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Opinions of Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Columnist: Ossei, Nana Yaw

Trokosi -An Opportunity to abuse women ....

.... AND GIRLS IN THE NAME OF RELIGION AND CULTURE.

“The girl child is the woman of tomorrow. The skills, ideas, and energy of the girl child are vital for full attainment of the goals of equality, development, and peace. For the girl child to develop her full potential, she needs to be nurtured in an enabling environment, where her spiritual, intellectual, and material needs for survival, protection and development are met and equal rights safeguarded” (Beijing Conference, 1995, para.39).

This article will be in three parts. Part 1 will concentrate on the meaning of Trokosi and what the practice entails.. Secondly, I will look at the constitutionality of the practice of Trokosi as it pertains in Ghana today. References will be made from the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana. Part 2 of the article will examine Ghana’s obligation under International Law in ending the practice of Trokosi with references from various International Conventions and Treaties signed and ratified by Ghana. I will in this part of the article, also consider the Special Rapporteurs’ report which was commissioned by the United Nations to investigate violence against women in certain selected countries including Ghana. The recommendations made by the Committee on Rights of the Child after a lengthy meeting with the Ghanaian delegation which was headed by the then Deputy Attorney General will be critiqued. The final part of the article will look at alternative strategies for the elimination of the practice of Trokosi.

In some parts of Ghana today, women and girls are subjected to harmful traditional practices which degrade them and are an infringement of their fundamental human rights. For hundred of years in the Volta Region of Ghana, the Trokosi practice (Trokosi is a Ghanaian word meaning “slaves to the gods”) has been enslaving young virgin girls in ritualistic sexual and slavery bondage. In this practice, children sometimes as young as five years old, almost always females are given by their parents/families to village fetish priests as sexual/domestic slaves or “wives of the gods” to a life of servitude, physical and sexual abuse and deprivation, simply to pay for a crime committed by a family member. The aggrieved person determines what the crime or offence is and reports it to the shrine priest in order to punish the guilty party’s family with mysterious deaths and diseases. It is then that the family is forced to send an innocent young virgin girl to the shrine to stop or atone for the curses believed to be caused by the fetish gods.

These innocent young virgin girls who through no fault of their own are subjected to a life long sentence for offences which they were clearly not in any way responsible for. Once labelled a Trokosi, the girls are considered to belong to the gods. They are identified with the shrine so loose their kinship identity and are cut off from their families thus, rendering them in classification limbo. Their status are reduced to the categorization of been sub- human. Ghana’s Trokosi girls are literally groaning, crying, begging for mercy but who will hear their cries and rescue them from such vile abuse and practice?. Freedom cannot come too soon. But until this happens, girls are still continuing to be given into ritual servitude today. The girls go through a ritual where they are stripped naked of their clothing that represents their way of life and are given basic clothing items that signify their status as Trokosi. While enslaved, the young girls are forced to live in terrible conditions. Apart from working in the priests’ beds for free, the young girls work in the fields or in the local market. If a girl tries to run away or resists in anyway, she is usually beaten into submission.

In addition to being frequently raped, these girls have little to wear or eat. Although the Trokosi must provide food and clothing for themselves and their children, they are permitted to retain only a fraction of wages they earn outside the shrine. The bulk of the money goes to the priests who are always usually men. These girls are forced to work twelve hours a day in the hot sun and they are denied education, food, and basic medical care. Invariably, these girls are stigmatised and scarred for life. They are used as forced labour, for ritual worship, including, sexual rituals. Any children born to the Trokosi girls usually fathered through rape by the fetish priest will remain her responsibility and not the responsibility of the fetish priest. The irresponsibility of some Ghanaian men is legendry indeed. After a long period of time, a woman’s family is free to redeem her but, priests usually demand a high price in cash, livestock, other ritual items and last but not the least drinks.

