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A Different Type of Camp Experience

24-11-2014
© Human Rights Watch
A Report by Human Rights Watch highlighting abuses against persons with disabilities in Ghana

Shantha Rau Barriga is Disability Rights Director at Human Rights Watch. In 2011 and 2012, Shantha visited prayer camps in the greater Accra, Central, and Eastern Regions in Africa. This article recalls some of what she witnessed.

Those images are still quite vivid in my mind: people – including children as young as 5 – chained to trees scattered across an open field, baking in the hot sun. Some of them begging me to help them get out of there.

Over the weeks or even years that they are shackled, they are often denied food and even water, forced to sleep, bathe, and defecate in the place where they are chained, and told that they are mad, possessed by demons, sub-human. 

Such a view about psychosocial disabilities – mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or depression – sometimes leads families or police to take people with real or perceived mental health problems to spiritual healing centers (known as “prayer camps”) in Ghana. 
There are several hundred prayer camps in Ghana. They are not state-regulated, so little is known about their history, numbers, or regulations. They are believed to have emerged in the 1920s and are run by privately owned Christian religious institutions. Any criticism of these camps is not linked to their religious roots or spiritual nature. And not all camps treat people with psychosocial disabilities that way. But the inhumane treatment of people with psychosocial disabilities forced to stay in some of the camps is of serious concern.   Human Rights Watch visited eight of these prayer camps in 2011 and 2012, interviewing more than 50 people, and reported on these conditions in “Like a Death Sentence:” Abuses Against Persons with Mental Disabilities in Ghana.

Victoria's Story

During our research we met Victoria, a 10-year old girl who lived in the Nyakumasi Prayer Camp in the Cape Coast Region. She was covered in dirt, chained to a tree and subjected to the same fasting regime as the adults. She had a serious skin condition with crusting and bumps on her arms, but it was left untreated. The leader of Nyakumasi Prayer Camp told us, “The Lord will heal the people through me. Through fasting…I use to heal the people.”
Doris, 57, has bipolar disorder, a mental disability characterized by serious shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior. At 22, her father took her to a prayer camp in south central Ghana.  For five years she languished at the camp; at some point, she was tethered by a rope to a wall for about two months, forced to fast for days at a time, and left to bathe, sleep, and defecate in the open.

Doris also spent over a decade in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where she witnessed people being injected with medications against their will, and nurses beating patients who failed to respond to instructions. Doris said, “What I needed was a clinical psychologist to talk to and community-based rehabilitation, but these services are not easy to come by.”
The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental health or neurological conditions at some point in their lives. And this is not an issue exclusive to Ghana, Africa or the global south.    

People with psychosocial disabilities in many countries around the world are subjected to discrimination, involuntary and often prolonged detention, and forced treatment including electroshock therapy. We have documented cases from Croatia and Russia to India and Peru.

So what needs to be done?

First, the abuses need to end – by more effective government monitoring and stronger laws banning such inhumane practices. 

Partnerships are key to advancing the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities. They need to be involved in determining their health care needs and how best to deliver them.
Governments, donors and international organizations also need to make voluntary, community-based health care a priority. That will help ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities are able to access the help and treatment they want rather than being sent to psychiatric hospitals or prayer camps against their will. 

This is about the dignity and informed choice of people with psychosocial disabilities. This is about treating them as equal human beings. This is about their rights.

You can download the report here. You can also watch this interesting video clip associated with this report.


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