Due to the current refugee crisis, more and more global human rights violations have recently been illuminated to the public. The Internet has proven to be a powerful resource in this enlightenment, with images like that of the injured boy in Aleppo going viral. While refugee protection is currently the human rights issue that is catching the most public attention, there is no time better than now to begin shedding light on other issues – including the ever-continuing issue of child slavery through the world.
Slavery has held a persistent presence around the globe, especially with corporations exploiting labor in poorer countries for cheap and efficient production. In fact, http://slaveryfootprint.org/ allows you to take a survey and see just how many slaves work for you based on your consumption habits, if you are interested in putting a slight damper on your day while becoming a little more aware of the scope of this worldwide human rights issue.
Spire Magazine’s Carly Gillingham had the pleasure of meeting Brigitte Sossou Perenyi, a former child slave from Togo who was trafficked to rural Ghana by her uncle to be a victim of what is called the trokosi system, a centuries-old tradition that still exists in Togo, Ghana, Benin, and parts of Nigeria. Trokosi translates to “slave of the gods,” or “wife of the deity,” and the practice entails young girls being forced into manual labor by fetish priests to “serve the gods.” At puberty, the girls become the priests’ sexual property as well, and they are to serve their priest for the rest of their lives without any pay or food. The girl is regarded as the property of the gods, and she must find their own way to acquire money for food, including selling goods on the side of the road. Perenyi is one of the few who was able to escape this corrupt and dated system, and has now devoted her life to being an international human rights activists She has plans to travel to Ghana in the near future through her very own human rights foundation to conduct interviews with other women who were placed in the trokosi system. Perenyi has received her master’s degree in International Relations & Human Rights from the University of Roehampton in London, and truly exemplifies the potential of the unfortunate young women who are restricted due to age-old practices like the trokosi system. The FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy’s Broad International Lecture Series brought Perenyi in for a panel at the Globe to tell her story.
With the telling of her exceptional story, Perenyi offered a new, provocative perspective to college students in attendance of the lecture.
“I am but a young 25 year old, and in the short years of my life I have experienced a lot, which I may not be able to tell you in the next thirty minutes. … When I interviewed [my parents] for a Marie Claire article in 2012, they said I really enjoyed school as a child. I looked forward to waking up every day and going to school and meeting my friends and learning about new things and discovering new things. I think I was so good that the teacher selected me to be the class president – I know that sounds like a heavy title for a young seven year old, but it just meant that I was responsible for writing down the names of any students that disrupt the class when the teacher is not around, and I think I was pretty good at it, too, because my paper always had a long list of students.”
This anecdote about Perenyi’s happier part of her childhood and education brought smiles and elicited laughs from the audience. But there was an eery anticipation in the room to hear how it was all taken from her.
“One day, my uncle came to my village, my mom’s brother,” she continued. “My mother told me that he told my parents that I am to come with him (my uncle) and live with him and his family and perform rituals for his healing. He was sick with what we later found out to be Parkinson’s Disease … I remember being placed on the back of a motorbike, driven away from my family, my village, and my school. That day, my childhood ended, and my life would never be the same. … After a couple of days, he took me to [the shrine] and left me there. When I arrived, rituals were performed, which consisted of me stripping away of my former life. My clothing was taken off, my jewelry, and my shoes, and I was given a piece of cloth that I wrapped around me which was to be my clothing for the rest of my life. I was given a concoction to drink, and there was a recitation of an incantation by the priest. I’d been marked and branded a trokosi in a fetish shrine.”
This is extremely difficult to imagine for us as Americans, because this sort of traditionalist religion is not known to us. Perenyi, knowing this, went on to explain the spiritual reasoning behind sending a young girl to a shrine to serve the gods.
“The way the trokosi system works is this. Say, for example, I say something offensive to someone. And that person then pronounces the name of the war god. That god then mysteriously searches for the wrongdoer’s family and places a curse on that family. So for example there might be mysterious deaths or sickness, and the family will want to find out what’s happening, and will then go to a witch doctor. The witch doctor will then say a curse has been placed on your family by this person, and in order for the deaths to cease or sickness to get well, you must give up a young virgin girl to appease the gods. So, in the practice, according to the system, the girl is to go and serve a maximum of five years, but there hasn’t been a case where a girl child does 5 years and goes back to her family. The day for a young trokosi begins at 5 am, when we will sweep the compound, fetch water, and from there we will attend to the crops on the priest’s farm. You are up from 5 am to 10 or 11pm with no food or no pay.”
At this point in telling her story, Perenyi was visibly emotional, but maintained a remarkable composure. The next part of her story was the anticipated narrative of her escape from slavery.
After what seemed like an eternity of praying for her family to come and take her back home, there was a sudden commotion in Brigitte’s village, and then in her own shrine. Christiane Amanpour, formerly on CBS 60 Minutes (now with CNN) had heard about the trokosi practice in the media after International Needs Ghana launched an anti-trokosi campaign, and had travelled to Ghana to film a short documentary for 60 Minutes. The documentary was subsequently viewed worldwide, including being viewed by Brigitte’s now adoptive father, who decided to come to Ghana to adopt her after contacting CBS to get him in touch with International Needs Ghana.
“The thing is, the shrine where I was, I believe I was the only one liberated from the shrine. The priest who was the head of that shrine didn’t want to liberate any girls, and so he demanded a lot of money to be paid for my freedom along with other bizarre things to be given to him: alcohol, and medication to cure his alcoholism. So, everything was provided and before my adoption process was finalized I needed to learn English … And a lady by the name of Susan Sabaa at the time was working with International Needs Ghana and she offered my home to me, which was, as I look back now, was brave on her part because people still look down upontrokosis and fear them because they believe they are the wife of the gods and they have been marked. I lived with them, and being that young, I picked up English in less than six months. … When I was living with the Sabaas family, I was getting really attached to the family; in a way, I didn’t want to leave. But my dad had paid for my release, and it was time for me to leave with him. So I said goodbye to a second family, and I left Ghana.”
