Trokosi: Young girls and women still in captivity years after law abolishing practice

By Asabea Akonor

Little Nene, “not her real name” was too young to remember the exact age when she was sadly taken away from the care of her beloved family to a strange compound to be in servitude as trokosi, and to serve the whims and interest of the priest in charge of the shrine.

She instantly became the wife to the chief priest as tradition demands of a trokosi. Just like any of the girls, she was sexually abused, and was subjected to hard labour.

She was very emotional as she struggled to narrate her experience, at a point she stopped talking and said she couldn’t remember the details.

“I wasn’t even told the reason for which I was brought to the shrine, and I don’t remember the age I was, but I remember I was a very young girl. My line of thought wasn’t clear, but luckily for me unlike other girls, I could occasionally visit my family and return, but I can’t ever leave my husband who was the chief priest,” she said.

Madam Nene never had the privilege of dreaming of a better future like regular girls. Her mental development was suppressed and the only thing she was exposed to was the four corners of the chief priest’s compound and the village. What made the whole situation more unjust was the fact that, it wasn’t her relative who committed a crime, but somebody else from a different family so she was given to the offender to be sent to a shrine outside her village.

Her narration indicates that she was totally robbed of her childhood and her dreams were even buried before she could think of any.

“I feel like I was robbed of my childhood because I wasn’t able to do anything regular girls do, except to be married at a very tender age, do chores and perform rituals at the shrine. It was when I grew older that I wished I had finished Form 4,” she told

Nene, who has lived almost all her life at the Badzi shrine, in Dorfor, at the Volta region is now over 80 years old and has never for once thought of an ideal future for herself except the dream to complete Middle School Form 4.

Just like the thousands of girls who were presented to atone for the sins of a relative or friend, she became the wife of the priest at an age she could hardly remember.  She told that there were several women and girls at the shrine when she joined.

She recounted that she was emotionally shattered when she first arrived to serve as trokosi because she could barely understand what was happening, but now a mother of four, fathered by the priest, she has no regret because that is the only life she has been exposed to and known.

History of Trokosi

Tro means deity or fetish and Kosi means slave in the Ewe language. So literary when the two words are joined, it becomes trokosi, meaning “god’s wife, god’s queen, or the god’s slave”.

Trokosi is a traditional belief system where virgin girls, sometimes as young as four years are sent to shrines as slaves to atone for crimes or misdeeds committed by a relative or friend to the virgin girl’s family.

Trokosi law

Even though the tradition was abolished by law in 1998 per the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act, of 1998, Act 554, this has not deterred believers of the tradition, they have found a seemingly clever way to beat the law. About 2,800 to 300 girls were librated after the ban according to reports.

These days, they don’t keep the girls on the compound of the priest, and dressed in an identified way, they keep them somewhere else. It could be in the girl’s parent’s house or with other people. And when they need the girls for rituals, chores or to satisfy their sexual pleasure, they call for them.

What this also means is that, they don’t have to feed them or bear any responsibility. They also make money from them as they “rent” them to farmers, fishermen to work.

Role of Baptist vocational Training Institute

The Ghana Baptist Convention vocational training centre  was set up in 1998 when the practice was banned to train the victims in bead making, sewing, catering, hairdressing and carpentry for their sons and also introduced them to formal education so that they can be integrated well back into the society, but that has changed because of the continuation of the practice.

The institution currently goes to the shrines where the girls are held to negotiate with the custodians to recruit the girls to cater for them at the training school. Averagely, it costs about GH¢300 to recruit one person.

After the girls are released from the shrines successfully, they are taken through the training for a number of years, after which they are given equipment and seed money to start a business.

The administrator of the Institution Rev. Emmanuel Obani who is not happy about the current situation expressed disappointment at the turn of events after the law banning the practice was passed.

According to him, the system has become complex due to the law which is supposed to phase out the practice, he said, “because of the passage of the Human Rights law, people practice the trokosi in hiding, so you might come to this particular shrine but you will not see anybody in the shrine as it used to be, but then the thing is going on. So you can’t actually tell. Some hide them. It’s like the shrine is in Frankadua but the person is having the farm where they send them to work around Jemeni area, or the fishing area, how do you know these are trokosi girls sent there?”

