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Opinions of Sunday, 1 March 2015

Columnist: Ameyibor, Francis

Emancipation gymnastics of a dying Cock

(Feature by Francis Ameyibor, Development Communicator)

Accra, Feb. 28, Can you imagine a condition where your liberation from a wrongful incarceration depended on the dance of a dying cock? Or appearing before a Judge who believes in "guilty until proven innocent," which flips the legal declaration "innocent until proven guilty?

That has been the fate of women in some parts of the northern sector of Ghana who are accused of being a witch. In matters of spirituality the traditional adjudication system overrides the state courts. Once a woman is accused of practicing witchcraft, the person is assumed guilty until rituals are performed to prove otherwise.

The international community and some locals were shocked with the news about the liberation of 50 women from the Bonyase Witch Camp last December.

The news generated both national and international interest, which was spiced up by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection holding a National dialogue on witchcraft in November last year.

The "Witches" dialogue created a platform for structured and informed discussions on the customs surrounding witchcraft accusations, the gender perspective, and also drew attention to the fact that the problem disproportionately affects women.

So on December 15, 2014, both local and international media trooped to the remote village of Bonyase in the Northern Region to witness for the first time in the history of the world, the closing down of a witch camp.

The liberation process involves the performance of rituals which climax was the "the dance of a dying cock," or better put the wrestle contest between the gods and the "witches".

On the finale day for the liberation, the fate of the accused witches depended on the cock. During the process the traditional priest offered drinks to the gods and sought their final permission to liberate the witches.

A cock is then offered to the gods – the traditional priest chant out and spiritually transformed the cock whilst slashing its throat slightly dropping blood to the gods.

The cock is then let loosed to wrestle with the spirit of the witches. The cock flaps its wings, jumped up and down, turn over and over again and final lands on its back with the legs up. "The battle is over, the witches have won, the gods have accepted the rituals and have therefore granted permission for their liberation".

A total of six alleged witch camps are located in five Districts in the Northern Region: Kukuo, Gnani-Tindang, Gambaga, Bonyase, Tindan-zhie (Kpatinga) and Nabuli in Nanumba South, Yendi, East Mamprusi, Central Gonja and Gushegu Districts respectively.

The Apinto Hene of Wassa Fiase Traditional area in the Wassa West district Nana Kwabina Angu II has commended the Gender Ministry and other stakeholders for their quest to deal with the witches' camp.

He therefore called on traditional rulers from the northern regions to join forces with both governmental and non-governmental organisations to deal with the problem.

Nana Angu said traditional rulers in the southern sector are ready to share with their counterparts how to deal with the witchcraft issues; stressing "allegations of witches is not limited to the northern sector alone, in the southern sector too it abounds but issues is how to deal with it.

"Isolation and creating camps will not solve the problem ....it is a spiritual and social problem".

The Gender Minister, Nana Oye Lithur who was the lead advocate for the liberation described the event as a major feat in women's rights saying it served as a significant milestone, in the quest for gender equality.

According to a GNA report barely two months after the closed down of the Bonyasi witches' camp some of the alleged witches are relocating to neigbouring camps for safety, says Anti-Witchcraft Allegation Campaign Coalition-Ghana.

Mr Kenneth Addae, the Coodinator of Anti-Witchcraft Allegation Campaign Coalition-Ghana said only a few days after government declared the camp closed, two of the "outcast women" run away to another home.

"It is sad and disappointing to note that, only three days after the ceremony to officially close the Bonyase home, two out of the five outcast women had to immediately relocate to the Gnani home, near Yendi.

"The alleged witches face discrimination, there are no police in some of the communities they live, they fear for their lives, their security cannot be guaranteed and they had to run for safety and protection," Mr Addae said. "We propose a peaceful re-integration process devoid of any publicity or media campaign – as it was done recently by parading victims to the cameras and showcased to the public or entire world thereby, exposing their vulnerability," Addae said.

The coalition is asking that the process of camp closure and reintegration be carried out through long term planning alongside various innovative interventions, looking at seven to 15 years, with more focus on intensive public education.

Another NGO, the Southern Sector Youth and Women's Empowerment Network (SOSYWEM) has suggested that 'witches' camps must not be disbanded until sensitisation efforts have proved successful and the accusation and violence against the women have stopped.

"If this is not done, the same violence will be carried out in secrecy and violence against older and vulnerable women will increase," Ms Zenabu Lomoteley Sakibu, Project Coordinator for SOSYWEM, has said.

She said disbanding the camps before sensitisation efforts have proved unsuccessful and would make the women homeless without even a place to seek some protection.

She said the organization believed that such early disbandment of the camps was the wrong response to the problem.

She said their research had showed the lack of understanding of how deeply engrained the beliefs in witchcraft are in these communities and how difficult it is to encourage the people to accept accused 'witches' back home.

Ms Sakibu said her outfit had worked extensively with the women in the camps for many years and has found that most of the women were very fearful of returning to their communities explaining that, knowing that they would be violently abused, beaten or even killed, they preferred to live in relative security of the camp.

She also recounted that experience had shown that even in the rare case that an accused woman was accepted back home, it could take about 5-10 years of sensitisation efforts before the community would agree to re-integration.

Ms Sakibu urged the Government to strengthen the capacity of the Police Service and the Judiciary to deal with these violations of women's rights swiftly and to effectively deter others from accusing and violently abusing more women.

Government however through the Gender Ministry has instituted measures to ensured that inmates of the witch camps receive social protection through the LEAP cash transfer programme; government is also finalising registration of all inmates on the National Health Insurance Scheme.

Government has also adopted a Roadmap prepared by Action Aid, Songtaba and the Anti-Witchcraft Allegations Campaign Coalition.

Government has affirmed its commitment to work through the Gender Ministry and Ministry of Chieftaincy and Traditional Affairs, Northern Regional Minister, the Northern Regional House of Chiefs, Action Aid and all civil society groups to support the process of addressing the issue of witchcraft accusations and witch camps.

Ms Catherine Bob-Milliar, a Director, Department of Gender, Gender Ministry said Ghana had progressively adopted measures to eliminate discrimination against women.

She identified some legislative interventions as the amendment of the Intestate Succession Law and the introduction of a Property Rights of Spouses Bill, which are intended to combat negative cultural practices that subjugate women's rights to inheritance as a result of customary practices.

Other measures include awareness-raising programmes on the camps and their harmful effects on women by the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE).

Others are the development of a roadmap for eliminating the camps by the ActionAid-Ghana and the "Go Home Project," of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana.