The West African country of Ghana’s deeply entrenched patriarchal culture, where the husband’s exclusive rights to his wife trump her own, condones domestic violence. Most Ghanaian women are told that to be successful in life, they must find a husband and serve him adequately by fulfilling gender roles and continuing his lineage. Wives are told to be socially smaller than their husbands, who are their superiors, breadwinners and protectors. Across all the hundreds of ethnic groups in Ghana, women are viewed as inferior to men. One of the many social dimensions arising from this gendered culture includes an acceptance of domestic violence. The few women that legally report their instances of abuse are supposed to be supported by Ghana’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU), a branch of the Ghana Police Services. However, Ghanaian women still face extreme obstacles in preventing and reporting domestic violence as well as seeking and receiving justice from the Ghanaian criminal system. Despite the normal inefficiencies that plague most of Ghana’s institutions (the DOVVSU does not even have a website), the root of the Unit’s ineffectiveness remains Ghana’s deeply entrenched gendered culture.
Traditionally, when women are born they belong to their fathers. Once married, their cultural property title moves to their husband and his family— a sister-in-law can refer to her husband’s wife as, “my wife.” If a wife is disobedient, which includes failing to fulfill her traditional obligations like cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and being sexually available whenever her husband desires, domestic violence is often socially accepted by both men and women. According to Ghana’s 2003 Demographic and Health Survey,19.8% of men and 34% of women found it socially acceptable for a husband to beat his wife if she went out without telling him. The survey also showed that 10.1% of men and 19.9% of women considered it acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for refusing to have sex with him. These statistics are unfortunately not unique to Ghana and are part of an international and regional epidemic.
Within West Africa, domestic violence is widespread and often legally allowed. Globally, 30% of women experience violence from intimate partners and 36.6% of African women experience lifetime intimate partner violence. Section 55(1)(d) of Nigeria’s Penal Code legally condones an assault by a husband on his wife for, “the purpose of correcting his wife, such husband and wife being subject to any native law or custom in which such correction is recognized as lawful.” Spousal rape is also not criminalized in Togo, Ghana’s neighbor. In Benin, 68.6% of women experience violence at the hands of men, and 69.5% of those perpetrators are spouses or partners. One in four women in Senegal are victims of domestic abuse. These high statistics are the consequence of deeply gendered cultures where domestic abuse is socially accepted and frequently legal.
These embedded cultural norms were challenged in the past four decades by a global wave of women’s rights advocacy. Several international and regional treaties, bills, covenants and conventions geared towards women’s rights were adopted, including the UN’s notable Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. One of Ghana’s responses to this push included establishing the DOVVSU in February 2007. However, women who seek the DOVVSU’s support are often discouraged to report their claims and rarely see their spouses brought to justice. The DOVVSU fails in its mission to provide victims with adequate support services because it remains shackled to Ghana’s patriarchal culture.
Many Ghanaians traditionally believe that domestic abuse should be resolved within the household rather than externally via the justice system. This mindset causes judges to trivialize domestic violence cases or pressure women to drop their claims. Often times, Ghanaian women are too embarrassed, disheartened or discouraged to even report their cases of abuse—95% of Ghanaian women who have been raped do not report the incident. Even when women do pursue criminal charges many of their claims never get sent to court, they experience societal shaming and hardly any cases lead to convictions. A statistic from 2010 found that out of 12,706 cases in the country, only 954 were sent to court and of those only 118 convictions were obtained. These numbers are unacceptable given that the DOVVSU’s intent is to provide victims with the support necessary to seek justice. In actuality, those who are entrusted with the power to help victims find justice convince and encourage women to drop their claims and return to their abusive relationships to avoid disturbing the peace of their communities.
Another traditional belief contributing to the DOVVSU’s ineffectiveness and the prevalence of domestic violence is the cultural mindset that marriage equals consent. A 2007 survey found that 20.6% of Ghanaian women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime and 44.5% have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse from intimate partners and/or non-partners in their lifetime. These high numbers are not surprising considering until 2007, Ghanaian Criminal Code section 42 (g) explicitly allowed marital rape by stating, “the consent given by a husband or wife at marriage, for the purposes of marriage, cannot be revoked until the parties are divorced or separated by a judgment or decree of a competent Court.” After the DOVVSU was established, section 42 (g) was revised to state, “The use of violence in the domestic setting is not justified on the basis of consent.” While the changes imply husbands can be criminally prosecuted for marital rape, there is no direct prohibition of marital rape statutorily in the Ghanaian Criminal Code. In addition, the revision in the law has yet to change cultural and patriarchal mindsets that contribute to the extent of marital rape and the attitudes of law enforcement officers who trivialize domestic violence cases.
The DOVVSU’s establishment marked a significant first step in improving the Ghanaian domestic violence landscape, however its effectiveness is marred by prevailing cultural norms. How can Ghana create an effective DOVVSU when major sources of its inadequacy are beliefs that can only be changed with time? This is a difficult question to answer, but the solution must include more rigorous sensitivity training for judges, police officers and leaders of communities, national emphasis on the issue and increased marketing about the DOVVSU. Queen mothers, who are the female leaders of many Ghanaian communities and dedicated advocates for women and children, and DOVVSU representatives should organize community discussions about gender roles and domestic violence. Similar conversations should be conducted in classrooms so from a young age children can start a normally nonexistent discussion regarding domestic abuse. Queen mothers should also spearhead female support groups as forums for women to talk freely about sexism and gender roles. Female focused NGOs must also work with Queen mothers and take advantage of their unique position with women and children. These open conversations regarding gender constructs and their societal influence will work to challenge the prevailing norms and change the mindsets that leave many Ghanaian women disentitled to their own bodies.