Trokosi as business

Again, some juju men who are not trokosi custodians are taking advantage of the loopholes in the system to make money. They get girls from various places to exploit and make money out of them. They either send them to people to work for long hours without food, water, clothing or healthcare on their farms, the lake and other places.

They also try to sell these girls to the Baptist Vocational Institute or take money from people who want to know about the practice. “Just like where we will be going right now, when you go it’s not for free, definitely we will give them some token, so when they see that people have come to park cars, they know they give them something, so these juju men will, sometimes call me to come and recruit girls, but the real trokosi they will never call you,” Rev Obani added.

Other victims

Currently, over 70 girls are at the center, with over 350 who have already passed out.

The confidence of these girls is shattered, and their self esteem is lowered to the barest minimum. This is because they are not only sexually abused by their fetish priest husbands but are also gang raped by other men at the shrines, they are deprived of the rights of education, work for long hours without enough food and water to sustain their energy.

Majority of the girls at the Institution were very young when they were innocently sent to the shrine. They were naive and didn’t know anything about personal hygiene.

Sefako was only six years old when she was taken to the shrine due to land litigation between her grandfather and someone else. She lived at the shrine for 11 years working for long hours on farms before she was recruited by the NGO.

Dzidedi was seven when a woman who claimed wanted to help her, took her to the shrine. She endured inhumane punishments such as crawling on broken bottles anytime they did something wrong as punishment. She said she worked on farms for long hours without food and very little water to drink. They will return home very late until they will cook and eat.

Dzidedi told that she has been blindfolded and raped several times until she got pregnant and now it is difficult to tell who the father of her four-year-old daughter is.

“It’s very painful. Sometimes the boys there will hold you and blind you, then they will have sex with you, through that if you don’t know anything about pregnancy, before you will realise you are pregnant and you will give birth without knowing who the father is, and when this happens, they will sack you. Some of the boys are the fetish priest sons and some of them too, they are their friends,” she narrated tearfully.

Naomi’s story is not different from what the other girls went through. She ended up at the shrine and was told her grandmother sold her to the fetish priest. She was bound to forever live at the shrine with no hope, aspirations or any dreams until she decided to take her fate into her hands to escape with four other girls. Just like the other girls, she also suffered several abuses, long hours of work, among other torturing situations.

Sefako narrated that the first time she had a period, she screamed which attracted an older trokosi girl to her, who eventually taught her what it is, and what she has to do every month when it comes. She said, she was told to cut a piece of her cloth and divide it into two, so during that time of the month, she would have to decide whether she should use the little water she has to wash period cloth or she has to use it to bath. With tears in her eyes, she said, her body odour was so intense to the extent that nobody would come close to her.

“It was just too difficult, what we did is that, when it comes we cut the cloths we use to sleep and put it in our private part just like that, so we will get small water to bath, wash it and dry it. Sometimes because of the scent, it made us smell, we get a lot of dirty smell from our body.”

Unlike Madam Nene, these girls have dreams, they want to learn trades and become designers, hairdressers and caterers.

A chief priest’s view

At the Koklofu shrine, the custodian said they don’t demand for the girls but it is the gods who do in other to atone for the sins of a relative. He said the duty of that young girl is to do domestic chores for the priest.

“The duty of that young girl is to serve the priest who is a male, fetching of water, sweeping the room, even if the girl can cook she will cook for the chief priest, and if they are going to perform any ritual inside, that small girl will carry the water, if the girl has come of age the priest has the right to sleep with her and give birth to as many as she could for the priest and that girl has no right to go back to her family forever and ever, she will remain here”

It is believed that if a girl runs away from the shrine and goes to be with another man, any child they give birth to, a member of the man’s family will die until he comes to the shrine to perform some ritual and replace the partner with another virgin girl before the calamity will stop.

