Domestic Violence in Ghana: Socially Accepted and Judicially Trivialized

Violence Against Women Source

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.

COMMENTS

  • Your claim that the rights of men trump that of women is very hollow to say the least. Nobody condones domestic violence in Ghana and, as a matter of fact, a man who abuses his wife would have to contend with either the traditionally mode of retribution (answering to in-laws), or face the law of the land. Your claim that few women report abuses is true. However, if you have done a proper research, you would have uncovered what is the normal traditional way of resolving those issue in Ghana.

    Unlike the Western countries where every trivial issue is rushed to the courts for redress, in Ghana, there is a traditional way of resolving issues. A women who is beaten or abused by her husband will most seek redress by reporting the husband first to the elders of the in-laws family and in other instances, to the elders of the town. Normally, respectable people including sub-chiefs are assembled, and both the woman and the husband are invited for hearing.

    Upon intense deliberations, the issue will be resolved and the offending party (normally the man who inflicted the beatings) are asked to compensate the wife. Even when evidence points to the wife having caused the altercation, the fact that the husband beat the women will mitigate any wrong done by the woman, and the husband will be asked to compensate her. And unlike Western societies, the wife will be strongly admonished for causing the incident. (That is, if it is proven that she was the cause of the fisticuff).

    Women just don’t rush to court to report issues because just like Western societies, the courts tend to take a long time to deliberate issues and more meaningfully, legal issues involves money–a resource which the victim may not have

    Again, your assertion that “…[o]nce married, their cultural property title moves to their husband and his family…”is as false as stating that the USA belongs to the African continent. I don’t know whether you read about the interstate succession laws in Ghana. That laws allow a married woman (and also men) to bequeath her property to her children or whomever she chooses.

    Your abysmal rendition of the Ghanaian women, and the negative picture you have painted of the station within the Ghanaian culture is not a reflection of their poor state but rather a vivid portrayal of the elementary research work you undertook as well as the poor observation you made while you were in Ghana. Again, the reductionist attitude of yours about the Ghanaian woman is a far cry from reality and I wish you revisit the country to undertake proper observation.

    For your erudition, within Ghanaian culture women are so powerful, before a king or a chief could be installed, it is a woman who have to give her consent for any installation. The queen mother (obaahemaa) has the final say in any installation.

    You might have been reading scripts written in old history books about Ghana. The modern Ghana has women more enlightened, more cultured, more instrumental in national affairs and more powerful than you can ever imagined. I am able to make all these claims because, guess what, I am from Ghana and I have a mother and three sisters who live in Ghana.

  • I find this article deeply offensive in so many ways. Not only is it not accurate it clearly shows it has been written through a western lense with little understanding or respect for the differences in culture and gender roles. Not every country is like the USA or Australia and nor would it want to be. Totally biased in every sentence and untrue in its entirety.

  • Hello,
    My name is Sarah, my mother has been violently abuse my my father.
    We are nine children, the same father and mother but my father abounded my mother since 2008 with all the children, we slept outside, even in the rein for about a year, before someone built a single room for us. Later my father came for the children without telling my mother due to that my mother developed mental problem as am written my mother is now blind and water from her eyes. We took her to our father but he send her away tell us that my mother is an evil woman.
    Please what should we do because we have no money to take her to the hospital. What should we do to our father.

  • Leave a Reply to Sarah Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.