And so began Perenyi’s new life. She had the incredibly rare opportunity to start anew, something that most child slaves or similarly disadvantaged children across the world are not able to do. This served as her drive and motivation. During her studies at Eckerd College, she completed an internship doing research in Ghana with the Child Research and Resource Center. During this research, she discovered for the first time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Ghana’s own Children’s Act.
“In these documents I learned about rights. I saw that I wasn’t supposed to be a slave in a shrine,” Perenyi explained, “Also, the adults in my life are supposed to make sure I have a happy childhood growing up.”
After this discovery, Perenyi changed her major from International Business to International Studies & Development in order to begin her academic track towards becoming an expert on human rights studies. Immediately following the completion of her undergraduate degree at Eckerd, and before she could begin her master’s degree, Perenyi had already been offered a job by International Needs Ghana, the very organization that had helped liberate her from slavery. Perenyi accepted the job and left for Ghana to work with other former trokosi women. After two and a half years working for International Needs Ghana, Perenyi moved to London to attend the University of Roehampton, where she studied International Relations & Human Rights. During her time at Roehampton, she again went to Ghana to conduct further field research on the trokosi practice.
During her research, Perenyi got the opportunity to interview the head of the Afrikania Mission, an organization of men who support and advocate for the preservation of the trokosi practice and other traditionalist African rituals.
“When I met with him, he denied the practice right in my face,” Perenyi explained. “He said it stopped happening centuries ago and now shrines are for divinity and healing, there is no abuse of women or anything like that; and International Needs Ghana needs to stop painting a terrible picture of Ghana to the rest of the world. We don’t abuse our women, we love our women. … His words… confirmed that I wanted to champion this cause (of ending trokosi). So when I was interviewing him, I told myself I would ask him a question, and based on the answer I would tell him who I am. So I asked him, ‘You said the practice ended centuries ago. So if I show you a young lady right now that was just liberated in 1997, what would you say?’ He said, ‘I would take that young lady by the hand, and I would make her take me to the shrine that she was supposedly liberated from.’”
To this, Perenyi simply responded, “Okay,” ending the interview and further showcasing her strength and patience.
After earning her master’s degree, Perenyi began to attend human rights conferences, including Amnesty International and the UN Youth for Human Rights International Summit, which helped her gain connections among like-minded people in her field. Now, she is starting her own foundation, which is currently in its infant stage. Her first goal is to secure funding and create a film in which she reconnects with the former trokosi women she interviewed in the past.
Perenyi ended her story with a powerful statement of her mission: “As I stand here, girls are still being taken into the shrines in Ghana, in Togo, in Benin, and parts of Nigeria, the practice is still happening. So for me, I stand here to tell you today that I am ready, even though it’s not going to be an easy task. The Afrikania Mission has a strong voice in the government and in the media. And they (have) shut down a couple of former trokosi women for speaking up about their stories. You may be wondering about my concern for my safety. For me, speaking up about the practice outweighs whatever I am going to encounter. And people are doing it every day; they are putting their lives on the line, and fighting for human rights issues across the globe. So, for me it is very important that I continue to push through my fears and gain confidence and be able to champion this cause.”
Perenyi raised an important issue in telling her story on the impact of organizations like the Afrikania Mission, who argue in favor of traditions like the trokosi system simply because it is African religious tradition. The support for continuing centuries-old practices like these stems from a skewed national pride, that retorts abandoning a practice that, on the surface, serves as a connection between Africans and the gods that they worship, would counter efforts to preserve culture and tradition. African traditionalist religion continues to be widely practiced by many, especially in rural villages, despite the spread of Islam of Christianity in African countries.
Perenyi explained: “What’s really driving it is fear that’s being instilled in the people. … It’s deeply ingrained in the minds of the people. And in order for younger generations to really see this as violation of human rights is teaching them about the rights they have. Ghana has done a tremendous job in drafting the human rights laws, but enforcing those laws is still an issue. … The reason why they are not enforcing the law that was passed in 1998 banning the practice and there hasn’t been any successful arrests, is because the practitioners say it’s an African traditional religion, and there is a law saying that you have the right to practice your own religion.”
The obstacle of cultural relativism plagues human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across the world. Cultural relativism is the idea that what may be considered immoral in one culture may not be considered immoral in another culture. How can a public be convinced that a practice that is instilled in their minds as part of their culture or religion is wrong because it violates human rights? Additionally, what implications do charters such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have? When we declare these human rights as universal, a problem of cultural clash arises.
It remains difficult for organizations and activists to locate the line between respecting and maintaining a certain culture’s values and practices and protecting human rights. When children and women are being enslaved, starved, and raped under the guise of religious practice, however, these children’s human rights are without question being abused. Human Rights NGOs strive to make people across the world aware of the rights that they have, and encourage governments to abide by the international norms that attempt to protect these rights. Unfortunately, as Perenyi discussed, the national pride stemming from traditional practices can wield great influence on people as well as the government and the media. This is what she and other activists are attempting to combat. It can be easy to believe that places like Ghana are not abusing young girls when one does surface-level research to see that laws have been put in place and protection acts have been passed. Enforcement, however, continues to elude the populations that need it most.
Young girls remain the most vulnerable human rights demographic across the globe. By becoming aware of the abuses that they still face, we can all work toward seeing a better future for these girls. Brigitte Sossou Perenyi is an example of the remarkable women that can grow when these abuses are addressed.