Prioritising mental health of alleged witches: A cause to abolish Witches Camps

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witches camps
witches camps

Madam Muna, a widow, narrowly escaped being lynched over witchcraft accusations, compelling her to relocate.

In September, this year, she was chased from her late husband’s house at Vittin, a suburb of Tamale, for accusing a member of her husband’s family of bewitching one of her four children.

Witchcraft accusation has taken a different turn in Madam Muna’s case, a reverse of the commonly known order, where people are banished because of being witches or wizards.

One would expect that an accused be treated as a victim of witchcraft rather than the accuser. However, the turn of events exudes this verity of the link between witchcraft accusations, mental health and the vulnerability of certain individuals.

The Issue
Madam Muna, just like any other widow, has catered for her children single-handedly since the demise of her husband years ago.

She stayed in a native round mud house, roofed with thatch that dripped anytime it rained until the intervention of the Spirit Palace 801, a church that built and furnished a standard single room for her and her children in 2020.

Even so, the widow and her children suffered many attempts by her husband’s family to evacuate them from the newly built house, prior to her exit from the community.

These circumstances rendered Madam Muna depressed as the Ghana News Agency’s (GNA) observed from frequent visits to her that she was sad and isolated.

The GNA’s interaction with two victims of alleged witchcraft, who escaped the camps proved that majority of inmates ended up there as result of one mental health condition or the other, which made them act abnormally whereas others were mere victims of old age, and not necessarily witchcraft as they have been always accused of.

Many women, who exhibited depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders among others described as witches, ended up at Witches Camps, unlike Madam Muna, who had refuge in her family house.

Her case depicts the reality of incomputable women, who are victims of mental health circumstances salvaged at alleged Witches Camps.

Conditions at Witches Camps

The GNA’s checks found that known Witches Camps in the Northern Region are located at Kpatinga in the Gushegu Municipality, Kukuo in the Nanumba South District, Ngani in the Yendi Municipality, and Gambaga in the East Mamprusi Municipality of the North East Region, which is said to be the oldest camp.

Although the camps serve as refugee homes for alleged witches, who are exiled from their communities, inmates stay under unfavourable conditions, detrimental to their wellbeing.

Information gathered by the GNA indicates that the alleged witches undergo various forms of exploitation at the camps thereby thwarting the refugee status being given at the camps.

These camps ironically have become places of physical and emotional torture, which facilitates the violations of the rights of alleged witches.

Certain mental health traits led society into accusing people of witchcraft, which tends to be appreciated due to stigmatization and isolation.

Mental Health and Witchcraft

Mental health is conceptualized by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “The state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to community.”

Witchcraft is believed to be the possession of supernatural powers that makes one manipulate others’ abilities and events, usually considered as devilish.

Although there is no concrete scientific evidence to prove the non-existence of witchcraft and align its signs with mental health illnesses, it is logical to ask the question “Why are women, particularly widows and the aged the major victims of witchcraft accusations?

A survey conducted by Songtaba, a non-governmental organisation, in February 2022, on the prevalence of depression, quality of life and gender dynamics of women accused of witchcraft in the Northern and North East Regions, revealed that 66.5 per cent of alleged witches were widows.

It further showed that 97% of them had low or extremely low quality of life.

Based on the data of this survey and similar ones coupled with the WHO’s definition of mental health, it is imperative to consider that widows tend to be deficient in mental health, owing to the burden of catering for children and dealing with accusations for the death of their husbands, which is normal in most Ghanaian communities.

According to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), depression is proven to be the leading mental health disorder, and it is twice as frequent in women as in men.

The WHO also says that “Exposure to unfavourable social, economic, geopolitical and environmental circumstances including poverty, violence, inequality and environmental deprivation increases the risk of experiencing mental health conditions.”

Inmates of the alleged Witches Camps could simply be victims of exposure to the named unfavourable conditions, which translated into unrecognized mental health disorder.

Importance of prioritizing mental health

Songtaba’s survey, which covered the four alleged Witches Camps, found that depression among alleged witches was high, as it recorded 52.7 per cent depressed among them.
Breaking the depression into grades, 23.5 per cent of alleged witches had mild depression, 37.2 per cent had moderate depression, 7.2 per cent had moderately severe depression and 2.9 per cent had severe depression.

Mr Peter Amadu Mintir, a Psychologist and Executive Director of Total Life Enhancement Centre (TOLEC), in an interview with the GNA, said people could suffer mental health illness, common depression, so much that it makes them dysfunctional and disoriented, which causes others to categorise them into a group they are not.

