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.
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.
HSC’s short-term goal is to improve the standard of living in the witch camps of northern Ghana. 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.
In collaboration with local partner organizations, HSC volunteers work to:
Partnering with local organizations
HSC was first based in Bimbilla and is now based in Yendi. HSC is partnering with 2 women’s rights organizations in the northern Ghana region, the Bangu-Manga 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.
Songtaba is a coalition of fifteen grassroots women's rights organizations working to restore dignity to women who have been accused of witchcraft and banished to 'witch-camps' in the Northern Region of Ghana. Songtaba's mission is to end the local, entrenched custom of accusing women of witchcraft and forcibly exiling them into lives of extreme poverty, isolation and desperation.
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. However, it is possible that it will not be the 2016-2017 team that continues that work. 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 in 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 will begin to look at what work can be done in the Gnani sanctuary for alleged witches while building the necessary relationships to offer livelihood, business, and health trainings that decrease witchcraft accusations in the surrounding communities.
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.
While in the field, HSC volunteers support BIRDS' and Songtaba's operations and work with the locals to design and implement yearlong healthcare, clean water, shelter, and education projects.
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. Songtaba works to facilitate the participation of women and girls in decision making by empowering and encouraging them to take up leadership positions in their communities, schools and local assemblies. Songtaba also works to hold those currently in power to be accountable and transparent in their decision making.
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.
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 90% of Ghanaians believe in witchcraft, it is only in the Northern Region that witch-hunting occurs. Thus, the culprit is not superstition but income disparity and inequitable access to healthcare, education, and other resources. Northern Ghana is one of the poorest regions of the country and suffers from low education and poor literacy. According to the UN, 75% of adults in northern Ghana are illiterate compared to 43% nationally.
Alhough 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. In collaboration with Songtaba, HSC volunteers work to improve conditions in the witch-camps, empower women to become effective advocates for an end to gender-based violence inside and outside the witch-camps, and provide greater access to healthcare and education in the surrounding communities so that witchcraft is no longer used as an explanation for tragedy.