Ghana’s Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur, has announced plans to shut down another witch camp in the northern part of the country. This time, the government wants to close down the ‘camp’ in Gushiegu on the grounds that the practice of witchcraft accusation is a form of human rights abuse.
Early this year, the witch camp in Bonyase was disbanded in an attempt by the government to erase what it considered as a stain on its human rights records. Obviously, this is a step in the wrong direction and would endanger the lives of victims of the accusation and further complicate efforts to tackle this cultural scourge.
Therefore, it is pertinent to let the government of Ghana know that witch camps are not the problem, but the accusations of witchcraft are the main challenges.
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The pervasive belief in Ghana that people can harm others through witchcraft is the elephant in the room that has to be called out, not the safe places which alleged witches flee to. The government of Ghana needs to retrace its steps and focus its energy and resources on addressing the phenomenon of witchcraft allegation.
Witch camps are the consequences, not the cause of the problem. They are symptoms, not the disease. The Government of Ghana is correct in saying that witchcraft accusation leads to various human rights abuses. Now, how is shutting down the witch camp the solution to these abuses?
Most people living in these shelters did not just take up residency there without any reason. People in these camps are accused persons, who were convicted at shrines or banished by families and would have been killed if they had stayed back in their communities and not taken refuge at these shelters.
So why shut them down? Why disband these sanctuaries? Why destroy the safety nets when death and danger still loom for alleged witches in Ghana? How does shutting down witch camps erase the stain of witchcraft accusation?
There is no doubt that media reports in recent years that highlighted the deplorable conditions in these shelters have prompted the move by the government of Ghana to close down these shelters.
At the same time, state officials must think carefully and ensure that they are addressing the disease, not the symptoms. Those reports should actually get the authorities in Ghana to take measures to improve the living conditions in the witch sanctuaries instead of disbanding them.
Or is the government just interested in getting rid of the ‘witch camp’ for its own sake, even if the process puts the lives of the alleged witches at risk?
Review past actions
Before the government of Ghana goes ahead with the closure of the witch camp in Gushiegu, it should take a critical look at the outcome of the closure of the sanctuary in Bonyase.
Shortly after this sanctuary was shut down, a local non-governmental organisation, the Anti-Witchcraft Allegation Campaign Coalition (AWACC), wrote a letter to the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection to draw her attention to their position on this issue. It states:
“We do agree and support the idea to close these homes. However, we propose that the process be carried out through a long-term planning alongside various innovative interventions (looking at seven to 15 year’s period), with more focus on intensive public education, undertaking gradual processes, multi-partnership and consultations at all levels to avoid duplication of efforts, bearing in mind the interest of the victims, their families and communities into which these women will be re-integrated to eliminate backlash.”
‘Closure is wrong’
The group makes it clear that closing the witch camp has little or no bearing on the challenges on the ground: “The coalition has issues of sustainability and believes that the immediate closure of these camps does not resolve issues of accusations and banishment in our communities.
These issues include poor health plans by communities that hamper the prevention of diseases, particularly among children, and the health effects of climate change such as malnutrition due to poor harvests and outbreak of cholera and CSM. As long as these remain the incidence of accusations, it could have serious consequences for a long time. The existence of “witches” homes is not the real cause of witchcraft accusation and banishment.
These homes actually serve as refuge points or safe haven for victims – as most of them will prefer to live there for life (though conditions at these homes are not the best) and need to be improved upon. We ought to rather concentrate on addressing the issue from the supply source i.e. at the community level, to automatically reduce the number of cases being reported to the homes towards ensuring their natural closures.”
Risk of surviving
The group is concerned about how the women would survive when they return home: “We are worried that the outcast women who were recently sent back to their communities and homes still lack any vocational or employable skills to become economic and self-dependent, which will still make them become social liabilities or more vulnerable to witchcraft accusation and banishment.
We think that the right environment has not yet been prepared for communities to accept the change because there is the need for an intensive attitudinal and behavioural change in these communities before the mass reintegration process.
Currently, there is inadequate public awareness and sensitisation on the ground. If communities are properly educated, there shall be less reported cases admitted into these homes, thereby giving way for effective re-integration.”
Risk of attacks
AWACC makes it clear that alleged witches in these camps are at risk when they are forced to return to their communities:
“More importantly, communities where these victims hail from are located in very deprived rural areas without access to police and other law enforcement agencies. Therefore, we cannot guarantee continued security and protection for these women in their various communities and homes. We, therefore, foresee the possibility of these women being poisoned to death, if family members can no longer contain them.”
Outcome of past actions
The group highlights a disturbing outcome of the closure of the sanctuary in Bonyase:
“It is sad and disappointing to note that only three days after the ceremony held in Tamale (Monday, December 15, 2014) to officially close the Bonyase home, two out of the five outcast women (namely Napari Abdulai and Adisah Iddrisu from Jakpahi and Mankpan respectively) had to immediately relocate to the Gnani home, near Yendi. This is a justification of our claim that this hurriedly proposed closure cannot be sustained,” the group said.
The Government of Ghana should give serious consideration to these concerns and focus on ‘shutting down’ witchcraft accusation, not the witch camps.