Tradition or enslavement; the fate of foster children in Northern region


Fosterage or child adoption is an age-old tradition among Dagombas in the Northern region and many ethnic groups in Ghana and Africa.

This socio-cultural practice where a child is given out to a family relation as a foster child is a means of binding families together.

In Dagbon tradition, a man is required to give out his daughter (usually the first daughter) to his biological sister. Traditionally, it is done to show appreciation to the man’s sister for the traditional rites she would usually perform when his wife becomes pregnant for the first time after marriage.

The Chief praise singer to the chief of Banvim, Banvim Lun’naa Alhaji Ibrahim Sule further explains that the traditional rite, known in Dagbani as “pag pirirgibu” is so important that it has to be performed before a woman who becomes pregnant for the first time can be recognized as such.

Aside from the rites, Banvim Lun’ Naa also explains that “after she gives birth, the husband’s sister again has to support the naming ceremony by providing some foodstuffs and ingredients. If the child is a girl, she is given to the man’s sister when the girl reaches a certain age. The assumption is that the girl will receive better training and proper upbringing, as her auntie will not pamper her.

However, this otherwise desirable tradition has unfortunately been abused and turned into an evil practice of enslavement with dire consequences for the adopted children. Children who find themselves as foster children in their aunties’ homes have had to endure hardship as they are usually treated differently from their nephews and nieces.

Fuseina (not her real name though) is a foster child between the ages of 8 and 10. She was adopted by her auntie from a village in the Tamale metropolis.

I caught up with her on her way to draw water from a borehole, about 100meters away from her house. She tells me fetching water for use by the household is just one of her daily routines.

“When I wake in the morning, I have to sweep the compound, wash utensils, go to the borehole to fetch water, after that I wash my aunt’s children’s clothes while they away to school. When my aunt goes to the market, I stay back home to take care of her little child. In the evening, I fetch water again, wash utensils and set fire for my aunt to come home and cook,” Fuseina recounts her daily routine.

She says she has ever contemplated going ack to her parents to avoid the undesirable treatment she is receiving in the hands of her foster parents, but was advised against the idea by her own mother.

“During one of my mother’s visits, I tried to follow her back home but she sacked me to go back and threatened to even beat me,” she said.

Fuseina’s story is not different from many foster children in Dagbon.

Alhaji Sule advises parents who give out their daughters to relatives to monitor them strictly to be sure their welfare is well catered for. He says parents should not hesitate to take back their children if they realize they are ill-treated.

When you give your child to your sister to cater for, that doesn’t mean you have buried the child, you can go and stay with your sister at least for a week to know how the child is fairing. During the olden days, the only way you could take your child from your sister is to tell her that you wanted to take the child home to perform some rites and you could decide not to send the child back,” he advised.

Poor foster parenting may affect the development and proper upbringing of a child. Most adopted or foster children are denied access to formal education. A study conducted on fosterage and educational access among the Dagomba in the Savelugu-Nanton Municipality reveals that a foster child has 19% chance lower than a biological son or daughter in attending school, all things being equal.

The Executive Director of an Advocacy group, Youth Advocacy on Rights and Opportunities (YARO) Mr. Douri Bennin Hajeei explains the challenges they face when they try to intervene in Child Rights cases that are reported to his outfit.

Banvim lun’ Naa advised foster parents to avoid discrimination between their foster and biological children.

“I want to caution our parents and relatives to take good care of their nieces and nephews like their biological children. Don’t enroll your children in school and ask others to perform household chore. What you went through during labor is the same pain every woman go through during labor. Our tradition is against it and therefore I advise foster parents to desist from this act,” he said.

By: Munira Bariya,