Engaging local leaders to use their influence to help end abuse

The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice in Ghana solicits the support of respected commu­nity leaders — chiefs and queen mothers — to address the problem of trokosi, a system in which women and young girls are kept in fetish shrines without their consent. Families give their girls to the shrines to atone for the sins or crimes committed by a family member, and to thereby end or reverse a family’s bad luck.

The Commission has the power to enforce laws against trokosi, but it took this tactical approach because it recognized that the tradition is based on deeply held beliefs and, if not transformed voluntarily, might simply go underground. To prepare for the campaign, the Commission researched the beliefs behind trokosi and built an al­liance with International Needs Ghana, an NGO that counsels and rehabilitates former victims of trokosi. Together they host meetings with the victims and the fetish priests at which everyone is encouraged to share their views.

Local leaders then help the Commission emphasize the need to abandon the practice and use their position in the community to convince the fetish priests to free the women and girls. Liberation ceremonies bring the com­munity together to publicly recognize the priests’ decision and help fulfill the community’s spiritual needs. These ceremonies are covered by the media, demonstrating to the broader public that the local leaders support ending the practice. This tactic has freed about 3,000 women and girls.


For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

When looking for allies in a campaign to end abuse, community leaders are a natural choice. They might be tribal leaders, elders, religious leaders, local politicians or just individuals with charisma and influence.

Calling for an end to a traditional practice without addressing the underlying beliefs and structures that keep it in place, or without proposing an alternative that allows those beliefs and structures to be transformed, can drive communities to hide the practice rather than end it. This tactic depends upon the respect of a community for its leaders, and the willingness of those leaders to set an example for the community to follow. To end the trokosi practice, it is essential that communities be convinced that they do not need to relinquish their family members to the priests in order to atone for their sins. The liberation rituals and the reassurances from community leaders are essential in alleviating fears of reprisals from the gods and in building trust within the community.

This tactic could be useful in helping to transform or eradicate other traditional or entrenched social practices that violate human rights, such as female genital cutting or domestic violence.