Ghana: women at war in a country at peace

The absence of war does not necessarily imply peace for women. The binary opposites of war and peace obscure the continuum of violence women experience as a result of patriarchal gender structures.

Yakin Erturk
25 November 2015

The agenda for women, peace and security

The Global Study on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325, women, peace and security has reiterated that the “participation of women at all levels is key to the operational effectiveness, success and sustainability of peace processes and peacebuilding efforts.” Civil society actors as well as states have increasingly been focusing on gendered aspects conflict-affected settings and on women’s role in peace efforts.

The adoption of SCR 1325, including seven subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security has evolved into an impressive international normative framework that expands the due diligence obligation of states and other stake-holders in combating violence against women. Its impact so far, despite the shortcomings in implementation, has been phenomenal in recognizing and empowering women’s peace movements across the globe and in engendering the security sector which has traditionally been distant to the international gender equality agenda.

However, the question remains; how relevant is the binary of war and peace from the perspective of women’s realities in many parts of the world? Are women at peace in countries that are technically in peace?

The case of Ghana

Ghana is a country technically in peace. As such, despite extreme poverty, deep inequality among various segments of society, including women and men, widespread violence and injustice Ghana is rarely on the international agenda. The realities of the vast majority of women are all indicative of a war in the making.

The underlying assumption is that war is not spatially or temporally bounded and that the gendered aspects of war are a continuum of the gendered aspects of peace. Therefore, the fact that a war in its conventional sense does not exist does not imply peace for all. As Carol Cohn has written, “weapons of violence, and representations of those weapons, travel through interlocking institutions – economic, political, familial, technological, and ideological.”

Ghana is an ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously heterogeneous society, which results in variations of social convention and customary practice. There are also considerable economic disparities between the coastal regions and the marginalized northern parts of the country. However, the strong patriarchal normative framework and the principle of male supremacy are prevalent in both matrilineal and patrilineal communities. Although social attitudes are gradually changing, especially in rural settings, women continue to occupy a subordinate and dependent position to men in virtually every domain of life.

Diverse forms of violence against women are a widespread phenomenon despite the relatively promising legal framework and other measures.

The use of violence, to enforce patriarchal control over women enjoys widespread social acceptance. Women victims of violence are often expected to silently endure abuse. Women who report their husbands or other family members to the authorities may be ostracized from the family and the community. Some of the most striking forms of violence women are subjected to are presented below. 

Trokosi ritual servitude

Some communities in the southern Volta Region and certain districts of the Greater Accra Region still practice a custom that was outlawed in 1998, which involves ritual servitude and sexual exploitation of girls. The custom requires a family to offer a virgin daughter as a trokosi (slave/wife to the gods) to a traditional fetish village shrine to ward off the punishment of the gods for crimes or moral wrongdoings committed by a family member. The misdeeds for which atonement is sought may often date back generations.

A girl designated to become a trokosi is usually committed at a very young age (6 to 10 years old) to the shrine, where an initiation ritual betrothing the girl to the gods is performed. The ritual establishes a relationship of spiritual bondage between the girl and the shrine. From the moment of her betrothal, the trokosi must wear special insignia indicating her status and outsiders are prohibited from having any sexual contact with the girl. If a man sleeps with a trokosi, his family is believed to have incurred the wrath of the gods, therefore, must also offer a virgin daughter to the shrine. Meanwhile, the man who had sexual relations with the trokosi is ritually “purified” and the girl remains a trokosi at the shrine.

Once a trokosi reaches puberty, the shrine’s fetish priest (tronua) sleeps with the girl to consummate the marriage between her and the gods. Daughters born from such sexual relations also have certain obligations to the shrine.

After serving several years at the shrine, a trokosi may be released from servitude if her family pays for a special ceremony. Released trokosi are allowed to marry, but are often unable to find a husband. If a trokosi dies during her servitude, her family is expected to replace her with another girl.

In 1998, the government passed a law against ritual servitude (among other things), criminalizing the practice of trokosi, however there have been no prosecutions under the law. Most government officials are under the impression that the practice has since almost vanished. Yet, information from various sources indicates the opposite at the practice continues to thrive.  According to reports there were at least 23 shrines in the Volta Region and 3 in the Greater Accra Region, which still accepted trokosi.

