Protecting Women’s Rights: Why Ghana needs a law to proscribe witchcraft accusation
All over the world, women and girls suffer discrimination and violations of their human rights at every stage of their lives. Gender-based violence (GBV) or violence against women and girls (VAWG) has been described by many as a global pandemic that affects one in every three women during their lifetime.
Violence against women is deeply rooted in patriarchy and an imbalance of power which often puts women at a disadvantage, making them vulnerable. The violence and discrimination suffered by women is a key barrier to the realisation of their rights, and to the achievement of social justice. Of all the human rights abuses recorded globally, violence against women such as domestic abuse, trafficking, rape, or harmful cultural practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, witchcraft accusation and many others are the most widespread. Although anyone can be a victim of sexual and gender-based violence, the victims are predominantly women and girls.
According to a World Bank statistic, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. The statistics also shows that globally, seven (7) percent of women have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner, while 38 percent of murders committed against women are perpetrated by an intimate partner.
In Ghana, the statistics available at the Accra Regional Office of the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU), as of August 2020, indicates that 31.9% of Ghanaian women have faced at least one form of domestic violence - physical, economic, psychological, social or sexual.
In a report titled “Falling through the cracks”, ActionAid observed that 71.5% of women who have experienced violence in their lifetime are yet to access justice for the crimes perpetrated against them.
These staggering numbers usually send some shocks through the spine of every woman. The thoughts of how safe you are, what level of protection is available and access to justice constantly runs through one’s mind.
16Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence
Since 1991, feminists and women’s rights organisations have run campaigns during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based violence to amplify their voices in the call for the elimination of gender-based violence. It is run annually from November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) to December 10 (International Human Rights Day).
The 2022 campaign centers on Ending Femicide by spotlighting women groups who are more vulnerable in our society. I firmly believe that there isn’t a more appropriate time to run a campaign on ending femicide than this. As many advocates focus their campaign on other dimensions of gender-based violence, I would like to draw the attention of the world to the biggest human rights abuses in the country that are inflicted on women and girls, particularly in the Northern Regions.
Witchcraft Accusations in Ghana
In Ghana, as in many other African countries, belief in witchcraft is widespread and entrenched. Witches and wizards are believed to possess inherent, supernatural powers that are used to create evil or misfortune. Sicknesses, the inability to have children, accidents, the loss or destruction of property, droughts, floods and fires are among the misfortunes blamed on witches.
The 1992 constitution of the Republic of Ghana provides that every person in Ghana, whatever her/his race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender shall be entitled to the fundamental human rights and freedom of the individual. And yet, despite the constitution’s clearly stated position on the dignity of all persons; despite the protection it grants all persons in Ghana, hundreds of women in northern Ghana accused of witchcraft by relatives or members of their community are living in ‘witch camps’ after fleeing or being banished from their homes. The camps, which are home to around 800 women and 500 children, offer poor living conditions and little hope of a normal life.
The women have fled discrimination, threats or even mob justice after being accused of witchcraft and blamed for ‘crimes’ such as causing sickness, droughts or fires, cursing a neighbour or even just appearing in someone’s dream. Those who successfully make it to the alleged witch camps are the lucky ones.
Many women have been murdered or maimed after accusations of witchcraft. In 2010, the case of a 72-year-old woman who was set on fire and killed made headlines around the world. Interestingly, the purported cultural practice, which is violating the rights of women with impunity led to the death of the 89-year-old Akua Denteh who was cruelly lynched in 2020 in Kafaba in the Northern region.
To paint a vivid picture of these scenes, permit me to share a narrative by Asana. Asana was accused of being a witch by her ex-husband, who beat her severely and poured melted plastic over her while she was pregnant. He accused her of being a witch after getting ill and dreaming that Asana was trying to kill him. She fled to her mother’s house, but he followed her, beating not only Asana but also her elderly mother and younger brothers. Her new husband said he couldn’t protect her, so he took her to the Gambaga Witches camp to keep her ‘safe’.
She narrates her ordeal, “When I first came here my whole body was in pain because he first hit me and then they tried to burn me with melted plastic. My ex-husband knew I was pregnant. One day, when I was five months pregnant, while I was in the fields with other women he came after me and he beat me with no mercy. While I was on the ground, he took out a knife. The other women were begging him to stop. After he beat me hard, he stopped. He did not kill me in the end. I was taken to a shrine. There, he melted plastic and poured it on my body. When I came here my whole body was in excruciating pain.”
A critical analysis of witch hunting and witchcraft accusations reveal that the women accused are those who do not fulfil expected gender stereotypes, for example if they are widows, unmarried or cannot have children, these group of women are vulnerable to being branded as witches.
Since these condemnable incidents, many other women have faced and continue to face various levels of abuse in silence. Unfortunately, we have all stayed silent to these wanton and shameless atrocities that are being carried out against these women who are already vulnerable and living in poverty. These incidents are truly unacceptable and constitute a damning blot on our credentials as a country that is governed by rule of law!
Proscribing Witchcraft Accusation through the law
Harmful social norms are difficult to deal with mostly because of the people leading it and the purported traditional tag associated with it. Witchcraft accusation cannot be described as a tradition. It is a cruel manifestation of gender inequality and violence against women in Ghana.
Article 26 (2) of the 1992 constitution states that “all customary practices, which dehumanise or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person, are prohibited.” The constitution is further supported by international laws and conventions such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Ghana is a signatory.
Institutions such as the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) and the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) all operate at the local level to protect human rights, but many of these institutions have difficulty in fulfilling their responsibilities because of a lack of technical expertise, capacity and logistical support. Few people, particularly in rural areas, are aware that they can seek help from these institutions when they, or their relatives, experience violence or abuse after being accused of witchcraft.
Although there are legal provisions that deals with assault, murder and many more, witchcraft accusation seem to be an economically viable avenue for some group of people. It is believed that enacting a specific law to proscribing witchcraft accusation is seen as the best alternative to curb the cruelty being perpetuated against women.
Acknowledging the tireless work currently being done by some members of parliament, we believe these processes should be fast tracked as each day of delayed justice is a denial of justice for these vulnerable women and girls.
We owe these women and girls a life of dignity, where they age in peace and not in pieces. We should therefore muster the political will to curb this menace conclusively! We can’t continue to turn a blind eye and engage in talk-shops without taking bold action! This cruelty must stop! Old age is not a crime and witchcraft accusations with their attendant brutalities against women cannot be excused on the pedestal of tradition!
By: Esther Ohenewaa Brown,