Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, teaching diverse courses on the ethics of development work and mentoring students at many levels. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, an NGO that works to enhance bridges between different sectors and institutions. In September 2022, she was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Marshall has five decades of experience on a variety of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She was a World Bank officer from 1971 to 2006, and she led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006. Marshall is a member of the Working Group on Child Rights and Family Values and the Working Group on Displaced Persons and Hospitality to the Stranger, both part of the Culture of Encounter Project.
Many years ago, I visited a “home for witches” in West Africa, a Catholic Church charity that rescued women and some men exiled from their villages because they were seen as witches who cast evil spells. The sad faces there haunt me still, as did the fear that colleagues exhibited. But the experience recalled the deep roots of such beliefs; my own distant ancestor was hung as a witch in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Superstitions live on in many forms and places, and fears of evil powers take especially cruel forms. It’s heartening to see efforts to address the violence of those accused of witchcraft today by coalitions willing to brave the wrath of many, including well educated people, who believe at a gut level in mystical and evil powers of people, including older women, children, and albinos, who are seen as causing an extraordinary range of harms. Among positive actions are new African Union guidelines earlier this year condemning witchcraft practices.
In Ghana, the parliament on July 27 passed an act that criminalizes accusations of witchcraft, accompanied by commitments to free women from camps run by the government and a private Church charity. A leading advocate for the cause is scholar of religion John Azumah who leads the Sanneh Institute based in Accra. Azumah has been deeply involved in the coalition that moved strategically to secure passage of the law. His campaigning brought together political savvy, theological arguments, and raw determination.
I asked Azumah how he came to take on the issue. His fierce advocacy, he said, began in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, following the public lynching of a 90-year-old woman accused of being a witch. The case went viral, causing a furor, but such uproars commonly die down. But not for Azumah. The lynching case, and having a cousin in northern Ghana accused as a witch, fired his conscience, and his investigations highlighted the cruelty of the practice and its deep social and religious roots.
Over 600 accused witches, almost all elderly women, are in six different camps. They are exploited often for labor and suffer from hunger and lack of care. Many are essentially slaves. A woman may simply be banished from her village, but some rituals are said to determine if a woman is a witch. For example, a chicken’s head is cut off. After flopping around, if it dies on its stomach, the woman is guilty, while if on its back, she’s innocent. Azumah described how women are forced to scrape grains of rice and other cereals from the ground to eat. They may have a grandchild to provide some care, but the child is then tainted by the accusation. A form of exorcism, involving traditional healers, is needed even when a woman is seen as innocent and can return to her village. Rituals need to be performed, but they are expensive and few accused of witchcraft have the means they need to escape. Even today, public belief in witchcraft is widespread and everyone seemed to believe it, including pastors who even in sermons, accuse people.
Azumah campaigned actively for three years. The coalition focused both on the accusation that someone is a witch, treated with impunity, and on finding ways to support those exiled from their villages and confined to camps that lack resources to support those who find their way there. The campaign enlisted politicians, private citizens, and government officials, looking to a private member bill to circumvent conflicting government priorities and bureaucratic delays. Media were enlisted with pictures and videos of those accused, their sad stories, and even music. Azumah focused on different churches, taking on widespread beliefs that witchcraft has theological justifications. He was startled to find in many seminaries that many people believed that their religious beliefs supported witchcraft. He pointed out again and again that there’s nothing in the Bible, nothing in his religion, that supports the idea of witchcraft. It comes entirely, he said, from traditional beliefs and superstition. It is basically about fear and also issues of money. The issues are very often envy, jealousy. Muslims are very divided. People were afraid to speak against the practice and the widespread assumption that religious teachings supported the existence of witchcraft stood in the way of compassion and changes in practice.
On July 27, the last hurdle was surmounted with unanimous support in Parliament: there was no opposition. Despite laws on battery and against murder, this was the first measure against false accusations. The witch doctors and people who support the accusations were the targets of the new law. Azumah met wide support for his efforts, including a call from Ghana’s president, honoring what he had achieved. There was considerable pride in the new measure.
The next challenge is how to close the witch camps and to support the women confined there. The goal is to close the camps within two years. The legislation makes clear that people are now free to go, but questions remain as to whether they will find a place to go. Money, the cost of their resettlement, will be an issue. Generations will be needed before beliefs in witchcraft disappear. But the new law represents an important step forward in confronting the cruelty of persecution and mistreatment of people, fueled by prejudice and fear. And the victory of the anti-witchcraft coalition offers hope and an example of inspiration and persistence that turned a vision of human rights into practice.