afrol News, 7 April - In a lawsuit that could make history in Ghana, 80-year-old Janet Tibu is seeking damages from 12 men, including the village chief and a church minister after they branded her a witch. Branding women witches is seen as a powerful control measure against critical local elements.
Traditional law meets the modern, Ghanaian constitution in this lawsuit, crucial for women's empowerment in rural society. The practice of witch banishment is illegal in Ghana, but widespread in the northern provinces. The practice effectively limits women's abilities to take control their situation, according to studies.
Women accused of witchcraft are subjected to abuse and other cruel treatment, and their fate is usually determined through trial by "ordeal." Banished women and their children are denied basic rights, such as access to safe drinking water, food, shelter, health care and education. Dating back to the 17th century, the Ghanaian tradition of witchcraft blames every death or misfortune on someone, usually a woman.
According to BBC Africa, Mrs. Tibu was "found guilty of casting a spell on a local herb doctor and condemning him to poverty and impotence." The herbalist said at the ordeal "there was never any money in his bank account, his crops were ruined by pestilence and patients were no longer coming to see him." He said his son, who had confessed to being a wizard, claimed that Mrs Tibu was responsible.
The ordeal in the northern Ghanaian village Peki-Avetile found Mrs. Tibu guilty and fined her $6, a pot of palm wine, four bottles of gin and two sheep, according to the BBC. Also, Mrs Tibu's children, who used to look after her, were banned from seeing her.
Mrs. Tibu, claiming that her life and reputation has been ruined, now has turned the table, and filed charges against the men responsible for her trial. Although such a lawsuit will be the first of its kind in Ghana, the legal framework for Mrs. Tibu's complaint seems well grounded.
In 1998, the Ghanaian parliament passed legislation providing specific protection for women and children. The provisions of the bill ban the practice of "customary servitude" (known as Trokosi) and in particular protect women accused of witchcraft.
According to the national Ghanaian Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), as many as 5,000 women inhabit so-called "witches' villages" in four districts in the Northern Region. In some cases, the arriving women had been sentenced to leave their homes by village authorities who claimed to have the power to determine who were witches. In other cases, relatives, or the women themselves, came to the village believing that they were witches, and asking to be protected and/or cured of the affliction.
Although the women face no formal legal sanction if they leave, most fear that they would be beaten to death or lynched if caught outside the penal villages. Forced labour also occurs at the camps for women accused of witchcraft.
Human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimate that the number of occupants of the witches' camp is growing. Although much work is being done by NGO to fight the practice, occasional campaigns of withhunting boost the numbers of victims.
The last witchhunting campaign was observed in 1997, when a meningitis epidemic killed over 500 persons in Ghana. Thus, a mob killed three middle-aged women in the village of Yoggu, accusing them of spreading the disease through witchcraft. The "witches' villages" further registered an increase in the number of alleged witches banished.
The CHRAJ and human rights NGO's have mounted a campaign to end this traditional practice, which violates the victims' constitutional rights, but little concrete action has been taken by the government. It is believed that Mrs. Tibu's court case might help raise awareness about witch banishment and, if won, encourage other women to take legal action against the practice.
Based on BBC, CHRAJ, US State Dept. and afrol archives