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Opinions of Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Columnist: GNA

Child Abuse in Witches camps of Northern Ghana

(A GNA feature by Caesar Abagali)

Tamale, Aug. 25, GNA - The issue of witchcraft has been in the history of mankind for a very long time. It is still very rife in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa. The focus of this piece, however, is Northern Ghana where the problem persists unabated and in view of the impact it has on innocent children. The plight of children in the witches camps of Northern Ghana calls for urgent action to redress the situation.

In the traditional context, witchcraft constitutes a major challenge in society. It has been found to be so problematic that different societies have different ways of dealing with the issue because of its obvious implications. In Northern Ghana for instance, the mere suspicion of witchcraft is enough to expel someone to a scruffy camp of mud huts. Belief in witchcraft therefore still remains widespread in Africa, especially Ghana, where Christianity and Islam rub shoulders with other religions.

For every calamity that befalls a family, there is always cause to suspect and accuse the aged and brand them as witches. They are tried under the traditional oracle court system with no room for appeal or any chance to prove their innocence but are rather condemned to banishment to serve sentences in the witches camps. They undergo a lot of hardships including mental trauma, humiliation and dehumanization before they are banished into the camps. What the witch doctor says is final judgment and the accused is sentenced. Like the famous Salem witches' trials of 1692 in the United States, death, illness, wild dreams, superstition or even visible signs of success was enough to provoke accusations of sorcery.

No matter how hard the allegation was to prove or how hysterical the accuser, the fact that witchcraft is virtually impossible to prove or disprove means many women are forced to live outside their communities, some for as long as they remain alive.

In the Salem witches trials, doubts had to grow, respected citizens had to be accused and convicted and expelled because of allegations of witchcraft and the highly educated in such societies had to petition government before things reversed. For purposes of understanding and clarity, it is imperative to cite a commentary ran by Professor O. Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law on the Salem Witches trials.

He says, 93From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts ended".

He continues, "hy did this travesty of justice occur? Why did it occur in Salem? Nothing about this tragedy was inevitable. Only an unfortunate combination of an ongoing frontier war, economic conditions, congregational strife, teenage boredom, and personal jealousies can account for the spiraling accusations, trials, and executions that occurred in the spring and summer of 1692".

In Northern Ghana, however, the alleged witches are also isolated and put in the witches' camps where their human rights and the rights of their children and grand children are being curtailed and abused. One would also want to know why these camps are limited to Northern Ghana where poverty is already endemic. Could it be harsh economic conditions? Why is that it is mainly the old age who are labelled and expelled and children sent along to serve them? Could it be that children and the aged are liabilities in the North? What is the legitimacy of these camps?

These are questions that need ready answers from the authorities concerned to serve as the beginning of liberation for these victims branded as witches and their innocent children. Among the known witch camps in the Northern Region are the Gambaga, Kukuo, Gnani, Gushiegu, Kpatinga and Naabuli witches camps. All located in isolated districts in the Northern Region. It is not the existence of the witches' camps that is worrisome but the unintended confinement of children who are sent along to serve the witches in the camps should be a matter of concern to all. Such children are often engaged in hazardous work to the detriment of their education.

In the Kukuo witches camp in the Nanumba North District for instance, some 840 children are serving the 430 alleged witches camped there. Out of the number, only a little over 100 are enrolled in schools while the rest are engaged on a farm to work and feed their parents/relatives in the camp. This definitely is a situation which deserves urgent attention. In the Gnani witches camp also, some 894 children are in a similar predicament just for the alleged wrongs of their parents or relatives there. Similar stories exist in the rest of the camps except the Gambaga camp where special attention is extended to the inmates and their children or grand children.

This 'special treatment' is because the Gambaga camp is preserved as a major tourist site. It is also because the Baptist Mission which runs the Nalerigu Hospital, has adopted the inmates' children and is giving them the best of education. The Gambaga camp has lesser inmates of 87 with only 27 children serving them. Out of the number, 20 children are in school, four are grown past school going age and only three are wandering about.

Ms Gladys Lariba Mahama, an Assembly woman in Gambaga and caretaker of the camp, told the GNA in an interview that the Baptist Medical Centre at Nalerigu on regular basis screens the inmates and their children and gives them the necessary medication. She said NGOs had also been offering support to the inmates. This is a gesture in a positive direction and must be replicated in the other camps while conscious efforts are made to abolish them.

