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Elderly women in the North ostracized and banished for reasons steeped in ignorance


Contemplate this scenario—I shudder at the thought; your mother is middle-aged, widowed and poor. She counts on her family for protection, and hopes to live out the rest of her life in anonymity. Her hopes however, are dashed by an unforeseen event; your older brother’s child succumbs to an undiagnosed disease.

Bizarrely, your mother is accused of causing the child’s death. The community reacts with fury and violence. Your poor mom is pounced on and savagely beaten by a mob made up of family members and neighbors. They threaten her with death and ultimately banish her from a community she has known all her life.

Your mom’s new environment/home is a thread-bare thatch hut among a collection of similar dwellings in a desolate village near Gambaga in the northern region that is far removed from civilization. The place lacks electricity, running water and other modern day amenities. So, like the other elderly women inhabitants stigmatized by witchcraft your mother trudges three miles every morning to draw water from a fetid pool.

The ordeal of your hypothetical mother and that of the other inhabitants of the Gambaga village where ostracized elderly women are confined was vividly portrayed in an expose by the British Broadcasting Corporation on Saturday, September 1, 2012.

Appropriately titled “No country for Elderly women,” the program, by and large, was an indictment of the Ghanaian government’s abject failure to concretely address the issue of elderly women abuse as it was a commentary on the northern region’s inexplicable attachment to obscure and absurd beliefs . It was to say the least, riveting and deeply troubling.

One woman, age 56, tearfully recalled the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family because her daughter-in -law had accused her of inflicting her with an ailment. The daughter-in-law did not die, but the woman was banished to Gambaga nonetheless. I could hardly control my emotions watching the expose. The treatment of these women is cruel, unfair and completely anathema to our system of beliefs.

The women portrayed are, to all intents and purposes, doomed to a lifetime of poverty and misery; abandoned, marginalized and confined to the periphery of society, they are dependent on the largesse of a society that is still tethered to arcane ideas.

Cognizant of the fact that they are at the mercy of an unforgiving society, the women are unwilling to rejoin their families and neighbors out of fear that a sudden death in the community would be reason for family members and neighbors to pelt them with stones and banish them one more time to Gambaga. It is a dilemma the women cannot escape from much as they would like to.

The plight of these elderly women in Gambaga is an indictment of the whole northern region. It points to the fact that we northerners have woefully failed our mothers, aunts and sisters. That we will stand by and allow a few elements to take the law into their hands and blatantly violate the rights of elderly women speaks volumes about our commitment to protect the most vulnerable in our region.

Despite the efforts of NGOs to put an end to the stigmatizing and ostracizing of elderly women accused of witchcraft, there is ample resistance. A dose of truth here; a large majority of northerners and Ghanaians I must add, still cling to the absurd notion that some in our communities, primarily elderly women, possess the magical ability to take the life of another human. Of course, this is largely unproven and completely at odds with science but it is music to those who believe in witchcraft.

There are those who believe that the north is in the grip of a time warp racked as it is with ethnic conflicts and chieftaincy disputes. Progress in the region they say is painstakingly slow. But that is their viewpoint. The fact is that the north is steadily coming along and will eventually be at par with the rest of the country. However, this goal will remain elusive if elderly women can’t be protected from the scorn and viciousness of their communities.



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