Facing a chronic shortage of appropriate medical care, the families of disabled people in Ghana are resorting to ‘prayer camps’. With just 3 public psychiatric hospitals and 12 practising psychiatrists across the whole country, according to Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), families have resorted to sending their disabled relatives to ‘prayer camps’ run by private religious institutions who seek to expel the ‘demon’ through prayer and fasting. These practices originate in misinformation about how to treat disabilities. According to Foundation d’Harcourt, many practitioners attribute the disabilities to curses given as a punishment for some transgression.
Human Rights Watch reported that ‘‘the World Health Organisation estimates that close to 3 million Ghanaians live with mental disabilities and 600,000 of these have very severe mental conditions’. This shows the immense pressure on the current healthcare system and it is therefore unsurprising that ‘prayer camps’ are flourishing. There have been suggestions that the system is even enabling their existence- patients are often moved rapidly on from hospitals because of a lack of space. Private sector medical care is not feasible for many people due to high costs, and families are therefore turning to the ‘prayer camps’ to treat their relatives’ disabilities.
The self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ who run these prayer camps treat their patents with a variety of dubious methods, including prayer, in the hope that this will expel the patient’s ‘demons’. But the most shocking practice taking place in these institutions is the forcible fasting which patients are required to endure. Patients with often little understanding of what is happening or why, are subject to repeated fasting, either for a 3-day period, or for 12 hours every day for 40 days. This too is in the hope that so-called demons will be expelled. The camps also chain up the most aggressive patients, including children as young as nine. Disabled people’s rights are consistently violated through a regime of beatings, treatment without consent and starvation. It is clear that this treatment is not in line with correct courses of medical action, but are rather a product of local views on mental health. When at the camps, it is difficult to remove the patient, as they cannot leave until the ‘prophet’ has declared them healed, which can take weeks, months, or even years.
Despite claims by Rev. Betty Okai, the wife of one of the ‘prophets’ that attendance at the ‘prayer camps’ is voluntary because of self-belief that ‘the power of God can work more than medicine’, it is frequently the families of disabled people who admit their relatives. Mental illness is viewed as the product of a spiritual problem which can be treated through religious practices. One person treated at a ‘prayer camp’ outlined the view of mental health succinctly, claiming that ‘people think that you are mentally ill because you have done a terrible sin and that is the punishment’. This stigma is partially perpetuated by a lack of awareness of mental health issues. Unless the root cause of poor treatment for disabilities is addressed, human rights violations will continue.
There have been efforts to tackle the current disability crisis; in June 2012 the Mental Health Act was passed which laid out more rigorous procedures for dealing with mental health and brought the camps under the jurisdiction of the government. However, very little has happened to actually regulate and control the camps. The pervasive negative attitude towards disability has meant that these camps are unfettered, and far from a priority for the government. It is clear that a significant amount of work has to be done before the Act can be considered to be fully implemented. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture has declared that ‘some provisions of the Act may not be in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and could be abused by health-care staff or family members.’ This shows the potential for further abuse of disabled people, and must be altered in order to fully protect those vulnerable under current legislation.
In November 2013 the UN special rapporteur on torture ‘raised serious concerns’ about the treatment of disabled people in the psychiatric hospitals and ‘prayer camps’. The severity of the treatment makes it unsurprising that an expert on torture is involved, but it also serves to show how bad the problem has become. Furthermore, in 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report entitled ‘Like a Death Sentence’ on the issue describing the treatment of disabled people in both psychiatric hospitals and ‘prayer camps’. This has placed pressure on the Ghanaian government to properly implement the 2012 Mental Health Act and prevent torture and further abuse from taking place. As a result of the current stagnancy of the situation, it is unknown whether this will be successful. Additionally, in the report by HRW, they state that ‘The Pentecostal Council has set up structures to govern prayer camps registered with it’. This is simply not enough to properly regulate all camps, as they could not sign up and be regulated properly.
It is clear that the brutal treatment of disabled people within Ghana’s ‘prayer camps’ violates a raft of the most basic human rights in the name of treatment. The misinformed views of the wider population in regards to the treatment of disabled people have left them vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment which has not been curbed by the actions of government. With the treatment so bad that the special rapporteur for torture getting involved, it can no longer be passed off as local custom, but rather a humanitarian problem which must be tackled. It is clear that more has to be done to protect the rights of disabled people in Ghana.