In the event that the fetish priest dies, the woman or girl becomes the bona fide property of his successor. But if the girl dies without the family redeeming her, they are obligated to replace her with another innocent young virgin girl and thus, the cycle continues for generations. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence on women who was in Ghana last year stated that, empirical data as to how many girls were in Trokosi bondage were non-existent but, the practice was a cause for concern. The custom and practice of Trokosi was deeply engrained in the areas where it was practised, making it difficult to uproot.

The 1992 Constitution of Ghana is based on the essence of human rights. The nature of the rights protected under Article 12(2) ensures that, fundamental human rights and freedoms are guaranteed both vertically and horizontally which means that, such rights are enforceable against the State, individuals and private institutions. The Trokosi system completely contravenes a number of provisions in the 1992 Constitution. The systematic incarceration and abuse of girls occurs in Ghana despite the country’s strong stance on the rights of children. The Constitution is explicit on individual rights, personal liberty, and privileges, yet, successive governments in the fifty-one years of independence as a nation have not had the courage to abolish this practice. The servile status of Trokosi as per the duties they perform in the shrine attracts no payments. The fetish priests are also under no obligation to keep them in a proper state of mind or health.

The Constitution under Article 16 incorporates the international concept of slavery into Ghana’s domestic laws which provides that, “no person shall be held in slavery or servitude or be required to perform slave labour”. Yet, Trokosi thrives and more girls are sent into the shrines daily. In spite of these provisions, these girls are forced to work on farms of the priests from dawn to dusk. They are also required to feed themselves from whatever form of work they undertake and they undergo a lot of psychological hardship. Although the right to work is also recognised as a human right, complete submission to the fetish priest involves sharing proceeds of earnings from any work undertaken outside the shrines. Because the girls and women are held against their will and cannot leave the shrine until they are rescued, such an abuse contravenes Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees every person the right to personal liberty. The living conditions and treatment of those who suffer under such a vile practice contravenes Article 15 of the Constitution which makes the dignity of all persons inviolable.

The practice of Trokosi breaches Article 26(2) of the Constitution which declares that, “all customary practices which dehumanise or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person are prohibited”. If we mean to include religious exercises in this category of customary or cultural practices, then Art.26(2) would seem to cover practices such as Trokosi. The massive public outcry some years ago against this practice jolted Parliament into action, leading to the enactment of the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 1998, Act 554 which criminalized all customary practices of servitude and ritual enslavement such as Trokosi. Unfortunately, this legislation has not achieved any desired impact on the minds of shrine owners whose abuse of young innocent virgin girls continues unabated. How sad and don’t we as a nation have a responsibility towards these innocent girls I ask?

The Amendment adds Section 314(a) which provides that, “whoever sends to or receive at any place any person; or participates in or is concerned in any ritual or customary activity in respect of any person with the purpose of subjecting that person to any form of ritual or customary servitude or any form of forced labour related to customary ritual commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than three years”. To date, the State has failed woefully in enforcing this legislation and no arrests have been made. How sad I ask? The girls have the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to their health, education or development as per Art. 28 of the Constitution. Their lives are one of neglect, cruelty and exploitation which are all stated to have negative effects on their physical, mental and moral development.

Education for an individual ensures the free choice of means to achieve progress in one’s life and it is stated to be a human right. Article 25(1) of the Constitution recognises this right and also makes education compulsory. The Education Act of 1961 (Act 87) provides for compulsory education in Ghana. Under section 2(2) of the said act, any parent who fails to comply, commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine. In spite of this legislation, children in the shrine are deprived of the opportunity to pursue their education and the lack of educational rights for the children are an infringement of their human rights.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW) defines violence against women to include: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. To the victims of this practice, the practical realisation of the principle of equality with men, as per Article 17(2) of the Constitution are yet to be attained.

What happened to the recommendations made by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur and the Committee on Rights of the Child in eradicating the practice of Trokosi? Have these recommendations been implemented by Ghana and if not why? Are we as a Nation really serious in ending Trokosi? Is Ghana in breach of its obligation under International Law as per the Treaties and Conventions it has signed and ratified? Part 2 of my article will attempt to answer these questions.

NANA YAW OSSEI LONDON, UK.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.