Former Child Slave James Kofi Annan On His Mission to End Human Trafficking In Ghana

On World Day Against Child Labor, we speak with former child slave and social activist, James Kofi Annan, the founder of anti-trafficking organization, Challenging Heights.

DIASPORA—Today marks the 15th annual World Day Against Child Labor, launched in 2002 but the International Labour Organization as a call to action to help eliminate forced child labor globally.

Millions around the world, including civil activists, labor unions, government leaders and everyday citizens are working to address the plight of child slaves and bring attention to the widespread epidemic of human trafficking.

Ghanian activist, James Kofi Annan is one of those people—though his proximity to the cause is more intimate than most. Annan was once one of the children that he is now fighting tirelessly for through his organization Challenging Heights, an anti-trafficking initiative working to protect the rights of children, and end child slavery in coastal communities in Ghana, where an estimated 1.8 million young people are engaged in child labour. He won the World's Children Prize in 2013 for his contributions.

On Tuesday, June 13, Annan will participate in the Project Ghana “World Day Against Child Labor” Panel Discussion in New York City, presented by The Line and Beauty for Freedom.

We got a chance to speak with him ahead of the event and he told us more about his childhood as a child slave, and the he mapped out Challenging Heights' ambitious 5 year plan to eradicate child trafficking. Read our conversation below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OkayAfrica: How and why did you start Challenging Heights?

James Kofi Annan:  I started Challenging Heights officially 12 years ago. I say officially because Challenging Heights was started a couple of years before it was registered. It was meant to address the issues of my childhood. A childhood of exploitation, abuse, and slavery in labor fishing communities in Ghana.

When I was sold into slavery at the age of seven, escaped at the age of 13, and I was able to go to a school, and get my life back and decided, having earned a college degree and starting a professional career in banking. I wanted to give back, and so I created Challenging Heights to, sort of increase the platform for children to be protected. For me it was about being able to get children away from the trafficking situation that I found myself in. So that's how Challenging Heights started. So far, we have rescued 1,600 children and support several other women in the community. We've done a lot of advocacy and built the capacity of local community to be able to resist child trafficking. That's where we are now.

We have created a 5 years strategy plan, that is supposed to aid in our mission of addressing the issue of child trafficking, and hopefully end it in the next 5 years. We are aiming at rescuing 1,200 more children in the next 5 years and continue to advocate to ensure that the rights of the children are protected.

The good news is that, our strategic plan has inspired a national action plan, that the government is now creating to address the issue of trafficking in Ghana. They're nearly half of the way through a national action plan, basically taking from our strategy plan which is a great thing, very inspiring. That is where we are now.

OA: It seems like education is the nucleus of the mission. Why is it useful in combatting child trafficking, and how did it change your life?

JKA: I want to discuss education for me on a personal level, and also more broadly.

I owe everything, who I am now, to education. I grew up in a community where only about 10 percent or less of the children in our community were going to school. Ranging from age 6 to age 14. We hardly have about 10 percent of the entire population of our children going to school. Even when they're able to complete basic education at that percentage, you have less than 1 percent of them moving to the next level of accessing high school. And poverty is high, so for me to have gone through all of that and be the first to successfully finish high school, faith to ever go to college and first to ever have a master's degree and first to ever have wealth in the bank, first to ever come from that community and working in the official position that is a huge, huge success for me. And I attribute nearly everything to my success in education. So for me, education is nearly everything. I picked education as my field, as my religion.

But also, in more broadly terms, education has helped to alleviate poverty in our community. After me, a lot of people have gone to school, so I would say my life has inspired a lot of people to now go to high school, I have a number of them who have completed college, who are working and are using their skills to reduce poverty, and also reduce ignorance. And, also reduce child trafficking in general, because the more the children are educated, the less number of children who are trafficked, because they are educated, they are away.

So education is so empowering. The power of education as a tool to reducing child trafficking is huge.

OA: James, what is your ultimate vision for Challenging Heights and how can people be involved in the 5 year plan?

JKA: Well I am excited and look forward to the panel for freedom on Tuesday. I look forward to seeing more familiar faces and people I have not met before, to connect with them in a way that is refreshing for our hope to ending child trafficking and human trafficking in the world.

For me, there are a number of ways that people can connect. We have an advocates program that people come to Ghana to be involved in the work that we do. They learn about slavery, first-hand, on the ground. One of the best ways to contribute toward ending, or becoming an abolitionist, is to learn about it. And one of the ways is to come join us, volunteer your time, and contribute toward the work that we do and lend some of your time or resources. Those are the main things that people can do to connect of course. We also have, that people can visit to do so. We also have Facebook, we are very active on Facebook. You can connect with us there and on Twitter and Instagram are all avenues that people can use to connect with us and get involved.

Here's what to expect from the “World Day Against Child Labor” panel: 

The panel is in honor of World Day Against Child Labor and it's in honor of Challenging Heights. 

The panel will begin to discuss the issues of what's going on in child labor trafficking, and will expand from there. The panelists have such a vast amount of information and have worked in the abolitionist movement in different ways. Each one of them is very special in the ways they've worked to end slavery in our country and also, in the whole world.


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