In many districts, the local authorities are reluctant to enforce the law against ritual servitude, fearing a popular backlash. Some also seem to fear adverse spiritual consequences for themselves. While a number of central state institutions, including the Commission on Human Rights, Administrative Justice, and the Ministry for Women and Children’s Affairs have taken a strong stance against the practice of trokosi, there are many elected politicians who fail to publicly denounce it in order not to alienate key constituencies.

International Needs Ghana (ING) and NGOs have led efforts to liberate trokosi and put an end to the practice. According to ING’s own estimates 3,500 girls have so far been liberated and 50 shrines have stopped accepting trokosi. ING seeks to liberate trokosi with the cooperation and consent of affected communities and shrine priests. Communities willing to cooperate are provided with much needed development infrastructure such as schools and boreholes. Shrine priests are encouraged to accept livestock or monetary donations, instead of girls, from families seeking to appease the gods. Once agreement is reached, a ritual is performed to break the spiritual bondage tying the trokosi to the shrine. Liberated trokosi are provided with the skills to reintegrate into ordinary life at the ING Vocational Training Centre.

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been traditionally practiced by several ethnic groups from northern Ghana as well as by immigrants from neighboring countries, where FGM is highly prevalent. In 1994, Ghana criminalized the practice. Since then, successful prosecutions of those performing FGM have been reported especially from the Upper West and Upper East Regions. In 2007, parliament further strengthened the law against FGM by increasing the maximum penalty to 10 years of imprisonment and extending the range of persons who can be prosecuted for involvement in an act of FGM. Officials at all levels of government, including the President, have also publicly condemned FGM.

While there are indications that the practice of FGM in Ghana may be declining as a result of these initiatives, new cases continue to be reported. Civil society organizations and medical practitioners note that FGM is increasingly performed on younger girls, who are less likely to resist or report the crime. Some families apparently also send their daughters abroad to have the procedure carried out with impunity. Officials have stated that the Ghanaian law banning FGM does not apply extraterritorially; therefore it is not possible for the Ghanaian authorities to take action against its citizens who perform FGM in a neighboring country, even if they find out about such cases.

Violence in the context of child labor - kayaye

Child labor is prevalent and many rural families living in extreme poverty send their daughters to urban areas to live with more affluent families, where they serve as domestic workers in exchange for shelter, food and sometimes a minimal income. The ILO (2004) found that most girl domestic workers started their work between the ages of 11 and 16 and worked 8 to 12 hours per day without sufficient rest, which would imply that they are engaged in one of the worst forms of child labor as defined by ILO Convention No. 182.

Kayaye in Ghana. Photo: Ghana Mama

Girls also migrate on their own from impoverished areas in the north to the big urban centers in the south, where they work in the markets and streets as head load carriers (kayaye) or in other jobs. Most of the girls are only 10-14 years old when they first migrate. An estimated 90 % of the girls are illiterate and they typically migrate to escape extreme poverty and lack of other options. Many girls also see the kayaye experience as an opportunity to acquire the dowry they will need to get married later on in life.

Family problems, including exploitation and abuse, are often additional factors pushing girls to leave their homes. It is an old tradition for families who are not socio-economically well off to send especially their girl children to live with relatives who are better off; it was traditionally meant to meet the children’s basic needs and foster family solidarity and kinship ties. However, with the erosion of social convention underlying such relationships among families, today these children are often exploited and abused by their relatives and some sought salvation in working as kayaye.

The girls who head south migrate often with the knowledge and consent of their family. Once they arrive in the urban centers, the kayaye have to work and live on the street, under dangerous and miserable conditions. Being vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, they often have to seek the “protection” of older street boys in exchange for sex. As a result many end up getting pregnant outside marriage and are often ostracized when they return to the north as single mothers. There are reports that indicate that organized networks increasingly approach impoverished families to recruit girls as kayaye.

Some girls abandon kayaye work altogether and are fully drawn into Ghana’s growing child prostitution sector, which increasingly also seems to cater to foreign child sex tourists. Girls have reportedly also been trafficked and subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in other West African countries and Western Europe. While the government has reacted by adopting a comprehensive Human Trafficking Act in 2005, still more needs to be done to enforce the Act and strengthen Ghana’s anti-trafficking cooperation with neighboring countries.

Violence against women accused of “witchcraft”

Belief in supernatural forces is quite widespread and deeply rooted in Ghana and there are many cases especially in rural areas, in which women—and occasionally men —are accused of practicing witchcraft to bring harm to members of their family or community. Being accused of practicing witchcraft is a very serious charge that can have grave consequences. Accused women are often driven violently from their homes and communities, physically assaulted and, in extreme cases, also murdered.


