On May 19, the International Institute of Journalism and JHR hosted a community dialogue on the issue of witch craft allegations in Northern Ghana. Twenty IIJ students, members of the Ministry of Women and Children, local media outlets and NGOs debated the role of the media concerning allegations of witchcraft in the North.
Ghana’s Upper East and Northern regions are home to seven witch camps – more than any other region. The largest camp, Gambaga, was established over a century ago and is now home to 83 women and over 45 dependent children and grandchildren.
As guests began their presentations, the bottom line became clear: accusations of witchcraft are based on gender.
“The debate is beyond whether there are witches or not. The issue is that witchcraft allegations have become a feminized issue,” said I.P.S. Zakaria, of the Department of Women and Children.
Women, often elderly and widowed, are accused for misfortunes in their villages, leading to lynching or banishment to camps far from their communities. The banishment of these women directly affects their access to hygienic facilities, education and economic independence. For many women, discrimination and the emotional stigma attached to being accused limit their ability to speak out against the issue.
“When a woman is 30, she will fight the allegations with all her power,” explained Fati Al-Hassan, president of the Anti-Witchcraft Allegations Campaign Coalition (AWACC). “But when she gets into her 50s and 60s, she begins to accept these powers and confess to these allegations.”
Zakaria finds many women are unable to act independently from their husbands, keeping them vulnerable to allegations. Many widows are accused of witchcraft so they are not entitled to their husband’s inheritance.
“If it looks like you killed someone with witchcraft, you are not entitled to the use of the property,” explained Al-Hassan.
She is no stranger to allegations, having been accused of being a witch herself.
“I love my powers,” she said. “I love the assumption that people have that I have these powers, because it gives me motivation to do the work that I do.”
Allegations follow similar trends, says Ken Addae of AWACC. Working with members of the witch camps since 2000, he has found allegations often occur in areas with high poverty levels and low education. The largest indicator is the structure of social and cultural systems that make women vulnerable, said Addae.
“Culture is dynamic,” she said. “We can’t cling to a culture and justify our actions when we abuse someone.”
Journalist Francis Npong echoed Al-Hassan’s concerns, targeting the media as those most responsible for influencing public opinion on the issues.
“The world is changing,” said Npong. “The role of the media or journalists now goes beyond just the traditional role of informing, educating and entertaining …This century needs more dedicated journalists than any other century.”
Panelists encouraged journalists to make their messages accessible to communities most likely to banish women for witchcraft. Addae suggested creatively engaging communities with traditional Dogon drum and drama troops to shift public opinion.
Addressing the crowded room of students, panelists encouraged the audience to be assertive and balanced with their reporting. They also emphasized the importance of minimizing harm.
A journalist herself, Al-Hassan envisions the media as the public face of the fight for human rights awareness.
“When people have rights, they must be made to see that they are working for them,” she explained.
The forum topic was chosen by the students themselves who have shown an interest in addressing and educating themselves on issues specific to their region.
Talking to the students, the impact of the forum is obvious.
“I have learned so much on how to report gender issues and women’s rights,” said Yakubu Gafaru, the JHR vice-president. “It was interesting to see the majority of the camps are within our region. Why not down south? It means there is something behind it, something we need to address.”
Others found the chance to work with prominent female journalists inspiring.
“We need more female role models like Madam Fati [Al-Hassan],” explained Yahaya Niamatu. “I admire the courage she has. I want to be just like her.”