William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice


Sheryl Buske


For a variety of reasons, including the growing disparity in resources and opportunities between Ghana’s mostly rural North and its urban South, the numbers and patterns of internal migration have changed dramatically over the last twenty years. Historically the province of men, and later women on a temporary basis that was tied to the rainy seasons, young girls between ten and sixteen years of age now make up the majority of the North-South migrants.

The lives of these girl migrants, who live and work in Ghana’s markets as porters, known locally as kayayoo, are complex and multifaceted. They endure great hardships and are exposed to increasing risks as they struggle to survive while living and working on the streets. As more and more girls travel to the southern cities from their homes in the North, and fewer and fewer of them return on a permanent basis, the number of girl porters on the street at any given time is growing. This growth has had several consequences. The presence of more and more girls on the streets has created greater competition for everything—from jobs to sleeping spaces. Another consequence has been the change in the public perception of the girls. In the past, when the porters were mostly adult women and their numbers were fairly constant, they generally remained below the public’s radar. More recently, however, as young girls outnumber adult women working in the markets and when there are not enough jobs to go around, when more girls are turning to prostitution to make ends meet and when the overall scarcity of resources has given rise to greater and more frequent violence, the public has begun to take notice of the girls.

The Ghanaian public has responded to their swelling numbers and increasing visibility in different ways. To some, the girl porters are dirty, street criminals to be avoided. To others, they are victims of circumstances and deserving of benevolence and protection. To others still, the girl porters are no different than any other person who makes a rational decision to relocate in an attempt to improve their situation and they are therefore not entitled to any special treatment or deference.

In the fifty-plus years since its independence, Ghana has developed public policies across a range of critical areas. Three of these areas—child labor, education, and health care—are particularly relevant to the girl porters and reflect a range of punitive, protectionist, and laissez-faire social policy models. This Article argues that the kayayei girls do not benefit from these key public policies because, in part, the government officials who determine the shape and reach of public policy, and the frontline people who are tasked with its implementation and administration, are the very people who view the girls as prostitutes, orphans, or entrepreneurs. Quite simply, numerous problems in the sprawling Ministries system, including the lack of systematic oversight, inconsistent practices across districts, limited resources, and insufficient personnel training have resulted in a system in which individuals exercise enormous deference in public policy implementation. The consequence for the girls, then, is that more often than not whether they can access the benefits of public policies depends on one person’s perception of girl porters. It is no surprise then that, because much of the public’s perception of the girls is negative or indifferent, the girls have largely failed to benefit from public policies.