Extreme Poverty, Religion, and Human Rights in Ghana

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Roslyn Mould is the Coordinator for the West African Humanist Network. She wrote this article with Scott Jacobsen to shine a light on the issues of Ghana while also with the background of the positive in the improving conditions for Ghanaians.

By Roslyn Mould & Scott Douglas “Nana Kwesi” Jacobsen (Ashanti)

Extreme poverty is a problem around the world defined by the UN as “severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information” by the United Nations in 1995. Ghana is a West African country that was the first African country to have gained Independence from the British Colonials on the 6th of March, 1957. Having been through Democratic ways of government and transitioning power, Ghana has also experienced, a number of coup d’etats, the last one being that of Jerry John Rawlings when he was sprung out of custody after his first coup attempt 4th June, 1979. Despite being a country of massive wealth and resources ranging from Minerals like Gold, Bauxite, Manganese, one of the top Tourist destinations in Africa, Agricultural wealth such as 2nd largest exporter of Cocoa and having huge petroleum deposits, Ghana is a 3rd world developing country with issues of extreme poverty.

Under Military rule, Ghanaians were subjected to injustices, where even freedom of expression was curtailed or stifled until he handed over democratically in the year 2000.

Ghana has achieved appreciable steady growth levels since the late 1990s to the present day, such growth has translated much into lifting many people out of poverty. There has been a general rise in income levels for both the wealthiest and the poorest, however, this increase in income levels has been highly unequal and for many people, they have in fact gotten poorer and more vulnerable.

Growth has benefited the rich extremely more than it has done for the poor. Despite attaining a middle-income status, the rate of population growth has outpaced the number of people getting out of extreme poverty. We now have a situation where more people are born into poverty than people are escaping poverty. A child has a higher chance of living in poverty than an adult. The growth of the Ghanaian economy has not been even either. Urban residences are less likely to be living in extreme poverty than rural dwellers. This translates into a worrying state of affairs where the North of the country is predominantly poor and the South is relatively better. The economic disparity between the North and the South of Ghana has actually worsened since the early 1990s.

Not uncommon to other economies, the problem of extreme poverty has a gender dynamic to it. The majority of people suffering from extreme poverty are women and children. They bear the brunt of this increasing problem. The biggest problem facing people living in extreme poverty are numerous, the most important among them is the inability to afford decent and well-balanced diet, especially for rural dwellers. Urban dwellers are in also affected by poor nutrition, usually manifesting in the rising obesity problem and malnutrition in children. Rural poverty has consistently lead to the youth of those areas migrating to urban centers to seek menial jobs. With their low employable skills, they work harder and get paid less and since they cannot afford decent housing, they end up as squatters in slums such as those in Agbogbloshie, Ashaiman, Suame, etc. Most also engage in dangerous jobs like scavenging for e-waste products which they burn to retrieve minute rare metals. The burning process is hazardous work, exposing them and the environs to heavy metals, which reduces their life expectancy and quality of life. As folks move away from rural centers where the majority of farming output comes from, these areas are stripped of the manpower to grow food, transport foodstuffs and sustain agriculture that sustains the country.

Urban centers have a slightly different dynamic to rural areas. Urban centers have the characteristic of having its poor unable to afford decent housing, unemployment etc.

It is common rhetoric in Ghana to hear people say that justice is for the rich and those who can afford to pay for litigation. Access to opportunities depends on who you know. This allows for a situation where the poor can’t afford to access the judicial system for wrongs done them to seek justice. They let it go and injustice goes unchallenged. As such, people deliberately trample on the rights of fellow citizens knowing that they cannot afford to follow up with the court process. Police officers regularly abuse people and get away with it, they detain persons without due process. There’s a general lack of confidence in the security services of Ghana among citizens. Many prefer to not deal with the police at all.

