For fear of victimization, the names of the victims and their parents have been changed
Before primary class six pupil Agartha make sense of what is happening to her in the pitch darkness of the lonely Kayoro market street, a gang of about a dozen young men pounce on her, grab her, and forcibly rip her away from her two friends, bundling her into a moving ‘aboboyaa’ tricycle.
It all happens so suddenly that 17-year-old Agartha cannot even shout for help.
The ‘aboboyaa’ speeds off, leaving behind Agartha’s two stunned friends who are accompanying her on an errand from the market in this village in the Kassena-Nankana West District.
“I had gone to the market with my friends. I was crying when they abducted me and placed me in a motorking [tricycle],” Agartha explains. “We were being followed by over ten men, and they told me they were going to marry me.”
But for her friends who conveyed the kidnap incident to her parents, Agartha would have ended up a statistic of just another teenage girl reported missing in that district of the Upper East region.
Many girls like Agartha suffer this harrowing ordeal of being snatched in such a fashion by young men, who, like deities, take away the innocence of teenagers in the name of culture and tradition.
According to a 2020 report by UNICEF, Ghana is home to over two million child brides, including women who were married off as children.
Also, one in five child brides is married to a man who is at least 10 years older. In Felicia’s case, she does not know the age of the man behind her kidnapping.
“I was blinded by my own tears throughout the day and the nights I was with them, and [I] could not see the faces of the men who abducted me,” Agartha says.
Two nights of horror
Courtesy of a custom that defies the wisdom of conventional marriage rites, Agartha’s abductors took her to the home of one of their friends. The intention was to force her to become his wife.
To that end, the gang that kidnapped Agartha held her against her will for two days. No report was made to the police in this classic case of criminality inspired by cruel local custom. Her two friends who witnessed her abduction near the market, however, reported the incident to Agartha’s parents the following morning, describing the abductors to help them recover their daughter.
The beneficiary of the crime was identified as a man known simply as Wofa. Apparently, Wofa lived less than a kilometre away from her hostage’s home.
According to Agartha, the first night of her abduction was the longest night of her life. In her moment of misery, she found some comfort in the company of another abducted girl she scalls Ama. The two hostages shared a room but said nothing to each other.
“That night, I kept crying whenever Ama tried to start a conversation with me. All I did was cry even though she kept telling me about herself,” Agartha said.
On the second night, she was allowed to have a bath. Her kidnapper’s sister then gave her clothes so she could change what she wore when she was abducted.
When Agartha’s parents contacted the men involved with their daughter’s kidnapping to enquire about her whereabouts, the men told them bluntly that their daughter was now a married woman.
After persistent calls and threats, Agartha was eventually freed on the third day.
Stories of abducted girls forced into marriage are not new to Agartha, her parents, or other residents of Kayoro, but the primary six pupil says, even at the time of her capture, she was old enough to know that marriage should mean more than abduction.
“Before one gets married, one must be old enough to perform the customary rites, and not in such a manner. This practice must stop,” Felicia notes.
Besides the trauma of her hostage situation, Agartha also has the clothes her ‘sister-in-law’ gave her on the second day of her abduction. The multicoloured skirt has the inscription, ‘I love you’, but she never felt any love from the donor while in captivity.
The harrowing incident may have marked the last time Agartha visited the Kayoro market, but it certainly is not the last time a girl would be seized on the street of Kayoro for forced marriage.
The Ghana Statistical Service Population and Housing Census report that 79,733 girls in Ghana aged 12 to 17 have been either married or living together with a man. Out of this number, 25,999 are girls of Junior High School going age (12 to 14 years).
Another basic school student kidnapped
When Regina failed to come home at the time her parents expected her, there was a sense of trepidation. This was in nearby Akanya. A search began, and soon the unsettling details of another abduction started unfolding. Just like the case of Agartha.
Regina and her three friends were returning home from neighbouring Chiana after writing their last paper in the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) on October 21, 2022. They were all seated in the bucket of a tricycle, a vehicle which serves as the major source of transport in her locality.
Just before Kayoro Basic School where she had just graduated from, a man Regina could easily recognize, aided by his henchmen, stopped the ‘aboboyaa’ in which the teenage girls rode. The men grabbed Regina and forced her into another tricycle, racing away to the home of her ‘groom’-to-be.
“They just grabbed me from the tricycle and pushed me into another tricycle and sent me to the home of one of the men. He was not a stranger to me [though]. He had been [an acquaintance] for a while but I did not know him [like that],” Regina explained.
