Girl of shrine: Queen or slave

SUN JOURNAL

Ghana: Under an ancient religious practice, young girls are turned over to animist priests. Their treatment as "wives of the gods" is a matter of modern debate.

July 14, 1999|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ADIDOME, Ghana -- Her childhood was taken from her because her grandfather was accused of theft, setting off a string of misfortunes for Juliana Dogbadzi's family.

To change their luck, the 7-year-old girl's parents abandoned her at a remote animist shrine to become a "wife of the gods." The child was dedicated to a priest and became a fetish slave in a traditional practice among West African ethnic groups, in which young girls are offered to atone for crimes, typically committed by a male family member, or in thanks for a blessing.

For more than 14 years, Dogbadzi says, she was overworked, partially starved, barred from attending school, beaten and -- from about age 12 -- raped by the 90-year-old priest who fathered her first child.

Unlike many others, she escaped.

Still illiterate at age 25, she is at the forefront of a campaign to eradicate the religious and judicial system known as Trokosi, which has become the target of a national debate in Ghana. Many local activists regard it as one of the country's most serious human-rights problems, and this spring, Dogbadzi was among four winners of the 11th annual Reebok Human Rights Award.

Political stability, positive economic policy and an active role in African peacekeeping initiatives all have helped Ghana win friends -- among them the United States. But sociologists, civic groups and women's-rights advocates argue that the Trokosi system, which dates at least to the 17th century, is impeding Ghana's social and economic development.

These groups estimate that about 4,000 girls and women are in bondage at 51 major shrines in the southeastern area of Ghana where the system is practiced. Including neighboring Benin and Togo, as many as 20,000 females are so enslaved, the organizations say.

"It has been going on for ages, and many women have died in the system, knowing nothing but the shrine life," says Vincent Azumah, a Ghanaian journalist whose articles in the early 1990s sparked a national debate about Trokosi. "They have not been able to help Ghana grow."

Azumah is now an official with International Needs Ghana, an organization fighting to phase out Trokosi, which in the local Ewe language means "wife of the gods."

The movement is strongly opposed by traditionalists, including some government officials, who argue that the intricacies of Trokosi have been misrepresented by groups seeking to attract foreign donations. International Needs receives funding from Danish International Development Assistance and from the Washington-based African Development Foundation.

Trokosi supporters insist that shrine women are not being enslaved, tortured or raped, and that attacks on the system are just one more way in which African traditions are under siege from Western ways.

Although the Ghanaian government outlawed Trokosi last year, threatening offenders with at least three years in jail, the legislation is not being enforced. So far, no one is known to have been prosecuted.

"Traditional people still believe that as long as someone does something wrong, the gods will punish them unless a girl is sent to a shrine," says Ali Mensah Quaye, a social worker for International Needs.

The girl, typically between the ages of 8 and 15, is presented by her family in the hopes of warding off bad luck, Quaye says. The most dreaded calamity is a rapid succession of mysterious deaths. The priest is considered the reincarnation of powerful, ancient gods who have the ability to administer justice and determine life and death.

As she leaves for the shrine, a girl is given gifts such as toiletries, bedding, cooking utensils and cloth that would normally mark the departure of a bride from home.

A girl's term at the shrine is traditionally five years, but most are forced to stay more than 10, and many spend their entire lives, Quaye says. When a Trokosi girl dies, the family is obliged to replace her.

"The priest has total control over their life," Quaye says. "But he is not obliged to take care of the girls." Relatives are supposed to care for them, but they rarely do.

Supporters of the custom maintain that real Trokosi is a system of justice that deters people from crime and that dedicated women are not slaves, but priestesses who are treated as queens.

"The lady brought to the shrine becomes a lady of prayer, a role model in that family," says Osofo Kofi Ameve, a spiritual leader in the Afrikan Renaissance Mission. "The [women] become a link between the divinities and the family. The family atones for the sin. The system is a deterrent. Having a fetish in the family is a reminder to live upright."

Ameve says girls are never forced to enter shrine life; neither are they subjected to harsh treatment, unpaid labor or sexual abuse. "Our divinities kill if you commit sin," he says.

Some women who served in shrines corroborate this view.

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