Report: Horrors of child prostitution in Ghana

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Every evening, Melphia leaves a place locals refer to as “hell on earth” and goes somewhere even worse. To a hotel room where the curtains are always drawn. Melphia is 13 years old. She lives in a slum in Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana. And for the past three years, she has worked as a child prostitute.

Melphia has sex with up to five men per night: workers, businessmen, police officers — and increasingly, tourists. She doesn’t even know the names of most of her clients. What she does know is that “obronis,” white men, pay more than Ghanaians. “Without the foreigners, child prostitution wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative,” says Martin Opoku Sekyere, who works as a volunteer to combat child prostitution in Kumasi.

For the past two years, the economy in the West African country has been growing more quickly again and things in Ghana have noticeably improved. This also means more people are coming into the country, such as Chinese investors and European tourists. And along with them come those interested in hiring prostitutes. Dr. George Oppong, head of the Ghana section for the NGO Defence for Children International’s (DCI), for which Sekyere also works, says that nobody really knows how many children are currently prostituting themselves, though he estimates somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. The youngest are just 9 years old.

Melphia looks younger than 13. She’s small and thin and has elbows that stick out sharply. Like the other girls in the slum, she has a short afro that emphasizes her pretty, childish face. She has a hard time sitting still, pulling her knees in and searching her fingers for bits of her nails she hasn’t yet chewed off.

And then she begins telling her story, the sounds of the slum floating around her: drunks scream, Nigerian hip-hop blasts from old speakers and someone moans loudly during sex. It’s close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and the air is so humid that the walls inside the hut are sweating.

Melphia was 10 when she climbed onto a bus in her village, located about an hour from Kumasi. Because she was so young, she didn’t need to pay anything for her ticket and it was only by chance that the bus ended up in Kumasi. She would have gone anywhere: Her only goal was to make money — somewhere, somehow.


Waiting for customers on the streets of Kumasi

So Painful She Could Barely Walk

On her parents’ farm there was never enough food for her and her 12 siblings to eat, she says. She attended primary school in her town, with her older sister’s boyfriend financing her everyday costs. But when he went to Europe, there was no more money. Melphia could barely even read at that point, and instead of continuing to go to school, she headed to Kumasi.

Almost immediately upon arrival, she met a young man named Ali, the first person who spoke to her in Kumasi. A few hours later, he slept with her. It was her first time. Ali told her she could make money with sex, but Melphia didn’t want to. Just sleeping with him was so painful that she could barely walk. She tried selling candy, but she couldn’t get rid of the colorful Mentos she had bought with the last of her money. Then Ali told her about the Chinese. He said they would pay 25 euros ($28) to have sex with a small girl. He became her pimp.

This is her story as she tells it and it is impossible to confirm, in part because Melphia is no longer in touch with her family. This much, though, is certain: Melphia lives alone, without her family, in the Asafo Railroad slum, known to inhabitants simply as “BB.” She speaks the Ghanaian language Twi and a bit of English. She works as a child prostitute and everything she owns fits into a small, black bag: An old Nokia cell phone with a broken display, two pairs of flip-flops, two outfits, a pair of gray socks.

All of her earnings vanish instantly. Much of it goes to her pimp, while the rest is spent on showers, her single meal per day and rent for the tiny hut she shares with four other girls. It’s really more of a shack, maybe 6 square meters (65 square feet). Melphia is able to survive, but not more. “It is an illegal business from which too many people profit,” says DCI’s Sekyere. The hotel owners, the pimps, the drug dealers and the corrupt police officers — they all stand to gain from the fact that Melphia and the other girls are selling their bodies for a couple of euros.

Sekyere actually heads the local employment office, but in his free time he fights for the children of Kumasi. He goes into the slum every day, speaking with the girls and trying to get them off the street. If one of them falls ill, he takes her to the hospital, with DCI covering the bill if possible. Sekyere notes the girls’ names in a notebook: “Abena, 14; Mariam, 10; Lydia, 13; Josie, 11; Melphia, 13.” Melphia has neither an ID nor a birth certificate, making Sekyere’s notebook perhaps the only document where her name is recorded.


The so-called “BB River” in the slum where Melphia lives

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