The priest admitted that the practice has changed, allowing the girls to live elsewhere or work for other people but when there is time for rituals or when duty calls, they have to be there.

“Now you don’t see them here because of the government system that they should do it, so they are there but they are not here, but if they want them, they will bring them, they don’t dress like those days where that think will be on their neck, wear that white cloth” the chief priest narrated through a translator.

He said there are two types of trokosi, one demands that if the first girl dies, the family would have to bring another virgin girl to replace her, if she also dies, another would be brought to replace her and it goes on and on to the future generations, whereas the other one is just one-time, so if she dies, there is no replacement.

He said the shrine is mainly for the protection of its people, and even outsiders who seek for help.

At another shrine, the custodian claimed they don’t keep virgin girls, but what they do is that, when the gods demand for something from the person found guilty of any crime, the accused would have to bring a girl first, after satisfying the gods with all the things they are demanding, the girl will be given back to the family. But as far as the items are not finished, the girl will keep living with them, and the person’s family will keep dying until the final ritual is performed.

Effects of trokosi

Taking care of these girls is not as easy as one might think. Because most of them were exposed to regular sex, they have become addicted to sex, therefore in trying to prevent them from involving with men, they become rebellious, to the extent that some try to run away from the vocational training center.

Some of them too have become timid and emotionally unstable.

They are also heavily stigmatized which makes it difficult for them to socialise.

“Sometimes people who know my story if I do anything small, they will begin to insult me with it, they will do some things that will hurt you. But on campus they have been teaching us how to forgive and forget,” one of the girls sad sadly.

Modernising trokosi will be a solution

Belief, spirituality and religion plays a core role when it comes to trokosi, it is in the DNA of practitioners therefore, some people are of the view that since people cannot be made to change their religion or belief easily, so is trokosi. However, what can be done is modernising the practice to suit all stakeholders.

According to the Assemblyman, trokosi has retarded development for the people in the shrine, but believes that when modernised, it will expedite development because the girls will be in schools, they will not be used for hard labour. Again, crimes will reduce drastically because people do not want to incur the wrath of the gods.

“It can be maintained but it has to be modified. Look at the woman we spoke to, she is afraid to speak because of timidity.”

He said only the negative side of the practice is being trumpeted to the world, which is unfortunate. He said people come for protection, child, jobs among other things from the gods.

“People outside the village even benefit more than the people here. If you want to pass your exam, if you want to marry, if you want to do business, you can bring your trade money here and see, let someone steal your money, the Togbui will start looking for the money, they will go to the person’s house and start killing his people.”

Rev. Obani again said, policing and prosecuting people will not end it. What the people need is a holistic approach in a form of consistent education to reduce the canker.

He said the approach used by government has not worked; it has rather complicated the situation. He indicated that there was no plan in place to integrate the girls after their liberation which was a concern.

He said, it is difficult to change people’s traditional beliefs, their religion, faith etc, so suddenly telling them to trash what they hold dearly will not be let go without a fight.

Department of social welfare and what they have done so far

The Deputy Director in charge of Child and Family Welfare division at the Social Welfare Department, Mr. Fred Sekyi Boafo told that, since 1990, a lot has been done to protect the Rights of children, and preventing abuse of children in societies which include trokosis.

“A lot has been captured by way of child rights or child protection and also support for families. For the department we have been doing a lot when cases are reported, not only reported but we also take steps to identify cases and then take steps to deal with those cases,” he indicated.

According to him, trokosi is district based, so the head office is monitoring and ensuring that the right things are done.

“Each district has its own peculiar issues, so if you are a district social officer and trokosi is in your district, officers have been trained in a way that once it is a child protection issue concerned, they will go in and investigate,” he said.

He indicated that in the case of trokosi, education is key, to gradually change the mindset of the people. He said there are social officers in the districts who are on the grounds trying to salvage the situation.

“The most important tool is education, people should be educated to know that together we have to protect children and for people to know what is in the best interest of children,” he added.

Currently, there are several trokosi girls in servitude with no dream, no self esteem, no confidence and shattered dreams if ever they have any.

Source Ghana Business News

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