Category Archives: gender equality

Shenka Kwame

Shenka Kwame was part of a group of 10 people who were accused of witchcraft in her community. There were 9 women and 1 man who were all publicly accused and immediately taken to the camps for alleged witches. To this day, the women are all living in the camps, but the man has returned and lives with his family while she is here alone and suffering. (her words, not mine.)

She was born around 1937 (she knows this because she had her first child when she was 20 in 1957). When we came she had just arrived from cutting firewood; she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her.

She had 3 kids with her first husband: 2 sons and 1 daughter.

Her trouble started when her husband married a second woman. The other wife kept harassing her until her husband told her to look for a new husband.

In this second marriage she had 2 girls, and then her second husband passed away.

There was a local dance and all the chief and elders were in attendance. Someone publically announcced that there were many witches in the community who were disturbing the peace. Shenka remembers hearing 7 names called and being relieved that her name hadn’t been called yet — but her name was last on the list.

She was going through menopause, which is why she was accused of being a witch. Unfortunately she had no one to support her so she had to accept the allegation.

The accused lined up in front of the chief and were each given a chicken. The belief is that a chicken can detect witchcraft. If you are innocent, the chicken will scream and testify that you are innocent as it is being killed. If you are guilty, the chicken will fall without screaming.

Shenka was the first to hand over her chicken. It screamed and she presumed it meant that the community would believe her innocence. The process was repeated with the other 9 who were accused. The chicken didn’t scream for 8 of them. She was one of the two innocent people. She returned home.

But the community didn’t accept the chicken’s testimony and didn’t believe that she was innocent. Shenka had to flee because her community wouldn’t accept her.


She has no one to take care of her, and she asks one of the community members to check on her regularly. Without his visits, no one would know if she had died.

During the wet season, she can walk the mile to the nearest water source. During the dry season she isn’t strong enough to make it over the hills to the river, so she has to sell some firewood to buy water.

She’s been here for 11 years and if she was asked to return to her community, she won’t go. Where would she go? She’s accepted at Kukuo.

She doesn’t forgive those who accused her and she wants god to shorten her life so her suffering ends. She doesn’t have a future and wants her future to end today. (her words)

Shenka believes communities do this out of hatred towards those who are hard-working, especially women. They must think “if we allow this woman, then she will grow. We should stop her progress” (these are her words that were translated to me). She believes that god will one day pay them back.

She doesn’t understand the accusations; why would you think bad against a colleague?

Shenka believes that witchcraft exists, but she’s innocent. After all, the chickens said that 8 of the 10 people that were accused along with her had witchcraft.

No one has paid her a visit here. She didn’t do anything wrong, but now her family rejects her. When she is gone, she doesn’t even care if she gets a funeral.

Her hut leaks everywhere and so she wanted me to put out an appeal to help her get a new roof. A bundle of thatch is 5 cedi, and she needs 8-10 bundles for a roof.

Camps for Alleged Witches

Entering the camp

It all starts with an accusation of witchcraft.

Evidence of witchcraft can be multiple things: death, sickness, missing testicles, seeing someone in your dreams.

According to one of the women we met, certain factors increase the likelihood of a witchcraft allegation: going through menopause, being economically empowered if you are a woman, speaking out, and a community member dying. Hot flashes are seen as a spirit attacking you. Speaking out and being economically empowered is a sign that your spirit has something extra. Mysterious deaths and sicknesses are attributed to witchcraft – during malaria season or cholera outbreaks the number of witchcraft allegations increase.

These alleged witches are then beaten and tortured until they leave the community either by force or out of fear. There usually isn’t a warning or enough time to gather belongings. All they have are the clothes on their back. Most alleged witches never return.

The accused are then sent to one of 6 camps that are well-known for accepting accused witches. We visited Kukuo in Northern Ghana.

I imagined the camp would be small and only contain alleged witches, but the camp is huge. Kukuo alone currently holds 136 witches — that’s not including regular community members and family. Many of the accused women are elderly and cannot care for themselves, so the majority have daughters, granddaughters, or other family members that stay with them. When family members come, they are also banished from their community; many people believe that witchcraft is inherited.

After accused witches arrive at Kukuo, the chief and the priest take care of them until the accused goes through a purification ceremony. It involves drinking a special concoction and killing two chickens. (There will be more on the ceremony in a later blog post.)

