"Trokosi" - Ritual Servitude & Sexual Abuse

The most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on her mission to Ghana, highlights the practice of offering daughters as 'trokosi' to a traditional fetish shrine to ward off the punishment of the gods for crimes or moral wrongdoings committed by a family member.

The Ewe word trokosi can be translated as “slave to the gods” or alternatively as “wife to the gods”. The practice is thought to have originated in the seventeenth century as a means to attract the support of the gods, especially in times of crisis and war.

Excerpts from the report explain this harmful custom:

42. Some communities in the southern Volta Region and certain districts of the Greater Accra Region still practise an outlawed custom, which involves ritual servitude and sexual exploitation of girls. The custom requires a family to offer a virgin daughter as a trokosi [1] to a traditional fetish shrine to ward off the punishment of the gods for crimes or moral wrongdoings committed by a family member. The misdeeds for which atonement is sought may often date back generations. One former trokosi, for instance, told me that her family gave her to a fetish shrine when she was 8 years old, because her great-grandfather had failed to repay a debt and subsequently family members had started to die from seemingly mysterious causes.

43. A girl designated to become a trokosi is usually committed at a very young age (6 to 10 years old) to the shrine, where an initiation ritual betrothing the girl to the gods is performed. The ritual establishes a relationship of spiritual bondage between the girl and the shrine. From the moment of her betrothal, the trokosi must wear special insignia indicating her status and outsiders are prohibited from having any sexual contact with the girl. If a man sleeps with a trokosi, his family is believed to have incurred the wrath of the gods, therefore, must also offer a virgin daughter to the shrine. Meanwhile, the girl with whom the man had sexual relations is ritually “purified” and remains a trokosi at the shrine.

44. In addition to performing ritual duties and domestic chores at the shrine, a trokosi is usually also expected to work long hours on farmland belonging to the shrine. She does not receive anything in return for her labour and her family is required to provide her with food and all other necessities.

45. Once a trokosi reaches puberty, the shrine’s fetish priest (tronua) is entitled to sleep with the girl to consummate the marriage between her and the gods. Groomed from a very young age into accepting their servitude at the shrine, the girls are not in a position to refuse. Daughters born from such sexual relations also have certain obligations to the shrine.

46. After serving several years at the shrine, a trokosi may be released from servitude if her family pays for a special ceremony, but she will retain a relationship with the shrine and continue to perform certain rituals there. Released trokosi are allowed to marry, but are often unable to find a husband. If a trokosi dies, her family is expected to replace her with another girl and the cycle of ritual servitude and exploitation recommences.

47. In 1998, the Government passed a law against ritual servitude (among other things), criminalizing the practice of trokosi, although there have been no prosecutions under the law. Government officials were under the impression that the practice had since almost vanished. Information obtained from other sources indicates that the practice continues to thrive. Reportedly, there are at least 23 shrines in the Volta Region and 3 in the Greater Accra Region which still accept trokosi.

48. In many districts, the local authorities are reluctant to enforce the law against ritual servitude, fearing a popular backlash. Some also seem to fear adverse spiritual consequences for themselves. While a number of national authorities, including the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice and the Ministry for Women and Children’s Affairs have taken a strong stance against the practice of trokosi, there are many other elected politicians who fail to publicly denounce it in order not to alienate key constituencies.

49. Certain intellectuals defend trokosi as an indigenous religious tradition that provides girls with a form of apprenticeship. None of the former trokosi, with whom I have spoken, shared this view. One 17-year-old girl, the daughter of a trokosi and a fetish priest who had herself served in a shrine, asked me why only girls and not boys had to suffer to atone for the misdeeds of their families.

50. International Needs Ghana (ING) and other non-governmental organizations have led efforts to liberate trokosi and put an end to the practice. According to ING’s own estimates 3,500 girls have so far been liberated and 50 shrines have stopped accepting trokosi. ING seeks to liberate trokosi with the cooperation and consent of affected communities. Communities willing to cooperate are provided with much needed development infrastructure such as schools and boreholes. Fetish priests and shrine owners are encouraged to accept livestock or monetary donations, instead of girls, from families seeking to appease the gods. Once liberation is agreed, a ritual will be performed to break the spiritual bondage tying the trokosi to the shrine. Liberated trokosi are provided with the skills to reintegrate into ordinary life at the ING Vocational Training Centre, which is also open to other girls and women from affected communities.

To download a full copy of the report in English, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic, please see here: