Abla Dosu (real name withheld) sits shyly in her chair, looks down at her lap to hide her tears, and says she is afraid. Her fear comes because, in barely three weeks, a fetish priest will determine whether 18-year-old Abla must be sent to a shrine to atone for a crime committed by her grandfather 46 years ago.
If Abla is sent to the shrine she will become a "Trokosi," or a "wife of the gods." Trokosi is a religious and cultural practice found predominately in the Volta Region of Ghana. While specifics of the practice vary, Trokosi generally means that a virgin girl is sent to serve at a shrine where she is symbolically given to a deity to atone for the sins or criminal acts of a relative.
While the Constitution of 1992 and the Criminal Code both declare all forms of servitude illegal, today Trokosi continues, despite the laws, in pockets throughout the country. Although views on the issue are polarized-some see the girls as slaves and others see them as students being trained as role models-the practice still means girls are sent to shrines against their will, where they are often deprived of the most basic human rights, like their rights to go to school and to not be held in servitude.
Once a girl becomes a wife of the gods, she must live and work in the shrine where, in some cases, she is used as the sexual partner of the priest. The girl remains in the shrine for a period ranging from a few years to life. At some shrines, even if the girl dies another girl from the family must replace her. Over the years, pressure from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), independent human rights groups and the government has seen about 3,500 girls released from the shrines. Abla, unfortunately, is not one of these girls, and in one month she may be sent to a shrine. She has just completed Junior Secondary School, and is looking forward to furthering her education. She and her father are aware, however, that this dream may not come to pass if she has to be sent to the shrine.
"They will keep her forever," says Abla's father Patrick (real name also withheld). "They [the priests] said that if she is a student, after performing the rites for them they will allow her to come home to continue her education. But I don't know whether it is true."
While Patrick would like to refuse the demands of the priest, his family is so afraid of deaths occurring in the family (to date, nine of Patrick's brothers have died, and the priests say the deaths are a result of the grandfather's crime) that he feels pushed to comply. "If you refuse bringing what they need, they make sure that the one who is refusing will die, or another person will die," Patrick explains. "We were told, if we don't do the rituals that they are demanding, another person will die."
In recent years, much attention from human rights organizations in collaboration with the government has been given to the practice of Trokosi. Certain aspects have been found so objectionable in view of the people subjected to it that individuals and groups have fought for the elimination of the practice, or at least for an end to using girls as atonement.
"I think it's very sad that the object of the practice itself is to take virgins to the shrine as a reparation for offences committed by other members of the family," says Reverend Walter Pimpong, Exeuctive Director of International Needs Ghana (ING), an NGO that has been fighting against Trokosi for 15 years. "So in a sense the girl child, who may be innocent and may not be able to take care of herself, will be sent to the shrine against her will. And in the shrine itself, depending on the shrine, she is restricted and will not be allowed to go to school."
Since 1990, ING has been working to keep girls from going to the shrines, as well as to release others from within the shrines. One girl that ING released is Mercy Senahe, who was liberated from the Avakpe shrine in the Volta Region five years ago.
When Mercy was about six years old, she was forcibly sent to the shrine after a fetish priestess lost her gold earring and then cursed Mercy's household because she believed a member of the house had stolen it. After deaths began to occur in Mercy's family, it was decided that Mercy had to be sent.
"My age-mate came to tell me that I would be sent to some place and I would never come back," Mercy relates today. "Some days later they told me that I should bathe because I was going to some place. I remembered what my age-mate had told me, so I went to the bush to hide. I stayed there until the night. When I came out, my grandfather beat me roughly.
That same night they took me to cross the river to the shrine."
Mercy spent 16 years in the shrine, where she was never allowed to go to school, had to farm all day before she could eat, and was required to have sex with the priest at his bidding. "Even if you wanted to say no, he would force you by using force or beating you or something," Mercy says.
When she was 13-years-old, Mercy gave birth to her first child in the shrine. "It was something like rape; they would force me," she says. Mercy had three more children by the fetish priest in the next four years. None of her children were allowed to go to school; all of them were forced to work with her on the farm in order to feed themselves.
Today, Mercy and her four children are out of the shrine and the formal education she never had is available for the children.
Mercy has been trained in sewing and baking at ING's vocational school in Adidome, which was set up to educate liberated Trokosis like her.
Liberating Trokosis isn't something everyone agrees with. There is significant pressure from another side saying that NGOs like International Needs have distorted the Trokosi issue.
People who support this pro-Trokosi argument say there are no human rights abuses going on at the shrines, and that Trokosi is a practice that cannot and should not be eradicated in Ghana.
Osofo Tordzagbo, Secretary General at Afrikania Mission, speaks about the issue. "Our research has proved that Trokosi as defined by abolitionist NGOs is false. Totally false," he says. "[A Trokosi shine] is not a place where you go and then you are subjected to all sorts of human rights abuses."
Instead, Tordzagbo says that the practice of sending girls to shrines is really about training them to become role models for their families. "The concept here is to have a role model for the family from which the criminal comes," he explains. "That person is like bringing peace to the family."
Independent bodies like the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) dispute Afrikania's findings.
According to Lawrence Lartey, Deputy Director of Public Education and Anti-Corruption at CHRAJ, the commission became aware of the prevalence of Trokosi in early 1995. Lartey and others from CHRAJ were sent on a research mission into the Volta Region to discover the truth of the situation.
The research confirmed for CHRAJ that vestal virgins were being used as payment for crimes committed by their forbearers.
Today Lartey clearly remembers one of the girls he talked to during his investigations. He remembers her because she was sobbing the whole time she narrated her story. "I remember that girl's cries, her tears are still in my mind's eye," he says. "I am waiting until such time that when I am talking about this subject, I will no more see the girl weeping."
In order for such a time to come, Lartey stresses the need for people to come together to stop the practice. "I call on all stakeholders, all key players. I call on the civil society, I call on government, I call on the Ministry, that they should see this as a battle which has not yet ended," Lartey says. "We don't see this as an important subject, and it is sad to me. Government can do more, in spite of the amendment to the criminal code. We all can do more."
That the government does more is exactly what Patrick and Abla Dosu are fighting for today. After narrating their ordeal, the father and daughter sit with a copy of their formal petition for intervention in their case, copied to the Minister for Women and Children's Affairs, NGOs and the appropriate authorities.
Both Patrick and Abla are at a loss as to what to do next, but they are both hopeful that help will arrive. "I want the government to know that this is what is happening at our place so that a change will come," says Patrick. "It is only the government who can solve our problem for us." Until then, Abla can only pray that at least the change will come soon enough to keep her out of the shrine.