ACCRA, Ghana (AP) _ Slavery has long been a part of Ghanaian culture and still exists today in remote parts of the country, widely shrugged off as just an unusual religious prerogative.

``Trokosi'' _ a word in the Ewe language meaning ``wife of the gods'' _ is practiced at dozens of isolated animist shrines in the southeastern Volta region.

Some families believe they are still responsible for the misdeeds of their ancestors, and to appease the war gods they must sacrifice a vestal virgin from every new generation.

Daughters as young as 10 are handed over to temples, where they are servants until they begin to menstruate and then typically become the exclusive concubines of the priests.

It is often not until they are middle aged and have given the priests children that the women are released, only to be replaced by yet another virgin from the same family. They are usually illiterate, have no employable skills and likely will never have husbands and children of their own.

``I personally think that it's Ghana's most fundamental human rights problem,'' said Karen Gladding, human rights officer at the U.S. Embassy in Accra.

The bondage dates back to the 17th century and also is practiced in neighboring Togo, Benin and Nigeria, where it is believed to have originated.

The U.S. Embassy estimates at least 4,500 girls have been made religious slaves. Local humanitarian groups say the figure could be as high as 10,000 to 12,000.

A proposed law before Parliament would outlaw the practice. But trokosi slavery practiced in President Jerry Rawlings' own ethnic group has generally been ignored.

``To pacify the gods, the virgins are brought in to serve the priests,'' Togbe Aklidokpo, priest of the Avekpedome temple, told Ghanaian filmmaker Kofi Boateng in his recent documentary on trokosi. ``Even in the Bible, you have the Virgin Mary _ so that's not anything bad.''

Aklidokpo said he had 20 trokosi, but claims to have let 16 go. He said he has about 300 children from the slaves and his numerous wives.

``They become the wives of the gods,'' he said of the trokosi. ``This is to compensate for the deprivations suffered by the family of the victims.''

Boateng, who received a grant from the U.S. Embassy, said it took him two years to gain the trust of the shrine priests for permission to interview them and trokosi.

``I really wanted to bring out the problem for people to analyze and make up their own minds,'' said Boateng, who is from the Ashanti ethnic group, which has no slaves. ``I just wanted the film to speak for itself, to show a way of life, the abuses and suffering.''