Gaining employment and general opportunities is also constrained by how one is connected to people in higher places. This situation locks the poor in a vicious cycle of never-ending poverty that is extremely hard to escape. To gain employment often requires that one person pay a bribe to someone to connect you to someone to make it happen. The inability of parents to secure a reasonable income leads to them having to let their young children below the legal working age engage in labour to help sustain their families. These children are almost always exploited, sexually notwithstanding. These children spend school hours on the street hawking which translates in poor performance in school and some ultimately drop out of school and engage in full-time labour to feed themselves and their families. Girls are likely to engage in prostitution or other forms of the sex trade to sustain themselves. They often end up being teenage mothers themselves or as ‘carriers’ locally known as ‘kayayei’ in the marketplaces for carrying heavy loads on their heads for a small fee and the whole cycle starts for the next generation.

Access to quality healthcare depends on one’s ability to pay for it. Though the National health insurance scheme has been in operation, some health facilities have openly declined offering services on it and only hard cash is accepted. A situation that effectively bars a large section of the population from accessing health services. To compound the problem, there are not enough Doctors, hospitals and facilities giving the rise to superstition and witchcraft accusations that lead to people seeking alternative means of cures from Faith healers and fetish priests. Since extremely poor people live in slums and equally unsanitary environments, their general health status is by default below standard and their inability to afford healthcare further worsens the scenario and keeps them in a loop of constant health concerns, the overall effect being higher mortality rate for the poor and the need to bear more children.

Discrimination between women and girls is still rampant. Girls still have a hard time getting enrolled in school and staying in school due to a lack of interest in parents investing in girl-child education. Women, though accounting for the larger portion of people involved in economic activities, do not have easy access to land and ownership or inheritance of property and other assets and therefore do not enjoy the full benefit of ownership of the means of production of food and as such are economically disadvantaged. This disadvantage leaves women economically dependent on men who in turn use this vulnerability to manipulate and control women financially and otherwise. This trap doesn’t allow them autonomy of their bodies and minds. Cultural and religious practices also disproportionately affect women and even though women are legally able to access these services, cultural schemes prevent them from realizing their full rights and freedoms. The manifestation of weaker legal systems to break harmful cultural norms show up for example as witchcraft accusation victims are overwhelmingly women. These often target poor aged women, their frail bodies coupled with their poor economic status makes them easy targets.

The IMF and the World Bank have generally been welcome partners of Ghana in helping the country become fiscally more disciplined. In the area of macroeconomic outlooks, they have been nearly indispensable. However, when it comes to microeconomic matters, the World Bank and IMF policies have in some cases worsened the economic outlook of the already

economically vulnerable and threatened. Sometimes, the policies meant to keep the balance of the economy have disregarded their impacts downstream. Regulations have come at great social and cultural costs. The servicing of these huge debts have forced the government to underspend in areas such as education, health, agriculture and sanitation. Less spending in these areas like agriculture for an economy still heavily reliant on agriculture puts society in a long term shock with dangerous consequences. These financial players have been aware that monies meant for development projects largely end up in the pockets of corrupt officials, knowing this, they have often not bothered to enforce strict adherence which is the right thing to do because it is the entire country that would be trapped in debt that the very poor whom the developmental projects were meant to help in the first place but weren’t helped that will have to pay back these loans.

In the Greater Accra region, some suggested places to visit to see the effects of urban poverty are Townships like Jamestown, Agbogbloshie, Nima, Ashaiman. To the north of the country, places like the Tamale metropolitan area is a worthy study place, Yendi Gushiegu and East Gonja district and Bole areas all in the Northern region are perfect study areas as well. The Bolgatanga and Bongo municipalities, Bulisa south, Bawku East and Nabdam in the Upper East region are recommended. Adaklu, North Tongu districts in the Volta region. Wa west, was east and Sisala west in the Upper West region.

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The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Ghana Center for Democratic Development(CDD), UNICEF Ghana are but a few civil society organization that will be of immense importance help. Even with these problems for Ghanaians for their history and into the present, Ghana has been improving in its human rights and quality of life, in part, for the improved life and wellness of Ghanaians. It is not simply all bad, but it is a record of improvement in the midst of extreme poverty. The positive takeaway is the improved living conditions for Ghanaians from time to time in spite of the problems.