Humanists to help ‘witches’ of Ghana
Back in May, 2012, The Voice of America reported that in northern Ghana, efforts were being made to disband six shelters for women accused of sorcery, known as “witch camps”.
Policy makers and some non-profit groups are working together to get the women reintegrated into their communities, but the plan is running into obstacles.
More than two years on, the authorities, according to this report from The Humanist, have only managed to close one of these camps. The problem is that women’s rights organisations and the exiled women themselves are concerned that attempts to turn the “witches” loose into society at large would jeopardise their safety.
Clearly the challenge is to rid Ghana of its tendency to blame its misfortunes on witches, no mean feat given that 70 percent of Ghanaians believe in witchcraft!
However, it is only in the northern region where women are forcibly and often violently exiled from their communities after being branded as witches. The accused are usually elderly widows, women who no longer have husbands to protect them and who are ineligible for remarriage because they cannot bear children.
Other targets for accusation are women who defy accepted gender norms by being outspoken or accruing independent wealth through business. The accusations also have an impact on the youth of northern Ghana, since children are often sent as caretakers for the accused. It is the only support most families feel they can safely provide to the women, and it is just as much a deprivation for the children as for the alleged witches.
It is against this scenario that an organisation formed by the Foundation Beyond Belief – the Humanist Service Corps – will swing into action at the start of the new year to support Songtaba and other locally led human rights organisations in the effort to address the causes and consequences of witchcraft accusations in the northern region of the country.
The Humanist report that conditions in the camps “are deplorable”. Along with their dependents, the exiles face insufficient access to clean water, food, and healthcare, inadequate housing, and continued abuse.
Nonetheless, the existence of these camps is the only reason the women are allowed to flee with their lives when they are accused. In addition to believing in witchcraft, Ghanaians believe that certain areas of land can strip witches of their powers.
No such complementary beliefs exists in Nigeria, Senegal, or the Ivory Coast, where women accused of witchcraft are executed by their communities. Thus, though the women find little comfort in the camps, there is safety in their squalor.
Given these circumstances, the aims of the Humanist Service Corps are clear but by no means simple. Humanist Service Corps volunteers will work toward the short-term goal of improving conditions in the camps and the long-term goal of eliminating the circumstances that lead to witchcraft accusations.
The Foundation Beyond Belief and its partner organizations know these goals are attainable because some progress has already been made. On December 15, after more than four years of collaboration by Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, ActionAid, Songtaba, and other human rights organisations, the Bonyase camp for alleged witches was formally disbanded and its fifty inhabitants reintegrated into the communities of their choice. It was a historic step forward for human rights in Ghana, but much remains to be done.
There are more than 550 women living in exile in the remaining five camps and at least that many young children who have been sent as their helpers.
The Humanist added that it was no accident that all six camps were established in a region with a poverty rate three times higher than the national average, and where 75 percent of adults are illiterate compared to 43 percent nationally. It is no accident that accusations double during malaria season in the region with the poorest access to health care.
Though most residents in Ghana’s other nine regions also believe in witchcraft, they go to the hospital when they recognise the fatigue and fever of malaria. They don’t blame it on their neighbors.
Thus, the goal is not to eradicate superstition in the northern region but to render it unnecessary as an explanation for hardship.
In the Voice of America report, ActionAid Ghana’s Ajoa Kwarteng Kluvitse said most people accused of witchcraft are old women or widows who lack support from influential people, or women whose actions do not fall within the communities’ conception of normal behavior.
There was one case where a young girl was extremely bright and the allegation was that she had used witchcraft to take the intelligence of her classmates. So if you are a woman who is extremely bright, very astute at business, is able to amass wealth, a woman who is challenging and not docile, any of these can lead to allegations of witchcraft.
Kluvitse added that many women hope that by going to these camps and subjecting themselves to tests, they can prove they are not sorcerers and will be allowed to go back home. But she says the witch stigma is hard to shed.
There are rituals that are gone through in all the camps which are supposed to determine your guilt or innocence. Usually it’s through a chicken and how the chicken dies when the neck is cut. Even if the chicken dies in a position that proves you are innocent, it is very difficult to return home.
Many women who pass the so-called innocence tests still do not go home for fear of attacks or they will be blamed for community deaths or other tragedies.
Changing cultural attitudes across a country is a far larger task than ridding Ghana of witch camps. It is one of several reasons Kluvitse says closing the camps cannot be done overnight.
A lot of these women left their homes 20 to 30 years ago. Their huts left behind have been dilapidated. Somebody has to refurbish the huts. We need to see what skills we can give these women so they are not totally dependent on the family. We need to look at how to integrate their grand children and great grand children into school. So all these come at a cost .
Kluvitse says the most important goal is not closing the camps but helping the women return back home with dignity, without having to face fresh allegations of witchcraft.