Opinions Sat, 27 Jun 2015

Condemned Without Trial: Who Cares About an Alleged Witch?

Impoverished and doddering, many old women have been hounded out of their communities and are now living in what is infamously termed ‘Witch Camps.’ The camps may be a sanctuary for them, but they are fast becoming a veritable hell for these vulnerable women. Survival in the camps depends largely on the generous overtures of NGOs and individual philanthropists. Being secluded from society, these banished women scavenge on left over grains and food in their communities.

Accusations of witchcraft against women are widespread in the northern region and this has led to the creation of the alleged witch camps. The camps are Gnani, Nabuli, Kukuo, Kpatinga and Gambaga, being the oldest and most widely known. The Bonyasi witch camp in the Central Gonja District was closed down on 15th December, 2014 by the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection in collaboration with ActionAid Ghana. Located in East Mamprusi District, the Gambaga witch camp alone accommodates about 125 women. Running second to Gambaga is Kukuo, near Bimbilla in the Nanumba District, which hosts a sizeable population of frail old women and their dependents.

These women, hitherto, lived in their communities, worked in various activities in a liberal atmosphere until their own families and community members started accusations against them. Some of the reasons behind the accusation may be as unfounded and baseless as a bad dream in which a person saw an old lady chasing them up.

What happens next is that these vulnerable women will face the wrath of a community, with the youth often leading these mob actions. In a society where nearly everybody perceives or believes that there exists a malevolent spirit (unproven though) in an old lady living in a derelict structure, it is difficult to rescue an accused person. Deeply related to this is when almost everybody connects a social failure to some unseen esoteric spirit.

Many of the women accused of witchcraft have little or no education, lack strong social networks and have low community status and lack protection and defense. They often end up being beaten, harmed and banished from their communities. Where they are not lucky, some of them are either tortured to death or subjected to many dehumanizing ordeals.

Imagine living in a community all your life and you are forced or threatened to leave your belongings for unknown destination. Often the accusers are community and family members who were friends and close relations.

Witchcraft accusations are common in Ghana, particularly in the northern region. Many sociologists have connected it to ignorance, lack of education and low or improper usage of science and technology to explain natural incidents.

In Europe, historical records indicate that the phenomenon of witchcraft was widespread in the sixteenth and seventh century. These periods were characterized by many social and political crisis, religious upheavals, wars, famine, and fatal epidemics. The cheapest explanation to these challenges was simply by looking out for scape-goats. Victims who were labelled witches were subjected to several dehumanizing treatments and some suffered gruesome murder. The situation in Europe has bettered through advanced knowledge in education, science and technology.

Halloween, a festival of dead spirits, is a well-known festival in Europe. It is an annual festival celebrated on the night of November 31 to dawn of October 1. It attracts people of different cultures and has become a tourist attraction.

While horrible situations have seen significant improvement in the west, some Ghanaians are engaged in vicious abuse by accusing women of witchcraft. The situation is dire and requires all stakeholders to help alleviate the plight of our grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters from this dehumanizing situation.

Ghana as a member of the United Nations is bound by protocols and conventions such as The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to which Ghana assented in 1989. This convention requires Ghana to undertake measures to end discrimination against women in all forms. The observation of the principle enjoins us to ensure equality of men and women, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate measures to prohibit discrimination against women.

Based on this, Ghana has established public Human Right institutions such as DOVVSU and CHRAJ to ensure effective protection of women and the vulnerable, including women accused of witchcraft in marginalized communities.

Witchcraft allegation, which is usually targeted at women, is gender-based violence, an affront to important provisions of the 1992 constitution of the Republic of Ghana. The following constitutional provisions have been trampled by the culprits who accuse and consequently banish these women:

Article 14(1) states, every person shall be entitled to his or her personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of his or her personal liberty except in the following cases and in accordance with procedure permitted by law

(a) in the execution of a sentence or order of a court in respect of a criminal offence which has been convicted

Article 15 (1) states the dignity of all persons shall be inviolable

(2) No person shall whether or not be arrested, restricted detained to be subjected to (a) torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

These constitutional clauses are crossly violated by the members of communities where old ladies are accused of witchcraft. These suspected witches are put before a kangaroo court, tried and subsequently banished or executed. In one village scenario, the youth dared the chief who was bent on protecting an accused witch to choose between them and the alleged witch.

In another incident, a Junior High School (JHS) pupil was accused of witchcraft. Her offence was that she was the only pupil who passed the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE), with aggregate 30. A wealthy woman now living in the Gambaga Camp was hounded out of her village because her debtors failed to honour their indebtedness. To exonerate themselves from this financial burden, the successful woman was accused of witchcraft.

Witchcraft allegations are deeply rooted in culture and tradition. It requires the efforts of all stakeholders, NGOs, Media, Human Rights Activists and Institutions, the Chiefs and Clergy to address these vices and protect vulnerable women.

ActionAid and Songtaba have made numerous interventions on the case of the alleged witches. They have worked towards the reintegration of many of the accused women into their communities or new locations of their choice. Due to stigmatization, reintegration of some of the women has been a challenge. Hence, it requires concerned Ghanaians to speak for these hapless women to enable them live with dignity.

The number of the accused women is swelling due to incessant allegations. It is imperative for everybody to contribute to initiatives and interventions in the fight against this social menace. Witchcraft accusation is a crime and a human rights abuse. Let’s protect our women.

Amasaba Abdul-Yakeen Aluizah

Project Communications Officer

Upper East Regional Programme

ActionAid Ghana

Columnist: Aluizah, Amasaba Abdul-Yakeen