Slavery in Ghana: The Trokosi Tradition

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Date: 
1 Mar 1998

Abla KotorAbla Kotor is 13 years old. At the age of 12, she was given to a local priest in atonement for the rape that resulted in her birth, the rape of her mother by her mother's uncle. As soon as Abla Kotor has completed three menstrual cycles, she too will almost certainly be raped, by the priest to whom she was given. Meanwhile, she works his fields and farmlands, cleans his home and cooks his meals. She is one of thousands of young girls in southeastern Ghana, enslaved by the trokosi tradition. According to the tradition, families give virgin girls to priests as a way of appeasing the gods for crimes committed by relatives. The word trokosi means in the Ewe language "slaves of the gods." Once given to a priest, a girl is his property. There are two categories of trokosi - those who can be released after serving a specified number of years (normally three to five years) and those who are committed for life. If a girl dies or if the priest tires of her, her family has to replace her. For serious crimes families give up generations of girls in perpetual atonement. Even when girls are released, in accordance with the tradition, a trokosi is married for life to the god, and she may be required to render services at the shrine anytime after her release. Many released trokosi are unable to marry and remain in concubinage to the priest and to other men for the rest of their lives. When a priest dies, his trokosi are passed on to his successor. (Photo Courtesy of Robert Grossman/NYT Pictures)

According to International Needs Ghana, a human rights organization working for the release and rehabilitation of trokosi, the practice may have its origins in war and the role of gods in ensuring victory. At times in the past when men went to war they visited religious shrines for fortification and vowed to give women to the shrines if they came back alive. It is also said that girls were given to the shrines to solicit the help of the gods in having children. The initiation rituals of the trokosi signify marriage to a god and its proxy, the priest. Rituals performed by the trokosi include kneeling by the priest at the shrine, clapping and singing. The girls are also responsible for fetching the sacred water used at the shrine. Other duties to the priest include domestic chores such as cooking and washing, as well as farming. After the onset of menstruation, the bondage of trokosi is sexual as well. It is common to find trokosi with ten to fifteen children. The trokosi are denied access to education and other training. Their food and clothing must be supplied by their families.

International Needs Ghana has been actively working for legislation in Ghana that would criminalize the trokosi tradition. On 16 January 1998 a bill was introduced in Parliament providing as follows:

Whoever sends to or receives at any place any person or participates in or is concerned with any ritual or customary activity in respect of any person with the purpose of subjecting that person to any form of ritual or customary servitude or any form of forced labour related to customary ritual shall be guilty of a second degree felony and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years.

his bill, the Criminal Code Amendment Bill, includes a number of other provisions relating to the Criminal Code. The bill was referred to the Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Select Committee for discussion. It is currently pending in this committee.

International Needs Ghana has also been actively working for the release of individual trokosi. As a result of a seven-year, intensive campaign involving several human rights groups, International Needs Ghana reports that as many as ten shrines have given up the trokosi practice entirely, freeing 436 women and girls. To replace the income lost by freeing the trokosi, shrines have been provided with alternative methods of income generation, such as animal husbandry. International Needs Ghana has also helped many of the released women and girls to enter school or learn vocational skills that enable them to be self-sufficient. The organization recently introduced a microcredit program to help ensure the viability and sustainability of their economic activities. Counselling is also provided to address the trauma induced by the trokosi experience.

The trokosi practice is a form of slavery which violates the Ghanaian constitution. Article 14 of the Constitution provides, "Every person has a right to personal liberty" and Article 16 of the Constitution provides, "No person shall be held in slavery or servitude or be required to perform forced labor." Numerous international human rights treaties similarly prohibit slavery. In 1963, Ghana acceded to the 1926 Slavery Convention and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, adopted by the United Nations in 1957. These conventions obligate the government to take measures to bring about the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the following Parliamentary officials in Ghana. Urge them to pass the legislation which has been introduced to criminalize the trokosi tradition and to take immediate action to ensure the release of all trokosi in Ghana and the protection of girls in the future from this tradition. Note that Ghana is a party to many international treaties which prohibit slavery in all forms, and that the Constitution of Ghana also prohibits slavery and forced labor. Letters should be sent to:

Chairperson of the Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Select
Committee
Parliament House
Accra, Ghana

The Clerk of Parliament
Parliament House
Accra, Ghana

Chairperson of the Women's Caucus
Parliament of Ghana
Accra, Ghana