The purification ceremony cleanses the alleged witches of their powers and the alleged witches are considered born again. Their supposed powers are no longer there, but their communities still won’t accept them back – unless they’re a man. Men are allowed to return and continue life right where they left off. Women risk death if they return.

Kukuo is there as a safe place for these women and accepts them with open arms. According to the chief, women are not powerful and not recognized in society. These women had their human rights abused and wouldn’t be at Kukuo in any other circumstances. The other communities don’t handle accusations properly, which is why so many end up at Kukuo.

Kukuo’s goal is to socialize these women and integrate them back into their community and make sure they don’t face any discrimination. After all, the alleged witches have been neutralized through the cleansing ceremony and don’t have powers any more.

The chief allows the alleged witch to pick some land, and then the youth build her a small hut for her to live. The community provides her with counseling and some clothes to get started for her new life in Kukuo.

The government is trying to ban these camps from happening because they are considered to be violations of human rights. Kukuo supports the idea of not having camps for the accused witches, but knows it’s not realistic. Unless Kukuo is there, where will these women go?

Reintegration

Action Aid and Songtaba are the two organizations that work most frequently with Kukuo. Their ultimate goal is to get these women reintegrated back into other communities, but it takes a lot of work.

They must assess the woman’s individual case and her accusations. The community needs to be checked to see how accepting they would be of her return. Their family must also be extremely supportive. If all of those conditions are right, the women return to their community for a few days. Then Action Aid watches to see how the community reacts.

Most women are never reintegrated and many don’t ever want to return to their communities. Why go back to a community that almost killed them?

Conditions at Kukuo

The women have to walk miles to the closest source of water. (It’s a female-only chore.) If that well is dried up, which is most of the year, then they must walk many more miles over a few hills to reach the next source of water.

Feeding is difficult. Many of the women talked about going without meals or depending on scraps.

Housing is another universal concern. The huts are covered with thatch which must be replaced every 2 years. Unfortunately many can’t afford new roofs. During the rain it leaks heavily and the inhabitants stay standing until it stops so they can mop out the water and have a dry place to sleep. It’s impossible to sleep.

Clothing is another concern. The accused women literally only have the clothes in their back when they enter. Accused witches aren’t allowed to take anything when they leave their communities.

Kukuo isn’t an ideal place to live, but it’s the only place where many of these women are accepted. Water, food, shelter, and clothing were universal concerns and came up often during interviews.

This past week many of these women shared their stories and voiced their concerns to me. I’m incredibly grateful that they opened up their houses and shared these difficult memories. Their biggest request was that I tell their stories to others so that others know of the terrible discrimination and conditions they face.

I took a lot of notes, and over the next few days I’ll be sharing their stories with you.

Menstrual Cycles… oh my

The past few weeks the Pathfinders have been working at the Alliance for African Women Initiative (AFAWI) in Accra, Ghana.

from the inside of AFAWI's office

One of the boards that decorates the inside of AFAWI’s office

Ben and I have spent a lot of time editing the website. It hasn’t been updated in a while and it’s missing a lot of the amazing work AFAWI has done within the past few years. Plus the website missing some essential new programs that were recently added. Apparently many people were (understandably) questioning the validity of these new projects. I think it’s incredibly important for an organization to have a nice website – it lends legitimacy to an organization.

Anyway one of the parts I was in charge of was the research paper part of the website. I spent a lot of time reading AFAWI’s research.

Phillip, the programs co-ordinator and one of the founders of the Alliance for African Women Initiative

Phillip, the programs co-ordinator and one of the founders of the Alliance for African Women Initiative

Did you know that many girls drop out of school because of their menstrual cycles?

The gender gap in education widens as girls get older, and some of that is contributed to menstruation. Oftentimes, the environment at school doesn’t allow a young woman to feel comfortable doing essential things like changing pads.

From what I’ve been told most schools don’t have bathroom stalls that are high enough. This results in a lot of peeking and teasing. Can you imagine trying to change a pad in that when you’re a teenager? Plus 87% of boys admitted to teasing their female teenage peers about menstruation. What a nightmare.

There aren’t any places for young women to dispose of sanitary products at school, and as many people know dogs love to sniff out pads.

Also many girls can’t afford sanitary pads and instead opt for things like grass and toilet paper. And embarrassment led a lot of the girls attempt to dry their reusable cloth indoors – which can lead to a lot of mold and mildew. Yikes.