He said individuals tagged as witches and camped were people who needed help as mental health disorder increased the risk of contracting other diseases, adding that it was important to seek mental health care for such people to reduce the suffering and hurt they go through.

He indicated that “A good number of people at the Witches Camps probably suffered one mental health illness or the other, however, for lack of social support and professional engagement, they suffer longer, and illness worsens.”
He said “Some could be suffering bipolar, dementia where there are memory losses, which make it a mental health issue, not to put them in some camps to traumatize them.

These individuals miss a lot from society, including health care, and are unproductive. They need professional help to make them productive, feel better and that’s all-mental health is about.”

There is some injustice due to cultural and religious beliefs and individuals’ selfish interest. Women dominating the camps gives the impression that there is a cultural connotation that perpetuates the act, which calls on society to work at supporting victims instead of banishing them”, he indicated.

The Psychologist stated that banishing victims caused frustration and disappointment which usually led to post traumatic stress disorder as well as anxiety, saying such instances led to weight loss as feeding becomes a problem making them grow lean and scary, then, accusers use their growing lean to vindicate their accusations.

The call to shut Witches Camps and reintegrate inmates

Camping alleged witches and subjecting them to cruelty is a violation of their human rights as against sections of chapter 5 of the 1992 Constitution, which states that the dignity of persons shall be inviolable.

Aside the fact that mental health derailed individuals victimized at Witches Camps, isolating them from society increases their conditions, predisposing them to advanced psychological issues.

The existence of alleged Witches Camps would harness cultural beliefs in witchcraft that downplay human rights laws and the state of mental health thereby creating a surge in witchcraft accusations.

From the Songtaba survey’s findings, 73.3 per cent of camps’ inmates wanted to be re-integrated into communities, and the camps closed.

Closure of the Bonyase and Nabuli camps in 2014 and 2020 respectively were commendable steps by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection (MoGCSP) to avert the canker of witchcraft allegations.
However, the Ministry has delayed actions to disband the remaining four camps.

Mr Inusah Iddrisu, Senior Investigator and Northern Regional Public Education Officer at the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), said the commission brought the issue of witchcraft to the lamplight in 1990, making its stance clear on a belief that cannot be proven by law.

He said provisions of the constitution do not allow the promotion of cultural practices that are injurious and dehumanizing, adding that CHRAJ’s investigations proved that inmates of the camps were subjected to labour, sexual abuses, and other inhumane activities by camp leaders, under uncomfortable leaving conditions.

“These are issues of gender biases because women dominant these camps. The mere mention of witchcraft to victimize women brings about psychological trauma. The abuses and degrading treatments the people go through, and physical abuses where some lose their lives means that the mother of all fundamental human rights, which is the right to life is being attacked, which is unfair”, he added.

He called on state and non-state actors to collaborate with the CHRAJ to undertake engagements that would lead to the closure of the camps, stating that the closure of some camps years ago involved a lot if resources, after which victims were given psychosocial therapies before reintegration.

Mr Iddrisu said ” the Domestic Violence Act has provided elements for alleged witches to seek compensation through civil action, when they are able to figure out individuals who victimise them.

We need to collaborate to eradicate witches’ camps in this democratic dispensation where we are championing the rule of law”.

On July 23, 2020, Madam Ekua Denteh, a 90-year-old woman, was lynched at Kafaba in the East Gonja Municipality of the Savannah Region following witchcraft accusations.

Witches’ camps are still in existence two years after the incident despite public outcry for their closure.

The bad state of the well-being of inmates at the Witches Camps, which is the spotlight; a call to abolish Witches Camps is also a call to prioritising citizens’ mental health, well-being, and rights.

Ghana’s legal systems could be the subject of international ridicule and unanswered questions if these camps continue to exist in the face of public outcry to disband it.

Recommendations

It is important for the MoGCSP to consider adopting some critical involuntary decisions on the other Witches camps to outlaw the practice.

The Ministry could take pragmatic actions towards the closure of the four Witches Camps in Northern Ghana by collaborating with the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Department of Social Welfare, drivers of the Witches Camps, Chiefs and opinion leaders, community members and NGOs to ban the practice.

The National Commission for Civic Education should be resourced with necessary coordination to carry out intensive sensitization on human rights as well as mental health as part of measures towards the permanent closure of these camps to smoothen re-integrating victims into communities.

Government through parliament and the Judiciary should adopt affirmative action by criminalizing witchcraft accusations to deter members of the public from attempts that will threaten mental health, human rights, and lives of innocent people, especially women and the aged as they become primary suspects of unfounded allegations.

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