Do the Laws of Nature Really Apply in Today’s World? Child Slavery in Ghana

November 3, 2011

Political Theory


According to Thomas Hobbes, social contract applies when a state is ruled by a leader responsible for protecting the  state and ensuring the safety and security of every citizen within it. It would seem that these rules seem to be almost second nature in our society, and almost taken for granted. In kindergarten, we were all taught the “golden rule” and it seems to be engrained in all of us (or one would hope.) Hobbes, in Leviathan, has his own version of this golden rule and states “the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and (in sum) doing to others, as we would be done to…” This summer, however, I was faced with something that left me speechless, something I had never dreamed of taking place in the modern world, something that most definitely violated the golden rule. I came face to face with child slavery.

The Republic of Ghana became independent from the rule of the United Kingdom in 1957 and was officially established as a republic in 1960. It was not until 1992, however, that their constitution was officially approved. The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana came into effect in 1993. In this constitution, article 5 addresses fundamental human rights and freedoms and expressly states “Every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty.” Despite this promise in the constitution, it seems that the government of Ghana is not upholding their end of the social contract. The social contract theorists would not be impressed…

This summer, I spent time working at Challenging Heights, a school for former child slaves and children at risk of being sold into slavery (feel free to read more about them here). We visited the school, a grant recipient of the organization I spent my time in Ghana with, and interacted with these children on a personal level. Some, like the one in this picture were happy and playful. You would never even know that he

One child at Challenging Heights, a school for former child slaves, playing and having a good time

used to be a child slave if you merely ran into him and began to play. There were other children, though, that were extremely reserved and hesitant to talk with anyone. Each child is at a different stage in their rehabilitation process and it is important to keep this in mind.

We did not just go to Challenging Heights to play with children, though, and we heard the head of the organization tell  us his own personal story of his time in slavery and how it inspired him to start challenging heights. He shared with us the story of his own time in slavery, and other horrible stories from the children he rescued. One such story was of a boy on a fishing boat who’s owner’s net got stuck to the bottom of the lake. The slave master sent a boy into the lake and told him not to come up unless he was able to untangle the net. After about 10 minutes or so, the boy did not come up to the surface and so the slave master sent another child in with the same instructions. After about 4 boys, he finally was able to untangle the net, but these boys did not survive. The only one who did was the fourth, now at challenging heights, who went to untangle the nets and saw, first hand, his own friends dead at the bottom of the lake. This boy, at such a young age, had to face things that most people never have to in their entire life. For the fisherman, it was cheaper to simply purchase more children than to buy a new fishing net. The girls are not typically used for fishing, but rather have the role of being sex slaves in order to keep the older boys from thoughts of escape. Read the story of Grace on the  Challenging Heights blog.

I think it’s safe to say that slavery, by anyone’s standards, would be considered a breach upon someone’s personal liberty, the same personal liberty that is guaranteed to every Ghanaian in their own social contract, the constitution. Children in Ghana must live in constant fear of their lives and of being enslaved. The Ghanaian government has broken their social contract and has not upheld its promises to the people. I would even dare to say that Ghana is currently operating in some form of the state of nature by Hobbes’s standards. It seems surprising that the state of nature would be present in today’s world, but it is, nevertheless, a reality.

Teenage boys on a fishing boat on Lake Volta, the site of much child slavery in Ghana (this is not to say that these boys are child slaves, they may very well be fishing for their families, but most of the work in the fishing industry in Ghana is done by teenage boys)

What do you think? Do you think that Ghana is, in fact, operating in a state of nature with people fearing for their lives and their safety? Is the Ghanaian government upholding their social contract?

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