For 80 year old Awabu Mahama, basic human rights have been absent from her life since 1996, the year she was banished from her home and community and sent to the alleged Witch Camp in Kukuo. During her time in the camp over the past 20 years, she’s been denied the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom from torture, right to a fair trial and right to a living wage.
Awabu is one of 30 accused witches living in Kukuo, located in the Nanumba South district in the Northern region of Ghana.
“I was a widow living with my cousins. After a powerful man killed a young boy in the community, my cousins blamed me and said I was a witch.”
As a destitute woman living in the village, it was easy for Awabu to be discriminated against. Due to her age and gender, her remaining family saw her as a burden and accusations of witchcraft made it easier for them to be rid of the responsibility to care for her. With nobody to support or stand up for her, the mother of 6 daughters told me, “If I had a son, things would have been different.”
Across northern Ghana, many girls aren’t even sent to school because they are seen to be supported by their future husbands and therefore not in need of an education. The women are also prohibited to inherit land or credit from male family or spouses. I ask, “When in a woman’s life is she worthy of her own choices?”
The change needs to start with awareness and empowerment from a young age. It can be easy to dismiss the existence of Witch Camps as lack of modernity- but at a time where the newly elected leader of the free world openly brags of kissing and grabbing women without their consent, I don’t believe this to be so. Women, in both the communities of Northern Ghana and in the eyes of President-elect Trump, are valued only under certain conditions. ‘Good women’ are seen to meet gender norms, beauty standards, bare children and keep a good home to which they are often met in return with praise, protection and awarded affection. ‘Bad women’ -women outside of these norms - are shamed and scorned in the belief that somehow they deserve it.
The same undertones are present across many societies internationally. As soon as a woman is outside of the accepted gender norm of her culture, she unwittingly opens herself up to discrimination. If a woman in a community in Northern Ghana becomes too independent, perhaps acquiring two or three different things to sell successfully, she will be shunned from society and isolated. As a photojournalist in New York, I was met with a similar stance of misogyny. For me, the only thing worse than being faced with this reality was the lack of support and being accused of opening myself up to that type of degrading because I chose to live in a city like New York and chase a career. Actually, no. By chasing a career of my choice in a city of my choice, I do not open myself up to a Chief Photographer of a major sports organization discrediting me by suggesting I should be in front of the camera and not behind it. By pursuing an education, I do not open myself up to the sexual harassment of a teacher to tell me that without him and use of his contacts, I won’t have a career.
The lack of support is cutting and disparaging. The offering of support is crucial, life changing and most importantly – where empowerment begins. How can the women of these communities stand up with no support from their communities or families?
Although this type of misogyny is present worldwide on a daily basis, it is the education and empowerment of women that begins the fight to change it. Most of the accused women have no knowledge that they are able to seek legal advice against the mob mentality they face, which is now a key teaching from the staff of ActionAid working within the communities as a support system to the women.
The words said to me by a man that will stick, “Why does it always happen to you?” - To which I would now very openly like to respond: “It doesn’t.”
This is not some trivial issue to be labelled as ‘women’s rights’ and shoved to the side because it only happens to certain women who behave a certain way in certain communities. Far from that. This affects half of the world’s population every single day and the change begins with awareness and empowerment.