In Africa, many of our communities’ beliefs, customs, norms and cultural practices affect community members in a variety of ways. One of such cultural practices is witchcraft accusations. Witchcraft affects men and women differently in the social sphere.
Mental health issues, not easily understood in the traditional context, plays a big role in witchcraft accusations, and increasingly, but sadly, it is often women who stand accused and abused.
Witchcraft can be conceived as the use of supernatural powers to cause harm to others. Some scholars suggest that witchcraft is usually seen as an attempt to explain misfortune and the unexpected as seen in disasters, drought, famine and death.
Evidence suggests that it is the unmarried women, the widowed, old ladies, economically unstable and those women particularly without social support, as well as successful women who want to assert themselves that are usually accused of witchcraft.
There is a gender dimension of witchcraft in Ghana, as majority of those in the known witch camps are women. Most accusations of witchcraft done publicly are usually against women.
The banished witches go to live in witch-camps that act as a safe haven for them under unfamiliar and difficult conditions, and sometimes they go along with their female children or female children related to them in order to help them in their daily chores.
Science and psychologists agree that some of these accusations of witchcraft can be out of depression fuelled by menopause and other psychological/mental disorders.
Thus, witchcraft accusations also stem from a lack of recognition or treatment for mental health issues. Women who suffer from clinical depression, schizophrenia or dementia often stand accused as witches due to their tendency to behave “abnormally”.
The Constitution of Ghana places equal rights on all persons irrespective of creed, gender and ethnicity, and has a dedicated chapter on fundamental human rights such as the right to life, dignity and freedom from torture.
Article 26 (2) and Article 39 (2) provide that cultural practices that are inconsistent with the Constitution are prohibited and abolished. Besides, there are legally mandated bodies at the local level to ensure the protection of human rights in Ghana. Some of these bodies are; the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) and the Department of Social Welfare (DSW).
In Ghana, witchcraft accusations often come with severe beatings, stoning, lynching and banishment from the community. This is so dehumanising, not even to contemplate the spiral effect of such accusations on children and relatives of the accused. This kind of violence on women is illegal and unwarranted.
To address this issue, the state has to put in measures to increase the range of economic opportunities for all Ghanaians, as poverty is one of the ways through which witchcraft victimises people.
Also, education and literacy are major tools to use to confront this challenge, as many of these issues on witchcraft are usually rural based, where educational attainment and achievement, as well as literacy rates are often very low. Civil society groups should continue their advocacy and reintegration initiatives on the issue.
Furthermore, there must be a real desire by all to allow the law to work against people who abuse others in the name of witchcraft. The state and its agencies such as the Mental Health Authority and the Ministry of Health have to give meaning to the Mental Health Act by providing access to quality and affordable mental health care.
Finally, the legally mandated bodies charged with addressing issues on human rights such as CHRAJ, DOVVSU and DSW must be given the logistical and technical support to enforce their respective mandates.
Specifically, CHRAJ, which has the mandate to carry out special investigations into human rights abuses that are systemic and cultural and also has a public education function, needs to be supported by government and other stakeholders such as Civil Society Organisations and development partners so as to be able to perform these functions effectively and efficiently as a response to this canker of witchcraft accusations and its concomitant effects that, in this age and century, has no place in Ghanaian society.