Is it time for a progress report on violence against women in Ghana?

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  • Is It Time for a Progress Report on Violence against Women in Ghana?

    Rosema~ King

    Ghana, like many African countries, continues to grapple with domestic violence issues. Ghana's 1992 Constitution mandates provisions that should eradicate the scourge of violence against women and children. In this paper, two main questions are asked. First, will the 1992 Constitution ultimately lead to victories over dis- crimination and violence against Ghanaian women? Second, has progress been made in eradicating violence against women in Ghana to date? In that regard, have governmental and non-governmental organizations supported Ghanaian women to arrive at relative stability, empowerment and freedom from violence? Progress thus far is encouraging. Presently, there are several holistic or organic approaches being used to combat domestic violence in Ghana. However, an epidemiological exami- nation of custom and a psychosocial approach towards domestic violence may facilitate permanent meaningful solutions.


    In earlier work, 1 I began exploratory research identifying violence against women in Ghana. Since those preliminary discussions, there have been some initiatives by the government of Ghana, through the mandate of the Constitu- tion and the activity of some non-governmental organizations, to address the incidence of violence against women 2. This paper is primarily a "progress" report of the work that has been done by the government and non-governmen- tal agencies in Ghana, in exposing, discussing and attempting to provide re- dress for acts of violence against its women.

    The Republic of Ghana, an English-speaking country in West Africa, has had one of the more stable democracies in Africa since 1992. 3 It has also followed the 1992 Constitution since that time. 4 For this constitution, a consul- tative committee reviewed contemporary constitutions over the world 5 and came up with equality provisions that, among other things, renounce all forms of violence against women and children, including violent traditional prac- tices and rituals. 6 I have addressed the perceptions that Ghanaian women have regarding the Constitution elsewhere, and generated some field research to that effect. 7

    I proceed on the premise that there is a correlation between the success of equality provisions within the Ghanaian Constitution and the success of vio-


  • 76 Human Rights Review, January-March 2006

    lence eradication initiatives for Ghanaian women. Without a doubt, the man- date of the 1992 Constitution, inter alia, demanded a careful look at the ways in which equality discourse was interpreted and implemented. There is also no doubt that since 1992, there have been initiatives that have been set up to eradicate violence against women in Ghana. 1 shall be looking at what con- crete decisions and actions have been taken since the Fourth Democratic Re- public of Ghana came into existence--especially since Ghana has been declared a success story of economic development in the African region)

    The problem of violence against women in Ghana is a real one, and in determining how Ghanaians could have been socialized into accepting wife beating as part of the day-to-day activities of life, I have found folklore 9 to be a real source of direction. Many life-lessons have been garnered from these pithy accounts, l~ Here is such an account. I call it "Ananse's Sunglasses":

    Ananse went to transact business in town about three days' journey from his village. At that time, he was a wealthy cocoa owner and the crop had been gathered and the beans were being dried. It meant a huge sum of money if he saved all the beans. He left Yaa in charge of the beans to guard them with her life and to make sure the beans did not come into contact with water spilt, since moisture would destroy the fermentation process.

    Ananse's business went well in town so he bought himself a pair of sunglasses. The darkly tinted lenses made the world look stormy and mysterious. He went back home donning the glasses as he approached the homestead. As he got near the drying cocoa beans, he realised that it was about to rain and he yelled for Yaa to take the beans in. She did so quickly yet he mercilessly beat her up. She picked herself off the ground as she had done many times before and waited to know the nature of her offence.

    How could you leave the beans out when it is going to rain?

    My husband, it is not going to rain.

    It is! It is! Are you arguing with me? I'll teach you.

    At that point, his dark glasses slipped off his nose and he saw the sun was suddenly as bright as always.

    The Ananse story is one that I have used in many presentations. It is a story that certainly has some humor, since it shows Ananse up for the bumbling inept fool that he is. However the darker and more sinister implications are that such a story socializes people into thinking that it is quite acceptable to beat a wife, if she is acting improperly. Thus, from the contextual analysis of this particular story, it could be implied that, had Yaa indeed been lazy in not sav- ing the cocoa beans, and had there been a rainstorm, Ananse would have been "justified" in his actions. In this story, the focus is on Ananse's sunglasses, but does nothing to send a message that in any situation it would have been en- tirely unjustifiable to beat up his wife. This is the lesson taught to children at this impressionably young age. The tale implies that there should be some

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    admiration for Ananse's control over Yaa and that Yaa's feelings need not come up in issue at all. There were always songs and refrains encouraging this mastery of wives. It is a story that prima facie teaches the subservience of wives even in the height of a husband's blunders.

    In commenting on Ghana's activity regarding violence against women in this paper, I shall work from the following two questions:

    a. Will the equality provisions within the 1992 Constitution lead to victories over discrimination and violence against Ghanaian women?

    b. Has progress been made in eradicating violence against women in Ghana? In that regard, have governmental and non-governmental organizations supported Ghana- ian women to arrive at relative stability, empowerment and freedom from violence?

    The First Question: Will the Equality Provisions within the 1992 Constitution Lead to

    Victories over Discrimination and Violence against Ghanaian Women?

    It has to be conceded that the drafters of the 1992 Constitution spent many hours debating what needed to go into the equality provisions so they would be meaningful to Ghanaians. 11 Commentators on the constitution also pon- dered whether these provisions would provide the right redress for Ghanaian women. ~2 It is instructive to look at some of the dynamics that went into the drafting, and then decide whether these provisions are going to be helpful in the long run, to the elimination of violence against women in Ghana.

    "All persons shall be equal before the law. ''13 This guarantee leaves no doubt that there is a formally entrenched statement of equality within the 1992 Con- stitution of Ghana. This suggests that equality in Ghana has been achieved in the formal sense. However, there are still questions to be answered. Indeed, drafters of the Ghanaian constitution and women's groups in Ghana, while emphasizing the constitutional commitment to equality between the sexes in Ghana, concede that there is a discrepancy between the written word of the constitution and substantive practices, j4 The fact that observations to that ef- fect are being made may be an indication of the task ahead of the people of Ghana generally, and the women of Ghana in particular, if equality before the law (by the law, from the law, and through the law) is to be realized in word and in substance.

    Equality provisions in the 1992 constitution are a far cry from anything that has ever been seen in Ghanaian constitutional history. ~5 Of course, even ac- commodation such as this is much further along the line than what had previ- ously been in place in Ghana and this added attention for women is a hard-earned victory (however hollow a victory it may be). There is a sense in which special protection (or care) of women and children means certain legitimacy in the "paper-promise" where previously there was nothing. A paper promise is im- portant to those who had nothing at all, as Patricia Williams once pointed out. t6

  • 78 Human Rights Review, January-March 2006

    From the progress reports on violence against women and children in Ghana, it is true that since 1992, there has been a flurry of activity to name violence, and to set into motion some reaction against the hazardous traditional prac- tices that women and children have faced, iv All this is clearly in keeping with the mandate of the new equality provisions. Yet, even from the reports that have been presented, there is only a sense of a superficial job done. So, for example, while there is presently a special action unit in the police service for women and children, there is a smudging of the actual enforcement by that unit. TM In every aspect of the "progress report" on violence in Ghana, there is a sense that there is a giving of the left hand and a taking away by the right hand. 19

    Carol Smart 2~ has questioned the efficacy of projects that institute formalis- tic rights, and take away from the substance. If such an enterprise merely changes the form of law, but leaves the basis of such form untouched, it does not achieve any meaningful legal or social change. No doubt there is need for substantive legal change, bearing in mind the persuasive arguments of Tove Stang Dahl, 21 but addressing the need for meaningful social change through law must not merely render the law as "oxymoron". 22 The hard question for Ghana would be: is a redefinition of law necessarily the means to achieving women's strength and thus substantive equality for Ghanaian women?

