Ghana (MNN) — Ritual servitude. The phrase conjures up images of The Temple of Doom. It makes one think of priests and priestesses from ancient Egypt. It’s not a modern phrase, or applicable to today’s world by any stretch.
Or is it?
In Ghana, many women are subjected to a life of ritual servitude at shrines. It’s a form of slavery enforced by cultural and familial expectations and beliefs.
Lorella Rouster of Every Child Ministries sheds some light on the situation. She tells us about girls called trokosi. “These are girls and women who are given to the shrines, to the priests. [One] of the reasons why they’re given is to serve as an atonement or a living sacrifice to pay for an alleged crime that some male members of the family has supposedly done.”
They are a living sacrifice to false gods to pay for something that often is a false accusation against themselves or a family member.
There are other kinds of ritual servitude, Rouster explains. For instance, some parents unable to conceive will pray to a certain idol. When the child is born, their life is given to that idol. The family believes if they don’t dedicate their child, they will die. Some even name their children after the god.
While many people working to change this practice focus on the trokosi, Rouster says, “We have opted to work with all of the groups because we feel that all of it is oppressive and all of the women need help, regardless of exactly why it is that they got into that situation.”
Women devoted to the shrine are sometimes allowed to live outside of it. But they are basically on call and under the continual direction of the shrine. They’re told where to live, who to marry, etc.
“They’re really not free even though they’re living outside the shrine. And some of those victims have approached ECM asking us to help liberate them to help them break all connection with the shrine so that they can get on with their lives,” Rouster says.
The challenge is that most shrines willing to liberate the women have already done so. Whole-shrine operations are less likely. “The liberation of a whole shrine is difficult because everybody, including the whole shrine community has to agree. And getting that many people to agree is very difficult,” Rouster says. Many times they have begun negotiating with a shrine where those immediately involved–even the priests–agree to let the women go. But when a relative speaks out and disagrees, the proceedings come to a halt.
ECM had to change their mode of operation, and they have. Last month they had their first liberation ceremony, a time to mark the end of slavery for 12 individuals. Because they cannot do whole shrines, ECM has been focusing on individual liberations.
When women decide they no longer want to be enslaved to the shrine, they will reach out to ECM who checks out their story and then helps them.
The freedom isn’t just removing them from the situation, but sharing the freedom that comes with knowing Jesus Christ as their savior.
“The Gospel saturates the whole program. From the beginning of working with the women, we share the Gospel with them. All 12 of these women have received Christ. That’s very important because it really gives them the power to stand up and say “no” to the system. And without that, I’m not sure they would have the strength to remain true to that commitment.”
Part of the process has been helped along by Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).
Rouster says, “We’re helping the victims to see that they have a right to refuse to serve is slaves. That’s always been true, but it’s just hard for them to grasp that because their families, immediate communities, the shrine are all telling them that they have to do what they say and live where they want them to, and so on.
“But they just have to exercise their rights as Ghanaian citizens to freedom which includes freedom of religion.”
So it isn’t a situation where women are bound by the law to continue serving the shrine. Rouster explains, “The chains that bind these women are not physical chains. They are social, psychological, and spiritual chains. So some of those who have been released are ready with encouragement from ECM and from their own government–entities like CHRAJ–to cast off those chains and to declare their freedom.”
The ceremonies are an attempt to make these decisions more official and memorable. Participants receive a certificate describing their liberation.
For those who are not trokosi but other individuals seeking freedom from the shrine, this process is called a crossover.
After the women are freed, they are taught vocational skills at the New Life Center sponsored by ECM.
In order to free more women and train them, ECM needs more sponsors. It costs about $400 per woman because ECM is careful to background check the women to prevent mistakes.
This money covers the cost of their children as well. Contribute here.
By breaking women out of spiritual, lifelong bondage, ECM is helping break the chains of bondage for generations to come.
“We need people really upholding these women because there are strong forces that will try to pull them back. Both family-type forces: others in the family believe that the gods will be angry at them because of the stand that they’ve taken, and the shrines who make all kinds of threats against them. So they really need a lot of strength. We know that comes from the Lord, but maybe it comes through the prayers of his people as well.”