As a result, many girls opt to stay home during their periods instead of attending school. That means they miss a week out of every month of schooling. Many of these girls then start to fall behind their peers and eventually drop out.

I can’t imagine being unable to obtain an education because of something as natural as menstruation.

AFAWI does a lot to help this situation. They built new stalls for the bathrooms, incinerators for girls to dispose of their pads, gave girls a free supply of pads for a year, and educated everyone (including boys) about menstruation to stop the teasing.

AFAWI gave a years supply of menstrual supplies to students. photo credits to AFAWI

I know, I sound like a walking billboard for them, but I really really like what they do. This is one of like 20 programs that AFAWI has going on.

So this week during teen club (another awesome program that AFAWI does) the officers wanted us to give the club a talk about cleanliness and hygiene – the topic of menstruation fell on me. Crap.

Teen Club meeting

Teen Club meeting

I was hesitant. Talking to teenagers about menstruation, pads, periods and stuff? Queue the giggles and snickering. It’s nerve-wracking enough without the added pressure of knowing that it could potentially change whether or not some of these girls stay in school.

It doesn’t help that I look about 12 years old. (In fact, that was one of the first questions they asked me at the end of my spiel) What would a 12 year old know about menstruation?

The nervousness left when I saw how eager many of the girls were. A lot were taking notes. The boys were interested too. I had to preface my talk with a part about why it’s an issue that concerns all of them – not just women.

During the talk I covered:

  • menstruation is normal
  • the anatomy of menstruation
  • why it’s an education and gender issue
  • menstruation is perfectly natural
  • sanitary products that are available
  • how to use each of these sanitary products safely
  • and that menstruation is absolutely normal (I really emphasized this point. Why should you be embarassed about something so natural?)

And you know what? There wasn’t a lot of giggling and the students paid attention. Huge sigh of relief.

Ben, Conor, and Wendy’s topics went well too. Ben covered HIV/AIDS, Wendy talked about general hygiene (brush your teeth, wash your hands, etc), and Conor discussed mental health.

On the agenda for next week for teen club: a debate on whether kids their age should be in relationships. This should be interesting.

 

(Sorry. There aren’t any pictures of me actually giving the talk. Everyone was busy)

 

If you like what the Pathfinders Project is doing, please donate. All the money is going to support us in our work at AFAWI and at the witch camps in Ghana.

Dowry Debate

Kasese, Uganda

While in Uganda, I’ve had a few interesting conversations about dowries and bride prices. Here’s a link to my initial post where I recount my conversation about gender equality with some female teachers.

The week after this conversation, the students decided to debate whether bride prices should still happen. The debate took place on Friday. Only P4 and P5 were able to attend. P6 and P7 were busy. All the students crowded into a small classroom and took turns voicing their opinions in front of their peers.

debate

Each side had a piece of paper that they would pass around that listed the points. Students mostly read the points off the list and jumbled up whether they proposed or opposed the motion, so I did the best I could with my notes.
Here were the points made:

Motion: Bride prices should be abolished.

Proposers (get rid of the dowries)

Women should not be treated as property Women are not goats and shouldn’t be sold like cattle. Making women items that men can purchase also means that men can neglect their wives.

Dowries lead to sexual immorality among youth Some men cannot afford dowry prices, but they still have sexual desires. This could lead young people to have sex before marriage, which can potentially lead to HIV and the transmission of other STIs.

Dowries lead to late marriages Men who cannot afford dowries must marry later when they are able to afford the dowry. Some men are even dying without marrying anyone because of bride prices.

Dowries increase domestic violence Women cannot leave when domestic violence occurs because her family will have to return the dowry back to the husband. She is pressured to stay with her abuser.

Economic inequality Those without money cannot afford a wife. This is unfair to those who are poor.

Dowries increase poverty The student gave an example where a man didn’t have any cows. To buy a wife, the student explained, the man would have to sell his land to marry the woman he wants, but the wife can’t produce and help the man earn back the land.

Sugar mommies (this was a joke)

Women’s education gets neglected After most women get married, they do not continue their education. Bride prices also incentivize families to sell their daughters while the daughters are young so the family does not have to pay for education

Opposers (want the dowries)

Dowries decrease divorce Wives are obligated to stay with their husbands. If the wife divorces her husband, the family must return the dowry. Without the dowries, the wife will no longer feel obligated to stay with her husband. Interestingly, it was one of the female teachers who made this point. She argued that the dowries should stay because if her husband hit her, she’d be forced to stay so her family could keep the dowry. She saw this as something positive. That is definitely not the way I see it.