Back in the house where she was held captive, Regina said she was made to share a room with seven young men who kept watch over her throughout the night to prevent her from escaping. She was not sexually harmed, but she was caged for three days against her will.
Regina’s father, Gilbert, said he got worried. His search led to Adong where his daughter had been held.
“When we finally got information on who abducted her, we visited the home of the abductor and demanded our daughter be released to us, but they refused,” Gilbert said.
Regina was not going to become part of the almost 800,000 girls either married or living with a man. An action had to be taken.
The matter was eventually reported to the chief of the Kayoro Traditional Area. He intervened, but his efforts did not yield results.
“The chief sent messengers to the home of the abductors on three occasions to demand the release of my daughter, but they refused to release her, so we resorted to another solution,” Gilbert said.
Regina’s parents, accompanied by the chief of the Kayoro Traditional area, Pe Oscar B. Tiyiamo II, traveled the almost two-hour journey from Kayoro to report the crime to the Navrongo Police Station about 47 kilometres away.
Fortunately, the pressure from Regina’s parents and the Chief’s palace and the threat of police intervention proved too much for the kidnappers. Even before the police made a move, Regina was released.
Gilbert and his daughter then decided to stay on in Navrongo in anticipation of the arrest of her abductor. After four days of living at a family friend’s house, the family came to terms with the fact that it was very unlikely anything would be done to the criminals. Brokenhearted, but relieved all the same for the safe return of Regina, they returned to Kayoro to tend to their farms, so they could sell their produce to pursue the matter in other ways.
The Navrongo Police report was made weeks before The Fourth Estate visited Kayaro in November 2022. The family is yet to receive any update from the police.
Regina’s educated and enlightened parents are counting on their investment in their daughter’s education to lift them out of poverty and hardship in the village.
“She is our only daughter and we are willing to do anything to ensure she reaches the peak in her education and becomes a successful career woman so she can come and take care of us,” Gilbert explained.
That dream appears to be on course. At the time of The Fourth Estate’s visit, 17-year-old Regina had gone back to her junior high school to select the potential senior high schools she would like to attend.
Gilbert’s concerns are held by other stakeholders in the education sector. Bagetewone Allou Edward is the headmaster of one of the community schools. He agrees that this practice of abduction of teenage girls is worrying, and it undermines development in the community.
Says the former assemblyman: “every year, about ten to fifteen forced and early marriages are encountered in the Kayoro community, compelling the children to drop out of school. Some also get pregnant and are forced to marry the men who got them pregnant.”
He accused some parents of complicity.
Regina was lucky to have escaped the three days she spent in the bowels of anxiety with only the indelible trauma of cohabiting with seven men in a room as a reminder. A fellow teenager, Comfort, was not that lucky.
School girl abducted, raped and impregnated
At neighboring Chiana Senior High School, Comfort began her journey towards achieving a higher educational status, a journey to become a nurse in 2022.
Alas, the 18-year-old’s nursing dream was truncated midway.
When Comfort fell ill on campus and was sent home for medical attention, it was discovered that she was pregnant.
Reminiscing the night she took seed brought her tears. While awaiting news for her senior high school placement, she stepped out of the safety of her house, contrary to her parent’s advice. A group of men captured her and bundled her to the home of a man she knew.
“This particular gentleman had been pestering me for some time to be in a relationship with him, but I refused.’
That evening, “I was on the way to the market when they captured me and took me to the home of one of the men. I did not consent to sex.” Comfort was kidnapped and raped for three days. She blames herself for the crime against her person.
As a result of the sexual assault, she became pregnant. She could see her nursing dreams dissipating before her own eyes through no fault of hers.
It took the intervention of the Chief of the Kayoro Traditional Area, Pe Oscar B. Tiyiamo II, and the persistence of her parents to secure her release from the grip of the young men after three days of sexual assault.
The imprisonment and resulting pregnancy have taken a psychological toll on Comfort and her family. To protect her future and give her nursing dream a new lease on life, her parents have resorted to a drastic solution.
Comfort’s father, Mr. Kabakachela, speaks highly of her respectful nature and reserved attitude.
“The young man who did that is a close relation so we could not have allowed that,” starts Mr. Kabakachela. “It is a taboo for relatives to get married so I want to abort the pregnancy but the doctors [in Kayoro] said they cannot do the abortion here and will give us a note to take us somewhere, but we have not received the note [yet].
