There is a saying that starts off by claiming ‘necessity compels a butcher to kill a cat’. For many underprivileged girls from Ghana’s Northern region, necessity has pushed them to leave their homes to head for the bright lights of the cities – a move they have theorised would give them a better shot at life. And yet, for many that move turns out to be a case of necessity fuelling a jump from frying pan into fire. Necessity powering a jump into a situation of increased stress and pain for negligible gain, a situation of homelessness and vulnerability. In Accra, over 50,000 such stories roam the streets. These young ladies are called Kayayei.
The term ‘Kayayei’ (a conjugation of the Hausa word ‘Kaya’ which means load/burden and the Ga description of females as ‘Yei’) is a term which describes groups of young women who traditionally have migrated from a rural community to one of Ghana’s urban hotspots in search of work and better employment prospects. These women tend to be used for manual labour, as porters exploited to carry goods to and from markets and lorry parks in Ghana’s cities.
Despite their desire for better prospects, they often work in poor conditions, for minimal income. Migration from home usually means a young girl finds herself propelled into a new surrounding without her community ties, cut off from the channels of family assistance which may have otherwise helped to support her. This lack of support leads to many Kayayei sleeping on the streets, despite having largely migrated from the North in search of a better life.
It is this precarious lifestyle, this tragedy of circumstances, which leaves many of the Kayayei vulnerable to the vagaries of urban life. Without a roof over their heads, many are taken advantage of. Studies and investigations have regularly found these young ladies vulnerable to rape and gender-based violence. Some inevitably fall pregnant, while some contract STIs. The urban dream quickly descends into a metropolitan nightmare for many of the Kayayei, creating a situation which is a black mark on the fabric of a country which can pride itself on being one of West Africa’s success stories when it comes to contraception and female reproductive rights…
As pregnancy takes you out of the earning game, many resort to underground illegal abortions in an attempt to preserve their earning potential. Others take matters into their own hands, by attempting self-termination using various concoctions and items such as herbal mixtures for oral ingestion, leaf insertion into the vagina or even drinking things such as detergent or a solution of ground glass mixed with sugar. Reading that would have made you wince, thus removing any surprise you may have otherwise felt when you hear a director of a Kayayei association claimed approximately 25 Kayayei died from unsafe abortions between January and July 2016. That is 25 too many in 21st century Ghana.
Those are just the reported numbers – how many more have died anonymously and mysteriously due to unsafe abortions, or as victims of sexual assault? In a country where maternal mortality remains a monumental problem, the lack of protection of this community and the lack of education leads to risky behaviours and even riskier consequences. Many do not have the financial means, or the educational background, to appropriately deal with the card they have been dealt in this world. Dina, a 27-year-old Kayayei in Accra, told VICE’s women’s interest channel Broadly, “I have had so many abortions and I did all eight on my own. You feel severe pain when you take the medicine. One time I felt like dying, my body was so weak, I couldn’t move and I lost so much blood I thought I would die. I am too afraid to tell anyone when I’m pregnant so there was no medical attention.”
Though Kayayei life remains arduous, there are still hopeful signs for one of Ghana’s most marginal female communities. Marie Stopes International, a reproductive health charity, is working with the Kayayei community in Accra to provide contraception, education on sexual health, and family planning advice, as well as HIV/AIDS treatment and gender-based violence support. For Kayayei like Gifty, the support has been invaluable. “I said to myself that this will change my life and it has. I had a five-year implant fitted,” she said.“Now I can take care of my existing children.”
Another initiative Marie Stopes International has piloted involves holding weekly community-based shows which help inform the Kayayei about their rights, while offering education on contraception and the need for testing for sexually-transmitted diseases. The Ghana Police Service’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) has also begun to meet Kayayei informally via small group discussions, to encourage the reporting of violent crime in their community and educate them on their rights.
Education is power, and it is this sentiment which seems to be the most effective way of helping the Kayayei take back control of their destinies and make the most of their current situation. The outlook may be bleak – but collaborations between this forgotten community and organisations with the resources to make a difference, can help make that outlook brighter. Bringing the issues of this marginalised group to the forefront will help towards Ghana meeting the new development goals. Many find themselves in this community not by way of desire, but by way of necessity. For this group of hardworking young ladies, access to contraception and adequate support will not only save lives, but it can form some sort of foundation which can help give them a better chance at building a better future. And that’s something every single woman in Ghana deserves. This is a right which the government should recognise as a necessity.
By Dr Jermaine Bamfo (@Dr_Jabz27)