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TROKOSI: Human Rights Activists Complain Laws Fail to End Indentured Servitude


Under the trokosi system as practiced in parts of Togo, Benin, and Ghana, young girls are confined in servitude at certain shrines. The girls are used to pay off debts to the shrines, or requests for favors from deities.

An amendment to Act 29 of Ghana’s criminal code criminalizes the practice. It provides that any person who holds another in some form of ritual or customary servitude or any form of forced labour commits an offence. The law says such a person shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than three years.

The practice of trokosi also violates article 26 of the country’s constitution. The article prohibits all customary practices which dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well being of a person.

It is now eight years since the amendment to the criminal code; however, some shrines in the Volta Region still hold young girls in bondage under the trokosi system. Does that mean that the law is not being enforced?

Priscilla is a counselor of former trokosi girls. She stays at Adidome in the Volta region, an area where the system is still practiced.

“I’ve not heard anybody being arrested. Some priests willingly gave in and they [the girls] were liberated so they don’t practice it again. But some shrines are still not ready to liberate though there is a law that has been passed,” she sayss.

Cromwell Awade of International Needs Ghana, a non profit organization working to discourage the practice of trokosi, also expressed his concerns. He said, "the law is not being enforced. That is why we depend on education, otherwise we just depend on enforcement to eradicate the practice.”

Records at the Adidome District Police station also showed no evidence of any arrest.

Critics have asked whether it is possible to enforce legislation that touches on the traditions and norms of a people. Others question whether it will is feasible to imprison a whole community for going against the law since the priests alone cannot be singled out as culprits.

It is also not certain whether security personnel who come from such neighborhoods and see the practice as part of their tradition may be willing arrest anyone practicing the tradition. Awade wonders if there can be reasons for any such attitude.

“I can hazard a guess," he said. "Maybe people dread dealing with shrines and people associated with deities. May be one could think of fear. I don’t know."

In Priscilla’s view, finding witnesses to testify in court cases may be a problem let alone effecting arrest of culprits.

“It will be very difficult [to arrest]," she said," because when you go, even standing by the gate, they can even call their children to hoot at you, to sack you, even maltreat you and then they can cast a spell on you.”

The situation is not helped any by the attitudes of some former trokosi girls. Research has shown that some who are rescued from the system believe that despite their new status the former shrines and priests could still influence or harm them. This explains why some of them have either remained in or returned to the shrines after the liberation exercise.

Meanwhile Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice is continuing effort at intensifying education as a way of finding lasting solution to the practice.

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