“We believe that the young man intentionally got my daughter pregnant so she can be given to her as a wife but we won’t accept that. We want everything to be resolved as a family [though],” he added.
This new turn of events has become a tug-of-war between Comfort’s family and her kidnapper’s family.
According to Comfort, her abductor wants to marry her because he insists it is their culture. Comfort wants no part of it because, besides the fact that it would ruin her nursing dream, she believes the entire crime defies convention.
Kayoro Chief Pe Oscar B. Tiyiamo II agrees.
He says marriage requires that one follows tradition, and points out that tradition requires that a man pays the bride price of a woman before the union can be classified as marriage.
“Child marriage prevailed even before I was born, so when I became a traditional leader, I brought my traditional leaders together and educated them on the implications…Marriage requires that you meet the parents of the person you want to marry and perform the traditional rites before it can be classified as marriage,” Pe adds.
Comfort is now five months pregnant and she wakes up torpid each morning frightened by the endless days ahead. Her future is shrouded in a vicious haze.
Child marriage-induced pregnancy is classified as one of the many causes of teenage pregnancy in Ghana. A 2020 UNICEF report states that pregnancy precedes marriage for two in 10 child brides.
This latter statistic is the direction Comfort’s future seems to be heading right now in the absence of any viable options.
Attempts to end child abduction and child marriage inadequate
The Chief of Kayoro says all attempts to stop the practice of child abduction and child marriage-induced pregnancy have failed. But he still believes a solution lies in law enforcement and the prosecution of perpetrators.
“I even introduced a rule that whoever reports any case of child marriage will be given a bicycle, a school bag, and books as a form of encouragement to them, but since then, I haven’t received any report as such,” Pe Oscar B. Tiyiamo II explains.
When The Fourth Estate caught up with the Upper East Regional Minister, Stephen Yakubu, for his ministry’s plans to eradicate child marriage in Kayoro and the Upper East region, he told the team the situation had significantly improved as compared to previous years.
Figures available however point in an opposite direction. The Social Welfare Department of the Kassena Nankana West District has recorded more teenage pregnancy cases in the first half of 2022 than in the last three years. In 2020, nine communities in the Kassena Nankana West district recorded 236 cases of teenage pregnancy compared to 256 in 2021.
But in the first half of 2022, these nine communities have recorded 232 cases of teenage pregnancy increasing the department’s concerns about efforts being put in place to ensure an end to this debilitating, defective practice.
The regional minister also told The Fourth Estate that he pledged his unflinching support to end the menace in Kayoro. To prove his commitment, he even followed up with a call to Pe Oscar B. Tiyiamo II to find out the depth of the situation and the interventions needed to resolve it.
However, the Kassena Nankana West District Director of the Department of Social Welfare, Victoria Asuwono, says her office lacks the necessary resources to follow up on many of the cases.
The practice of child abduction and child marriage in the Upper East region is a cause and consequence of adolescent pregnancy. In many cases, child marriage is a driver of early pregnancy; in others, pregnancy from rape drives child marriage. In Ghana, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18 years.
A non-governmental organization, Norsaac, is leading advocacy on sexuality and reproductive health rights in the Upper East region. The organization has introduced gender and governance livelihoods and skills development programmes to curb child marriages and their related challenges in the region. The Head of Programmes, Policy and Campaign of Norsaac, Hafsatu Sey Sumani, says it has recorded not less than 10 child marriages in about four communities in the district in the last year alone.
“These issues have come from Tolon, Kayoro, Kpanda and we have also had some of the issues from Walewale which we have sent to the social welfare and DOVVSU (Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit).
“Over the years, we have observed a trend where children get pregnant and are forced into marriages, and this we have termed child-induced pregnancy,” Hafsatu explains.
As part of efforts to ensure an end to the practice, Ghana’s gender ministry birthed Ghana’s national strategic framework on ending child marriage in 2017. The document set out clear national goals, objectives, strategies and key interventions across different sectors that will lead to the gradual elimination of the practice.
The key interventions, some of which include, outreach activities, public sensitization through popular Ghanaian personalities, a review of the national adolescent and the introduction of comprehensive sexual education in schools were met with a backlash from the public, compelling government to withdraw its decision on the latter.
Six years on however, these interventions, although yielding some results, have not been enough to eradicate the practice and offer new hope for girls like Agartha, Regina and Comfort.