HSC is currently deployed in northern Ghana and working to end the local, entrenched custom of accusing women of witchcraft and forcibly exiling them into lives of extreme poverty, isolation, and desperation.
While 90% of Ghanaians believe in witchcraft, witch-hunting primarily occurs only in Ghana’s highly impoverished Northern Region. Ghana is generally well-developed, but the drought-prone Northern Region has poverty and illiteracy rates above 75%, 2 to 3 times the national average.
These and other factors create an environment in which human rights abuses are common. Elderly women are often blamed for misfortunes in their families and communities, accused of witchcraft, and lynched. To escape violence and death, they must leave behind their homes, families, and possessions to seek refuge in one of the camps for victims of witchcraft accusations.
Although the women are relatively safe from violence once they are in exile, the living conditions are deplorable. They do not have access to basic education and healthcare, and they are unaware of or are unable to exercise legal protections under Ghanaian and international laws. Women usually remain in camp for rest of their lives.
HSC partners with two local organizations working toward:
The short-term goal is to improve the standard of living in the witch camps. The long-term goal is to eliminate the dynamics which lead to death or forcible and violent exile of women from their communities to the witch camps.
Accusations of witchcraft are used to ensure gender inequality and promote violence against women. In an environment with little education, economic opportunities and resources, mere accusations of witchcraft are an effective method for ostracizing non-conforming, powerless women and denying them access to community resources.
Widows, childless or unmarried women, or women who do not fulfill expected gender roles are vulnerable to being branded as witches. Accused women typically do not have a male figure such as a father, husband, or a brother to protect them.
While in the field, HSC volunteers work with HSC’s partner organizations and with locals to design and implement yearlong healthcare, clean water, shelter, and education projects.
HSC models the participation of women and girls in decision making by having women team leaders.
Witch camps offer relative safety for women fleeing physical abuse and mob justice, but living conditions are difficult. There are no regular services provided by the government or its agencies and there are few basic health or education facilities. Even if these services are available, in many cases women cannot afford them. Some elderly women have lived in the camps for as long as 40 years, abandoned by their families and trapped in the camps until they die.
Women accused of witchcraft are forcibly banished from their homes, often the only homes they have known in their adult life; these women have few economic resources. They flee with what they can carry and, in many cases, young women (usually granddaughters) are banished with them to be their caretakers. These young women also have no resources and must try to find ways to make money to take care of the elderly women they accompany. They too have limited access to food, shelter and education. Most do not attend school because school facilities are limited and remote from the camps. They also suffer stigmatization and discrimination by their peers and sometimes their teachers. Most of their time is spent doing household chores and, when they are older, some take low wage jobs selling wood or carrying loads in order to support their grandmothers.
Political decision making and power
The victims of witch hunting do not have a voice or representation in deciding matters that affect their lives. They are not allowed to attend village meetings (or prefer not to because of discrimination) and have little or no access to justice. Additionally, the presence of caretakers means that another generation of Ghanaian women are excluded from access to education and opportunities to improve their living conditions.
HSC was first based in Bimbilla and is now based in Yendi. HSC is partnering with two women’s rights organizations in the northern Ghana region, the Bang-Gumanga Integrated Rural Development Society (BIRDS), and Songtaba. Currently HSC is working with the Gnani sanctuary for alleged witches.
BIRDS believes that the best strategies for building peace and protecting human rights are to increase access to education, jobs, and healthcare. The organization has worked in the Gnani witch camp in the past.
Songtaba is a coalition of grassroots women's rights organizations whose mission is to work with human rights organizations and individuals to advocate for gender equality in the region.
Until February 2017, HSC was based in Bimbila and working with Songtaba in the Kukuo sanctuary for alleged witches. However, violence in Bimbila from a chieftaincy dispute meant that the HSC team was no longer safe in Bimbila. As result of this violence, the HSC team has moved to Yendi.
This move does not end HSC's partnership with Songtaba, nor does it mean that the Humanist Service Corps will never work in Bimbila again. At whatever point in time it is safe to return to Bimbila, HSC will resume its reintegration and capacity-building work there. The Humanist Service Corps cannot ensure volunteer safety or effectiveness in Bimbila at this point in time.
HSC is working with BIRDS and the Gnani sanctuary to replicate the capacity-building and reintegration efforts it has undertaken in the past with Songtaba and the Kukuo sanctuary for alleged witches.
HSC's work with BIRDS will draw upon the lessons HSC learned in its first two years of deployment when based in Bimbilla and partnered with Songtaba. Volunteers are learning how best to help those in the Gnani sanctuary for alleged witches. They are building the necessary relationships needed to offer livelihood, business, and health training with a goal of decreasing witchcraft accusations in the surrounding communities.
BIRDS envisions Ghanaian communities free from extreme poverty, injustice, social exclusion and other threats, where all individuals have equal access to resources, influence and opportunities, and live dignified lives.
BIRDS’ mission is to work with poor and marginalized people and in collaboration with other partners to enhance the socioeconomic status and development of vulnerable people in its operational areas, and when possible in other areas.
The eastern corridor of Northern Ghana is a difficult area, due to:
Perennial violent clashes between supporters of opposing factions retard the socio-economic development of the area. Large sections of the people in the project area have therefore become vulnerable and lack both income and assets. They typically suffer from interrelated, chronic deprivations, including hunger and malnutrition, poor health, limited education and marginalization or exclusion. Women and girls in particular face distinct challenges. They are vulnerable to falling further into extreme poverty, lacking the resilience to cope with economic setbacks, natural disasters or illnesses.
BIRDS was formed formed in 1998 to work with these poor people to reduce the poverty levels on the platform of sustainable peace.
Songtaba provides leadership training through community organizing using “Reflect Groups” in each of the witch camps. The Reflect Groups are small groups of residents who meet on a regular basis to discuss needs, receive training, plan and participate in advocacy efforts. The goal of these groups is to empower women and build a support network, so that they can advocate for themselves to end the practice of witch accusations, close the witch camps and allow every woman victimized by this dynamic to be reintegrated into the community of her choice.
Successful reintegration requires that much of the work is done in the communities where accusations occur. HSC volunteers work with Songtaba and other local partners to design and implement programs that improve access to healthcare, education, and legal resources in these communities.
Although Ghana overall has achieved success in reducing poverty and increasing literacy, the drought-prone North offers far fewer economic opportunities and experiences poverty rates at 2 to 3 times the national average. Statistics collected by Action Aid suggest that rates of expulsion for alleged witches may double during malaria season in the Northern Region. No such spike in accusations occurs in the other regions, where the role of mosquitoes in transmitting malaria is better-understood and where hospitals are more accessible and trusted.
The promising work of Ghanaian women's rights organizations like Songtaba is not yet adequately recognized by support from international aid foundations. Many foundations focus on specific countries or even specific regions within countries; Northern Ghana represents a gap in this coverage that the Humanist Service Corps and its financial sponsors are helping fill.