Creates respect for women Paying a dowry is a way for a woman to gain respect. It demonstrates that women have a tangible value and that someone is willing to pay a price for her. In this debate I was expecting the females to be arguing against the dowries, but surprisingly the strongest advocates and the majority of the supporters were females. I kind of understand it now. To many of them, dowries are seen as a form of respect, because it gives tangible value.

Helps families earn income The families who are poor can get more money when their daughters get married. This point was made by a P4 girl. She said that the dowry that her family received would go to her brother, which her brother could then use to buy a wife.

Creates unity between families After the dowry is paid, the families are now united by the dowry. It was weird to me that they saw this dowry as the magical uniting factor, instead of the marriage by itself. Many of the women asked me (in much better terms) what prevents people from marrying whomever they want whenever they want? A good point. Nothing is stopping me from marrying some random guy I just met.

Give men respect Men gain respect in his wife’s family through the dowry. I wonder if the kids think that men will get absolutely no respect from their bride’s family without a bride price.

Women get married anyway Marriage is inevitable, so families might as well get money for it. All of this debate seemed to hinge on the fact that not getting married was the end of the world and that every single person absolutely must get married.

Saves time It’s a waste of time for a woman to go to college if she will get married. No comment necessary.

Creates love You must have love in order to get married, and the dowry helps create that bond. I found this interesting, because this was completely opposite from what the women told me last time.

No dowries makes men thieves If you raise a female child and a man takes her without compensation, that man is a thief. I wanted to intervene here and ask them if a man is considered to be taken away from his family when he gets married. There seemed to be an idea that women leave their families, but men get to maintain their connections to their own family. That was the impression I got.

Without an exchange of money, women are prostitutes If you don’t offer a bride price and a woman has sex with you, that woman is a prostitute. This surprised me. They didn’t even divulge into the fact that in this scenario the man could be considered a prostitute as well.

Maintains culture tradition!

 

Conor writes about his observations of gender dynamics in Uganda in his latest post.

Dowry: A Lifetime of Debt

Kasese, Uganda

Earlier this week at Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda Conor offered to pour water for some of the female teachers. They immediately pulled their hands away and signaled to him that it was inappropriate; men cannot pour water for women.

When I joined the conversation, the women were telling Conor how kneeling when greeting and pouring water were one of the many ways women show respect for men. Conor playfully asked the teachers how they would feel if he knelt while greeting them. The women nervously giggled and didn’t give an answer.

Conor, Wendy, and I immediately recognized this as an opportunity to discuss gender (in)equality.

We asked the teachers to tell us other ways that women show respect to men. Women serve all the food and pour water. For their husbands they shine their husband’s shoes, wash his back, clip his toenails, and bring water and towels to wash his feet at night in addition to cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children (not to mention teaching all day).

Wendy and I explained that women don’t do anything like that in the United States; women and men are equal there and respect is equally given in a relationship. This was met with great surprise.

“But what about dowries? Do men pay the dowries there?”

Wendy and I answered that no, men do not pay dowries in the United States, and that our fathers would probably reject a dowry if one was offered.

From what the women told us, there aren’t any arranged marriages in Uganda; the women and men choose each other. Shortly after deciding that they should marry, the fiance meets the parents and asks for a price.The man returns with the payment at a second meeting, and then the couple is married shortly afterwards.

The wife then spends the rest of her life paying her husband back for her dowry.

One of the women said that there must be a lot more love between spouses in the United States. She said that the dowry and paying the dowry back erases the love that was once there.

I think the women realized that dowries are unfair, but I don’t think they could imagine a society where dowries don’t exist.

Apparently it’s a problem that’s on a lot of people’s minds. Later in the week when the principal was asking students for debate topic proposals, a female student suggested that we debate bride prices. The vote was nearly unanimous. Next week’s debate motion is “Bride prices should be abolished”. I’m excited to hear what the students will say. I will post an update next week on the debate.

Update: So Conor has been offering to pour water for the women. Most women flat out rejected his offer and pulled their hands away, but one woman accepted. As he poured, a group of 3 young women walked by. They nudged each other and then paused for a bit to stare at the odd sight.

Update: I summarized all the points from the debate in this post.