In 1981, the United Nations declared Nov. 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, inspired by the brutal assassination, in 1960, of the Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic. Today, millions of women continue to be the victims of myriad forms of gender-based violence.
Accusations of witchcraft are a disturbing example of a lesser-known form of violence to which women can be subjected daily in some areas of the world. Although the witch trials and the persecution and torture of women, on preposterous charges and the slimmest of evidence, is lost in European and American history, belief in witchcraft is common in Africa. Women accused of witchcraft can be ostracized by their families and communities, subjected to life-threatening assaults and brutally murdered.
Accusations of witchcraft are based on beliefs and fears of the unknown or inexplicable. A woman might be accused of witchcraft if a sick person saw her in a dream and then alleged she caused the illness. In Ghana, for example, witches are blamed for using their magical powers to bring misfortune to communities, even causing the death of family and neighbours.
Recently, a 42-year-old man was arrested for beating his grandmother to death because he believed she was a witch and had caused him to suffer from elephantiasis.
In northern Ghana, where poverty is rampant, accusations of witchcraft are referred to traditional leaders for decision. However, rough justice and mob violence can frequently drive a woman from her home, her family and her community. If she is lucky, the woman witch will find her way to one of the "witch camps" that dot northern Ghana, and offer respite and sanctuary to these persecuted women.
According to Yaba Badoe, who produced a documentary about the camp at Gambaga, these women witches in some way challenged or transgressed patriarchal gender norms. For example, some were economically successful, while others were vulnerable women, the widowed or childless. Interestingly, these characteristics mesh with those of the women persecuted during the early modern European witchcraze. In contemporary Africa and early modern Europe, women without male sponsors or protectors – fathers, husbands, brothers or sons – were (and remain) easy targets for accusations motivated by greed or malice.
Hearing about witchcraft from friends and co-workers, and marveling at its frequency on Ghanaian television, primarily in movies from Nigeria, we were intrigued and eager to meet the alleged witches. We set out to visit one of northern Ghana's oldest "witch camps" in the village of Gambaga.
Although "witch camp" seems to conjure up a place segregated from society, the camp itself was not in some outlying area, but rather incorporated into the town itself, mere steps from the chief's palace.
Upon arrival, we followed the protocol necessary to receive permission from the chief (the Gambarrana) to enter the camp.
According to tradition, the Gambarrana receives women who have lost everything from the accusation of witchcraft. He is believed to be able to place women under the protection of the local gods to prevent them from practicing witchcraft. Thus a woman gains sanctuary and the community is assured that they are safe from the depredations of a practicing witch.
We first visit with Takira Mutaru, the magazia, or leader of the camp. She has lived in the "witch camp" for seven years and has led the women for three years. Rather than discussing her personal experience, which was too painful to recount, she told us that "my time at the camp has given me peace, freedom from the accusations and disturbances at home. Here it is safe." Takira tells us that the camp is now home to about 130 women who live together like sisters. Some of the women have walked from nearby countries such as Togo and Burkina Faso, to seek sanctuary in Gambaga.
As we walk through the camp, we are struck by how peaceful it is. Women smile and greet us and children run about playing. Thatched mud huts form honeycombed compounds where the women live. Empty blue chicken coops dot the camp, one of the many attempts by NGOs to alleviate the women's poverty. Other income-generating projects include collecting firewood from the bush, backbreaking labour for these older women, but they have a ready market selling it in town.
The general atmosphere of the camp is pleasant and well cared for but the poverty is evident. The huts are dilapidated; we are told that in the rainy season several will collapse. Many of the women are sinuously lean and wear ragged old clothes.
First the NGOs took notice of the "witch camps"; now the First Lady of Ghana, Mrs. Lordina Mahama, has reportedly secured land to construct a new facility for the "witches" that would include a clinic, market and school. Is far too early for the women to rejoice since, as yet, there is no funding allocated to the project.
Belief in witchcraft is deeply entrenched in the Ghanaian psyche. Our taxi driver's reaction was telling. Even after our time with the women, he, a university educated man, continued to fear the witches, albeit his fear was now somewhat tempered by compassion.
It is not enough to ensure that the accused women have a safe place to live. Accusations of witchcraft are rooted in the same issues that underlie other forms of gender-based violence: female inequality, male privilege, stigmatization and poverty. All of these must be challenged before the "witch camps" will be able to close for good.
Jacqueline Murray is professor of history at the University of Guelph, and has volunteered on several occasions with the Non-Formal Education Division in Accra, Ghana; Lauren Wallace is a doctoral candidate at McMaster University, pursuing field research in Northern Ghana.