Slavery in Ghana
The Trokosi Tradition 
(Equality now - May 2002)


According to the trokosi tradition practiced in southeastern Ghana, virgin girls are given to village priests as a way of appeasing the gods for crimes committed by family members. The word trokosi in the Ewe language means "slaves of the gods." Once given to the priest, a girl becomes his property and is made to carry out domestic chores such as cooking and washing, as well as farming and fetching water. After the onset of menstruation, the bondage also involves sexual servitude.

In March 1998, Equality Now launched a campaign calling for the banning of the practice and release of trokosi. Later the same year the government of Ghana passed a law prohibiting the practice. Equality Now welcomed this development, as well as reports of the subsequent release of around 2,800 girls. In its 1998 Women's Action on the trokosi practice, Equality Now highlighted the case of Abla Kotor (pictured above). At the age of 12, Abla had been given to a local priest in atonement for the rape that resulted in her birth--he rape of her mother by her mother's uncle. Although other trokosi were liberated from the Awlo-Korti shrine where Abla was enslaved, after the law was passed Abla continued to live in the shrine effectively under the control of the priest because her aunt was afraid that otherwise the curse of the gods would revisit the family. Happily, Abla has now moved away from the shrine and is living with an uncle and going to school in western Ghana.

Many of those who have been liberated from the shrines are being helped by International Needs Ghana, a non-governmental organization that has been central to the release and rehabilitation of trokosi. It negotiates the return of the women and girls to their families or communities, provides housing and food, counseling, schooling and income-generating skills. Survivors for Change, a human rights organization formed by survivors of the trokosi practice, is also advocating for enforcement of the law against the practice and has launched its own campaign aimed at various government ministries and seeking the support of international ambassadors based in Accra.

In spite of this welcome progress, Equality Now is deeply concerned that, over three years after the banning of the practice of trokosi by the Ghanaian Government, several thousand girls and women are reported to be still in bondage as trokosi. According to reports, some traditionalist groups in Ghana are obstructing the release of the trokosi. One group, Afrikania Mission, maintains that the practice is part of its culture and that the law should not destroy its culture. Afrikania Mission is said to be exerting pressure to prevent the enforcement of the law, and to have persuaded some priests that it is their right to continue the tradition.

The work of International Needs Ghana has apparently also been hindered by several inaccurate descriptions of the trokosi practice by the United States Government, which minimize the severity of the practice and have reportedly influenced some funders to stop supporting the efforts of International Needs Ghana to end the trokosi practice. The State Department's reports on human rights and religious freedoms for 2001 differ substantially from those issued in previous years, and it is interesting to note from one of these that in May and July 2001 US Embassy officials met with the leadership of the Afrikania Mission "in order to learn about their views on religious freedom in the country," and reported that "the Afrikania leaders expressed gratitude for the visit…"

One hundred and thirty trokosi priests who have released all trokosi from their own shrines and now oppose the practice were so incensed by the inaccuracies in the US Government reports that they met on 4 January 2002 to refute in very specific terms the US Government's claims. The State Department, for example, claims that trokosi is a religious practice "involving a period of servitude lasting up to 3 years" and that "there is no evidence that sexual abuse is an ingrained or systematic part of the practice." The trokosi priests affirmed in contrast that "once a girl has been sent into trokosi servitude, she is a trokosi until her death. After she dies, she has to be replaced by her family, " and that the trokosi "serve we the priests domestically, satisfy our sexual desires and work on our farms to provide our economic security." The priests affirmed that "the girls have no right whatsoever in deciding when and who in the shrine should have sexual intercourse with them…" and that part "of the rationale for deciding on the female gender as the object of reparation has to do with providing sexual gratification to those serving the deity." Equality Now has repeatedly raised its concern with State Department officials that the United States Government has misrepresented the trokosi practice, but has not to date received a substantive response.

In addition to the 1998 law specifically criminalizing the trokosi practice as a form of slavery, the trokosi practice violates the Ghanaian Constitution, specifically Article 14, which provides that "Every person has a right to personal liberty" and Article 16, which provides, "No person shall be held in slavery and servitude or be required to perform forced labor." Numerous international human rights standards similarly prohibit slavery, in particular the Slavery Convention and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all ratified by Ghana. Although Ghanaian government officials have expressed their opposition to the practice, and a new government, which took office in 2001, has declared its commitment to human rights, it is clear that not enough action has been taken to ensure the release of the remaining trokosi. There have been no prosecutions under the 1998 law.