Gambaga Outcast Home for "witches". Photo: flickr

Despite its serious ramifications, an accusation of witchcraft can be easily triggered. A community member may dream that a certain woman is a witch or an adverse event may occur in the community that cannot be explained, such as a suspicious or unexpected death of a community member. In such instances for various reasons a person will be made a scapegoat with witchcraft allegations. In some cases, witchcraft allegations seem to be deliberately directed at women who are successful and are seen as a threat to the patriarchal order.

Violence against women branded as witches is reported from all regions, but the practice is more visible in the north due to the existence of so-called “witches’ camps”. This misleading term refers to settlements established with the consent of the local community, where women accused of witchcraft, and in some cases family members who flee with them, can seek refuge and protection from persecution by their own community or family. In that sense, a witches’ camp is a protection mechanism comparable to a women’s shelter in the contemporary sense.

For instance, the settlement in Gambaga (East Mamprusi District, Northern Region) is officially called the Gambaga Outcast Home. Its origins are said to date back to 1900s, when a local imam took pity on the women accused of witchcraft and provided them with refuge in a field nearby the village. Eventually, the local chief (the Gambarana) assumed this protective role. The Gambarana is thought to have special spiritual power to determine whether a woman is a witch or not. It is also believed that he can purify witches and extinguish their supernatural powers.

Ghana_cadilar kampi.jpeg

Witches camp, Ghana. Photo: author's own.

The local population in Gambaga interact with these women, since tradition holds that the local gods neutralize a witch’s power to practice her craft once she comes to Gambaga. Nevertheless, a certain stigma remains and women accused of witchcraft can usually only engage in certain limited income-generating activities such as firewood collection that do not require contact with the villagers. Since these women also lack the support of their own family, they are completely destitute.

There are national level programs that provide support to women outcasts and facilitate their return to their own villages and normal lives.  However, since the convictions of the local population about witchcraft are very strong, these programs do not question the very notion of witchcraft, but rather address the social and spiritual dimensions of each individual case in negotiating the home communities to allow the women to occasionally visit her family and eventually to fully remove the woman’s supposed witchcraft powers and reconcile her with her community.

Situation of widows

While customary law denies women the right to inherit, it obliges the heirs of the deceased to maintain his widow and children. In many cases, however, not even this obligation is respected and those invoking customary inheritance rights evict widows from their homes. The Intestate Succession Law seeks to protect widows against eviction by making it a criminal offense to evict a widow or her children from the family home within the first six months of the husband’s death. Unfortunately, this protective norm is often wrongly interpreted as permitting evictions after six months have passed.

Several communities practice levirate marriage/widow inheritance, requiring the widow to marry (formally or informally) her late husband’s brother as recourse. In other communities, the woman is “inherited” by one of the sons born to another wife of the deceased husband. These marriages are more than a social support arrangement for the widow, since the man is permitted to have sexual relations with the widow. The children born from these relations are considered to be the deceased husband’s, and thus, are often neglected by their biological fathers. Widow women are in no position to refuse such arrangements.

Joint responsibility for change

The realization of commitments to gender equality made under the Constitution and the state’s international obligations remains a serious challenge in Ghana, where women’s subordinate position is maintained through discriminatory and harmful practices. The Domestic Violence Act of 2007 marks an important step forward, but more needs to be done to support women’s empowerment and change mindsets in society.

Constitutionally recognized traditional authorities and the customary law, which wield considerable influence over the populous, often pose additional challenges for the advancement of women. The state authorities and civil society, with the support of the international community, need to engage and, where necessary, compel the customary system to fully respect the rights women and girls are entitled to under the Constitution and international law.

High levels of poverty and the external debt burden limit the government’s margin of operation to prioritize the allocation of sufficient resources for universal basic education, gender parity in education and the economic and social development of marginalized regions and districts. The international community has a responsibility to support the government’s efforts to promote gender equality and eliminate violence against women through targeted funding and technical cooperation, further debt relief and, perhaps most importantly, fairer terms of trade.

This article stems from a chapter addressing women's realities in Ghana in the author's book Violence without Borders. The book was first published in Turkish in 2014, and will be published in English by the Women's Learning Partnership in March 2016.

Read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's series on 16 Days Activism Against Gender Violence



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