A visit to the Kukuo camp revealed that although the regent of the area, Mahami Iddrisu, is willing to support in the education of the children their number is beyond his means. He told the GNA that victims brought to the community no more possessed the witchcraft, but that their children were traumatized and stigmatized even more than people living with HIV/AIDS. The children perform all household chores for their parents in the camp, which makes it almost impossible for them to attend full time school.

The children, some of whom are as young as six years, walk a distance of about five to six kilometers to fetch water or gather fire wood to cook for their parents, while others till the land to fend for themselves and the witches. It is common to spot such children in tattered clothing roasting yam for frail old women with no teeth who struggle to eat such roasted yam just to keep body and soul together.

Visitors are most often moved to tears when they listen to the pathetic tales of inmates and children, and one wonders whether the laws of Ghana that frown on discrimination on grounds of sex are operational. Mr Ibn Abbas, District Chief Executive (DCE) for Nanumba North, regretted the existence of the camps and said stringent measures had to be instituted to punish those who accuse and banish the victims or when need be, compel them to prove that the victims are really guilty.

As to when the Assembly would institute such measures, he said no definite time could be set but recommended immediate measures to liberate the children from the camps to give them the best of education while long term measures would be sought to abolish the camps. In the Salem Witches Trial mentioned above, as Linder put it, it took the intervention of John Putnam, one of the most influential elders of Salem Village to invite a man of God to preach in the village church and things had a dramatic turn in Salem. By early autumn

of 1692, Salem's lust for blood was fading.

Doubts were developing as to how so many respectable people could be guilty. The educated elite of the colony began efforts to end the witch-hunting hysteria that had enveloped Salem. One of the opinion leaders at the time had to institute what was known as "America's first tract on evidence," a measure that helped to stop the practice. With the introduction of proof of guilt by clear and convincing evidence, the practice was immediately stopped because of the lack of proof. In May 1693, all accused or convicted witches were released from Salem prisons.

The analogy in the Salem witches trials here means that if respectable persons in Ghana are accused of witchcraft the situation would improve. If there was a law in Ghana to ensure that accused persons were given the chance to prove their innocence the situation would reverse. If accusers could be compelled to show proof of guilt then there would be a permanent solution to the problem.

One basic characteristic that one can also identify with the witches camps is the inextricable link with the fate of children from the witches' families who are censored to stay with those witches perpetually to take care of them. The negative effects that impact on the children include rights abuse, denial of right to education, curtailment of their right to freedom, psychological trauma, engaging in hard labour and becoming subject to societal mockery and discrimination. This contradicts Children's Rights as enshrined in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana.

Article 28 (a) of the Constitution states: Every child has the right to the same measure of special care, assistance and maintenance as is necessary for its development from its natural parents. On education, article 25 (1) of the same Constitution states, persons shall have the right to equal educational opportunities and facilities with a view to achieving the full realization of that right to all forms of education. These children and the women had to undergo this trial by ordeal in the name of culture and tradition.

Article 26 (2) of the Constitution spells out clearly that, customary practices, which dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person, are prohibited, and it is strange that despite these constitutional provisions, nothing has been done over the years to reverse this trend.

The UN Convention on the rights of the child, which Ghana adopted and ratified in 1998 also set out parameters, which serve as a guiding principle to the interest and welfare of the child the world over. Article (2) of the Convention reads: 93States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures", while Article (24) (s.2C) also states 93 To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, inter alia, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution".

Educational facilities are lacking in the witches' camps. No provision of social amenities such as good drinking water, health facilities, poor environmental sanitation and no food supplement for their healthy growth. For these and many other reasons, children in the witches' camps of the North must be liberated. Ironically, District Assemblies, even though are mandated to provide infrastructure evenly in the Districts, such adequate facilities are conspicuously missing in some of the camps. A humble suggestion to the assemblies is that they should make it their primary duty to pay the full premium of the National Health Insurance for these witches and their wards to enable them to access quality healthcare.

Additionally, a health centre should be provided within the community to ensure that witches and their wards are taken care of. Society's prejudices and perceptions should, therefore, not be allowed to stand in the way of development. The cry and sigh of the children of the Northern witch camps constitute a stain on the conscience of all mankind. Those cries must stop now and measures found to reintegrate all children in the camps back in their families where they belong.

The continuous existence of the camps would continue to encourage child abuse, trafficking, child labour and child exploitation in the North and there is no better time to arrest the situation than now.