Picture this: you are a 12-year-old girl, surrounded by your family in your compound in rural Togo. You want nothing more than to go to secondary school, graduate, and maybe move to the capital, Lome, get a good job and send money home someday in the future. Life is mostly good and simple – you learn to cook by your mother’s side, you tease your baby brother all day but you love him, and you are really good at conjugating your French verbs.
Until your uncle confesses to a crime – perhaps petty theft or adultery. Per tradition, somebody must pay… and somehow, that somebody is you. This, unfortunately, is a reality for some girls. This is the Trokosi system.
Under the Trokosi system, young virgin girls are given to local priests as a means of sacrificing for the sins of their families, in order to appease the gods. ‘Trokosi’ literally means “slave of the gods”, and it is believed that upon committing an atrocity, failure to send virgin girls to the shrine would lead to calamities upon the family of the offender. As such, families rather easily turn over their young girls to the shrines, where they often serve life-long hard labor by working the land on which the shrine stands, suffering rape and sexual slavery at the hands of the priests, and childbearing. The priest keeps all the money made from working the fields, and is neither obligated to take care of the Trokosi or of any child she bears. Worse still, even if Trokosi regain their freedom or run away, they are often too afraid to return home or are often not accepted into their families; as the families are too afraid of angering the gods by having a Trokosi under their roof.
According the the 1999 Human Rights Brief, the system originated in Togo and Benin as a war ritual in the 1600s. Before entering combat, warriors would visit religious shrines where they offered women to the war gods in exchange for victory and a safe homecoming. Essentially, this system has always been reliant on women as sacrifice, first for good fortune of men and now for atonement of their sins.
Often, the period of enslavement of the girls never ends, and upon death of the girl, her family is required to send another young girl to the shrine, making it a cyclical and unending system for young girls in the participating societies. Reports state that there are at least 3,000 girls and women bonded in the Trokosi system in Ghana alone; furthermore, there are about 16,000 children birthed to women bond within the system. Although Trokosi is outlawed in several West African countries, it is still practiced in some of the most rural parts of these countries, making it difficult to find and prosecute. The proponents of the system argue that it ensures deterrence, as people would not want to sacrifice their female children, and as thus will act properly. However, a clear response is that the perpetrator lives freely, while a young female child is forced into lifelong slavery in punishment for sins she never committed.
In the May 2018 BBC documentary, My Stolen Childhood, Trokosi survivor Brigitte Sossou Perenyi investigates the tradition that stole her childhood and committed her to slavery, all because her uncle committed adultery. Due to the benevolence of an American journalist who watched a documentary on Trokosi system, she was rescued from the shrine that she was held. The journalist flew to Togo to negotiate her freedom and then adopted her as his own. In making this documentary and sharing her experience, Brigitte intends to reveal the persistent prevalence of the system, raise awareness and rescue young girls and women trapped under this evil tradition.
Raising awareness on the Trokosi system and supporting organizations such as International Needs Ghana, which liberate young women in this system, will ensure that more girls get the opportunity to lead their own lives; just like you would hope to if you were a 12-year-old girl in rural Togo, whose uncle just committed a crime.
Written by Nneoma Nwankwo