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March 2012 - on going

African Prayer Camps: Advocating Against Abuses


“As a patient, you have to struggle with very low self-esteem and also have to fight with negative attitudes from society… it is like a death sentence.”

DORIS APPIAH, referring to her five years
in a Kumasi prayer camp

The Context

According to two studies in 2007, at least 10% of the population in Ghana (about 2.4 million people) had some kind of disability. These disabilities, which can be real or perceived mental disorders, are often attributed to curses or explained as punishments for misdeeds committed by the person or their ancestors. As a result, families often abandon their relatives in so-called “prayer camps”, or spiritual healing centers, to “heal.”

Found throughout the country, prayer camps are privately owned by Christian religious institutions rooted in the Evangelical or Pentecostal denominations and established for purposes of prayer, counseling and spiritual healing. Managed by self-proclaimed prophets, these camps operate completely outside of government control.

Even if the primary role of prayer camps is not supposed to be the treatment of people with mental disabilities, some of these camps have units where they are admitted. There the prophets seek to heal the sick through prayers and non-medical techniques in order to “chase away” the alleged demons that have possessed them. In some prayer camps people are chained up, forced to fast and made to live under inhumane conditions for weeks, months or even years. In most prayer camps, residents may only leave when the “prophet” deems them healed.

Private psychiatric hospitals are also available but can only treat about 100 inpatients at a time and are too expensive for most Ghanaians. Lack of public mental health services, combined with pervasive negative community attitudes towards mental illness, makes the integration of those suffering from mental disorders into community life extremely difficult.

In recent years, the Ghanaian government has taken some steps in improving the care of people with mental illnesses, including reducing overcrowding in state psychiatric hospitals and passing the Mental Health Act in June 2012. The latter laid out, for the first time, clear procedures for the mentally ill on how to challenge continued detention in psychiatric hospitals. The law, however, does not apply to prayer camps, leaving their residents without legal remedies to seek release.

Our Project

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has conducted extensive research and launched an advocacy campaign on human rights violations in Ghanaian psychiatric institutions and prayer camps. HRW’s work aims to bringing the treatment of the mentally ill in Ghana in line with international human rights law.

Our partners

Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Our Activities

HRW conducted five weeks of field research on two extended field missions to Ghana to examine the conditions under which those with mental illness were living.

  • On each mission two researchers traveled to three regions in southern Ghana: the Greater Accra Region, the Central Region and the Eastern Region.
  • HRW visited eight prayer camps that house people with mental disorders as well as the only three state-run psychiatric hospitals.
  • HRW conducted interviews with 169 individuals, including people with mental disorders, leaders of non-governmental organizations, government officials, health care service providers and staff in hospitals and prayer camps.
  • HRW interviewed 20 local disability and human rights organizations and staff from various UN agencies.
  • HRW published “Like a Death Sentence: Abuses Against People with Mental Disabilities in Ghana”, a report that describes how thousands of people with mental illnesses are forced to live in psychiatric institutions or spiritual healing centers. An easy-to-read version of the report, accessible to people with learning disabilities, has also been published.
  • To accompany its report, HRW produced a video featuring Doris Appiah, a survivor of both prayer camps and psychiatric hospitals. The video was featured on BBC World, BBC Africa, CNN and the Associated Press, to name a few.
Our Results So Far

HRW completed on-site investigations and compiled its findings into an in-depth report and multimedia feature on this long-neglected issue.

The Report recommends improved conditions in psychiatric hospitals and prayer camps, development of voluntary, community-based mental health services, and full compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Ghana ratified in July 2012. Under this Convention, countries must take steps to ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities can make important life decisions for themselves, including choosing their place of residence and with whom they live, and that they are not forced to live in institutions.

After the report went public, a workshop was conducted in which approximately 30 representatives attended, including from BasicNeeds Ghana, Mental Health Society of Ghana, Ghana Mental Health Association, Mindfreedom Ghana, Inclusion Ghana, Ghana Federation of the Disabled, and the Pentecostal Council of Ghana, to name some.

Using the momentum created by the report’s release, HRW launched an advocacy campaign to press the government of Ghana to abide by its obligations stated in the CRPD and to implement the Mental Health Act in ways that protect the psychosocially disabled. The Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection made a commitment to visit prayer camps and to prepare administrative orders to implement the new mental health law. Another key stakeholder, the Pentecostal Council of Ghana, is pursuing a petition to the human rights commission regarding the poor conditions and the abuses inside prayer camps.

Based on the HRW report, the DFID (Department for International Development of the UK) is working on integrating mental health into their country strategy.

HRW has also submitted its findings to the UN treaty monitoring body, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and has requested it undertake an inquiry into the matter.

In addition, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture included references to the situation in prayer camps in his March 2013 report on torture in health care settings.

In conjunction with UNICEF Ghana, a public information campaign addressing the stigma linked with psychosocial disability is being implemented.



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