James Kofi Annan: From Child Slave to Child Protector

AJWS Grantee Wins $100,000 Grinnell Young innovator for Social Justice Prize

New York; May 15, 2011—James Kofi Annan, founder and executive director of AJWS grantee Challenging Heights, knows the impact of a lost childhood. And, as an adult, he has dedicated his life to protecting kids in his native Ghana from the same types of harrowing experiences he had as a child slave. For his pioneering work in preventing child trafficking, Annan was recently one of three activists honored with the 2011 Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize.

At the age of six, Annan was sold into slavery. For the next seven years, he worked from dawn to dusk on a small boat, leaning far over the side rails to haul in heavy fishing nets—often in rough waters.  At the age of 13, Annan escaped from slavery without knowing how to read or write. Against all odds, he rose from a life of poverty and abuse, and—while working for a living—taught himself to read using books he borrowed from kindergarten students. He eventually attended university and excelled in his studies. After achieving success as a manager for Barclay’s Bank of Ghana, Annan founded Challenging Heights, an organization that saves children from forced labor and provides them with opportunity and education. Challenging Heights also helps at-risk families and fishing communities create alternative livelihood options so they don’t have to send their children to work.

AJWS has been supporting Challenging Heights for the past three years. Along with the Global Fund for Children, AJWS nominated Annan for the Grinnell prize, which includes $50,000 for each winner and $50,000 for their organizations. The prize honors individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change.

Annan estimates that 1.4 million children in Ghana are engaged in forced labor. In 2005, Ghana enacted a law that prohibits human trafficking. But it was not until 2010 that anybody in the commercial fishing industry was actually prosecuted and convicted for enslaving children. Annan played an instrumental role in this monumental case. As a result, he and his staff have received serious personal threats.

“The wrong in society has to do with the impoverishment of children, exploitation of children, putting children in slavery and in child labor,” Annan said. “We must resolve this issue; then I can go back to my business. Otherwise we will fight and fight until every child has received this justice.”

With AJWS funding, Challenging Heights has:

  • Trained community leaders to address child trafficking by reporting or referring cases to local law enforcement, networking with social welfare and child protection agencies and using community social structures, like local child protection committees, to help trafficked children. These leaders are now serving as community “watchdogs” against child trafficking;
  • Established ‘child rights clubs’ in three schools, which engage children through the arts to learn about their rights. Children participating in the clubs have written poems and plays about children’s rights and have performed them at local community gatherings. The original club members now serve as peer educators, teaching their friends both in school and at home about the dangers of child trafficking and about ways that they can defend their rights as children;
  • Furnished 1,500 children with educational materials and psychosocial counseling; and
  • Provided about 200 parents with skills training and material support to undertake income-generating activities. This support offer parents a viable alternative to selling their children into slavery.

“James Kofi Annan is committed to fighting child trafficking against all odds,” said Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president. “He gave up a lucrative career at one of the world’s leading banks to protect Ghana’s children and fight for their rights. His personal story is truly inspiring, and there is no question that his work will lead to a more promising future for the hundreds of children he’s educating, their families and their communities.”

For More Information

If you are a member of the press and wish to obtain information about our work or speak to a member of our global team on deadline, please contact Tanyanika Davis, Director of Media Relations, at tdavis@ajws.org.