Cry of elderly women: Save us from these witch hunts

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Witches Cry
Witches Cry

One cold morning in 2016 as Aunty Afua was getting ready to go to her farm to plant maize and harvest cassava, she was startled by loud noises. She thought it was the wailing of relatives and well-wishers coming to condole with her after the death of her younger brother. As she stepped out of her hut to greet the mourners, a group of about 20 young men pounced on her.

Led by some of her nephews, the youth claimed they had consulted a traditional priest on the cause of her 67-year-old brother’s death, and he had named her as the culprit. They accused her of using witchcraft to kill her brother, beat her, stripped her, set her house on fire and left her by the roadside, while the community watched from a distance.
A good samaritan rescued her, helped her to make a Police report and looked for a shelter for her to recover in. Later, local politicians biult a house for her and talked to the community to reintegrate her.

Aunty Afua, who is now 80 years old, is partially blind as a result of eye injuries sustained during the attack. Her only “crime” was that she was old and poor, which fits the superstitious description of a witch.

“How could I kill my own brother, the lifeline of the family and the person who paid my medical bills and provided for all my needs? Why would I kill a person who took care of me just like he would his mother?” she posed.
Despite filing a complaint with the Police, no one has been arrested to date. Police told Aunty Afua the culprits fled the village and community members did not cooperate to facilitate their arrest.

In another instance, Mercy Dede, an 89-year-old grandmother at Akokoa, was abandoned by her family after her grandchildren accused her of being a witch. They said she was the reason they couldn’t find marriage partners or have children.

“I sacrificed everything to raise my grandchildren after their mother’s death, but they abandoned me and accused me of being a witch just because I am poor and old,” she said.

In 2020, there was a national uproar after Madam Akua Denteh, a 90-year-old woman was accused of being a witch and beaten to death at Kafaba, a farming community in northern Ghana. Seven suspects were arrested. The case is still in court.

These three aged women are among hundreds of women accused of witchcraft and suffering gender-based violence on account of being poor, elderly and vulnerable. According to an Action Aid report titled Condemned Without Trial, the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft are elderly women, and many live in one of five remaining “witch camps” in northern Ghana, where they seek refuge after fleeing or being banished from their homes. The camps are in Gambaga, Kukuo, Gnani, Gushegu and Kpatinga.

Widows, unmarried women, and women who cannot have children are vulnerable to being branded witches because they do not fit the expected gender roles. Although there are some men in the camps, elderly women are more vulnerable because they are economically disadvantaged and are not able to resist physical violence. Moreover, the most affected – widows and unmarried women – usually have weak social protection systems.

Madam Laminatu Adams, the Executive Director of Songtaba, a non-profit coalition that advances the rights of women and girls, told GNA that men have a strong socio-political base and can contest the accusations levelled against them.

“A man can withstand the processes involved in working to reverse accusations, but a woman cannot,” she said.
“Merely seeing an old person in a dream is seen as a confirmation of witchcraft especially if she happens to be poor or widowed. The woman is then tortured and humiliated,” she said, adding that in some cases, allegations of witchraft are instigated by the women’s husbands.

A May 2021 survey by The Sanneh Institute, which is part of the Coalition Against Witchcraft Accusations in Ghana, found 498 women and 41 men in the remaining five camps. Two of the camps — Gushegu and Kpatinga – are women-only camps, which had 99 and 27 women respectively, at the time of the survey. Gnani, the largest, had 191 survivors (158 women and 38 men); Kukuo had 139 survivors (137 women and two men) and Gambaga had 78 survivors (77 women and one man) at the time of the count.

While the majority of those branded witches are elderly women, some churches circulate videos of girls accused of being witches and causing their parents misfortunes. The girls are then forced to confess and subjected to rites to deliver them from the “spirit of witchcraft.”

Despite Ghana’s constitution which upholds human rights and prohibiting practices that dehumanise or are injurious to physical and mental well-being, hundreds of women are driven out of their homes by their families or traditional village authorities on suspicion of witchcraft.

At the camps where they seek refuge, survivors lack basic amenities such as water, and live in unhygienic conditions. For this reason, the government has on several occasions announced plans to close the camps.

Two camps – Bonyase and Nabuli – were closed in 2014 and 2019, respectively, but in 2020, after the lynching of Madam Akua Denteh, Ghana’s Gender Minister then, Madam Cynthia Morrison said it would not be an easy task to close the camps because they serve as a safe haven for the women accused of witchcraft.

“What we can do is renovate and provide the camps with the needed infrastructure and social amenities like water and enroll the women into the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme, a social intervention to tackle the plight of poor people, the aged and the vulnerable,” said the minister.

While the existence of the camps is seen as a sign of continued violation of human rights, many women fear going back home because stigma persists. They fear being blamed for future misfortunes that might happen in their communities and being subjected to further violence. Their fears are not unfounded. The 2008 Action Aid survey found that four in 10 women who went back home returned to the camps after new accusations were made against them.

Traditionally, one cannot brand someone a witch or wizard without concrete proof. The traditional council summons accusers to prove their claims or be fined for making unproven claims.

However, Lucas Musa, a legal practitioner, told GNA that accusations coming from family members complicate matters.
“When family members lead the charge in claiming that an oracle has confirmed that someone is a witch, it is difficult to intervene. However, the human rights violation component must be dealt with to protect and find justice for the victims,” said Mr Musa.

Some non-governmental organisations have called for the criminalisation of labeling people witches as a solution to this decades-long abuse. For instance, Songtaba is pushing for a witchcraft bill to criminalise branding people witches. The coalition also commissioned research into the mental state of elderly women to evaluate if there are behaviours common among the elderly that are branded witchcraft.

During a vigil to mark the second anniversary of the lynching of Madam Akua Denteh in Accra this year, Action Aid’s Women’s Rights and Campaigns Manager Mrs Margaret Brew-Ward also called for action to discourage the attacks.

While the organisations focused on human rights does agree that more needs to be done to strengthen the justice system and make it accountable to those seeking justice, instead of new laws, they recommend that violence against people accused of witchcraft be prosecuted under existing criminal laws such as assault, theft, damage to property or murder.

In Tanzania, non-governmental organisations trained communities, traditional healers, local militia, local government officials, religious leaders, and the media on the rights of women and widows, the harmful effects of witchcraft allegations, and misconceptions about diseases that were driving the attacks. For instance, “providing homes with fuel-efficient stoves demonstrated that red eyes associated with witchcraft are actually caused by a lifetime of cooking over smoky fires.”

Following these community interventions, HelpAge reported a 99 per cent reduction in the killing of older women, and a reduction in disputes over land rights, inheritance and marriage issues. It also noted a 30 per cent improvement in the living conditions of older women.

In Ghana, Songtaba has reintegrated about 200 women and taught them livelihood skills such as weaving baskets and Shea butter production However, going back home does not guarantee a smooth re-integration. Some still suffer stigma as the community continues to treat them with suspicion. They rely on support from non-governmental organisations or wellwishers.

For reintegration to work, Madam Laminatu says it should be a gradual process that involves educating families and communities to fight stigma, discrimination and false beliefs.

For Madam Afua, although she hasn’t suffered overt attacks after settling back home, she lives on the benevolence of her children and well-wishers.

This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) through the support of the Ford Foundation.

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