More than 1,200 fetish shrine slave girls in Ghana have been freed in the past three years, thanks primarily to the negotiating ingenuity of the Lynden, Washington–based International Needs (IN).

Although Ghana's constitution bans servitude, the fetish slave practice is entrenched in African traditional religion (CT, Aug. 16, 1993, p. 54). In the southern part of Ghana's Volta region, there are 166 shrines of fetish priests, who are viewed as intermediaries to tribal deities.

The priests obtain the girls to pay for crimes by family members who want to appease gods and avert disaster caused by a curse on the entire household. Thus, they willingly hand over a daughter to be come property of the priest.

The girls, as young as four, must cook and farm. At age thirteen, they also become sex slaves to the priest.

But IN has been able to break the pattern. Typically by swapping cows and cash, IN persuades a priest to free a girl. "By signing a binding document, the priest guarantees that the girl won't be in bondage again," says Walter Pimpong, 50, executive director of IN Ghana.

Once the females are freed, IN rehabilitates them. Older girls receive vocational training that includes dressmaking and mat weaving. Younger ones learn how to read and write—using the Bible as a textbook. In addition, children of the slaves are educated at an IN-operated kindergarten next to the vocational center.

Ghana last year criminalized ritual servitude, but the law is hard to en force. "Religious beliefs won't die out without education and an advocacy campaign," Pimpong says.

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