    Overall, there is a discrepancy between the constitutional proposals of 1991 and the actual Constitution of 1992 in ways that would suggest that there was a lot of editing down, and a blunting of the teeth of substantive equality. 23 The criticisms of the 1991 proposals are fascinating and endless and show that a careful rethinking of the issues it addresses still needs to be done. 24

    Unfortunately, the proposals of 1991 were rendered quite differently in the final 1992 Constitution in a way that is disquieting and actually sets any vic- tory there may have been for Ghanaian women backwards. The disturbing fact that there has been substantial editing of the proposals so that some provi- sions are kept and others (especially the critical ones that could have instituted some radical change) thrown out suggests the fact that while women must be "allowed" some equality, the very system is not prepared yet to make a total commitment. There is therefore a pessimistic feeling at the end of analyzing the 1991 proposals and comparing them to the 1992 Constitution. If even formal provisions can be stifled, how much more stifled are norms and prac- tices that are for the most part, not codified? 2~

    It is not the changing of a term, or the careful use of gender-neutral termi- nology, or the championing of women's causes that will ensure equality. It is especially necessary for the people of Ghana to realize this. There are many traditional beliefs that underpin the male dominance and superiority which have so entrenched themselves in the fabric of the tradition, so that mere word- ing, when this is available (thus portraying an effort to play the game) cannot possibly eradicate prejudices. It cuts far deeper than this. There is the need to

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    recognize and accept that there are flaws in the Ghanaian culture that discrimi- nate both consciously and unconsciously and that it will take more than the letter of the law to change this.

    With such a bleak picture painted of the relevance of equality discourse to Ghanaians and in particular to Ghanaian women, is there still any need to promote its dialogue? There is every need.

    First, there is the need to recognize and apply statements of formal equality: which of necessity, are enshrined in most constitutions.

    Second, there is the need to understand the dynamics underlying the word- ing in formal equality provisions. For these provisions will remain the blue- print by which legal debates on equality will pivot in the courtrooms. There will always be those who will demand and operate by the rule of the written law. Again, a document of formal equality must remain within the Constitution of the country, to conform with basic United Nations Fundamental Human Rights provisions if that country is party to these conventions. Moreover, there is the need to have these provisions in place in the eventuality that the linguis- tic content will be adapted to recognize and accommodate the nuances of "She" from "He."

    Where, as is obvious in the Ghanaian situation, the semantics of formal equality may not be immediately seen as serving any useful purpose, substan- tive equality opportunities may have to be developed, making a departure from the formal guarantees. Since this approach will involve vast mobilization techniques and participation by people from all over Ghana--regardless of educational status and professional background--it will demand a commit- ment quite distinct from mere lip service being paid to equality as is found within Ghana's successive constitutions. It will highlight the strengths of women within the culture, not making sweeping changes initially, but ultimately achiew ing for women inherent pride in womanhood.

    After more than ten years, the people of Ghana must be commended for their commitment to have a workable and consistent constitution. Slow but sure, the equality provisions within the constitution are being implemented through government initiatives and legislation, as well as through the work of activists and non-governmental organizations. To a large extent, the frame- work for ensuring victory over domestic violence has been put into place. However, these provisions will only be as good as the attention and validity that is given to them substantively.

    The foregoing analysis leads to the fact that while for all intents and pur- poses Ghana boasts of formal equality provisions and a vehicle for fighting the abuse of its women, it may not be enough ammunition to eradicate the violence. The constitutional provisions will serve as a quasi-reactive stop- gap--but it is doubtful that constructed as they are, they have the sole power to overcome traditional norms and practices of violence against women.

  • 80 Human Rights Review, January-March 2006

    The Second Question: Has Progress Been Made in Eradicating Violence against Women? In

    That Regard, Have Governmental and Non-Governmental Organizations Supported Ghanaian Women to Arrive at Relative Stability,



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