediate aftermath of exiting trafficking, but they should also continue to be monitored for health problems in the ensuing years. They should have access to free, comprehensive healthcare.”

– Sydney Leiter
Photo: Flickr

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