16 June 2008

Ghana: Violence Against Women Still Common in Country

Accra — A new report states that violence against women remains widespread in Ghana and some groups of women are particularly vulnerable.

It reveals that physical abuse by husbands or other intimate partners is widespread. 72% of respondents to a 1998 survey reported that wife beating was a common practice in their community.

The report by Yakin Erturk, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, addresses specific forms of violence encountered by women and girls within the context of the dual normative system in the country and women's subordinate status in the society at large.

According to the report, the use of violence to enforce patriarchal control over women enjoys widespread social acceptance.

The 2003 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) states that 19.8% of men and even more astonishing, 34% of women consider it acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, if she goes out without telling him.

Women are often expected to silently endure abuse "toprotect their family" while those who report their husbands or other family members to authorities for abuse may be ostracized.

There is also a widespread belief that a husband is entitled to sexual intercourse from his wife at his command and may enforce this entitlement by force.

Ten percent of men and 19.9% of women in the 2003 survey considered it justified if a husband beat his wife for refusing to have sex with him. However, Ghana law which for so long explicitly protected this male prerogative, has been amended.

Harmful attitudes towards women are reinforced by certain religious and other community leaders, who exhort women to stand by their husband under all circumstances, while at the same time failing to take a clear stand against wife battery and marital rape.

Rape of underage girls by men within the family circle, such as brothers, fathers and stepfathers remains a big problem, although thanks to the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVSSU) of the Ghana Police Service the citizenry is aware that such acts are abuses that need to be reported, and not settled at home.

Yakin's report states that some communities in the southern Volta Region and certain districts of the Greater Accra Region still practise 'Trokosi', an outlawed custom, which involves ritual servitude and sexual exploitation of girls.

It requires a family to offer a virgin daughter as a trokosi to a traditional fetish shrine to ward off the punishment of the gods for crimes committed by a family member.

In addition to performing ritual duties and domestic chores at the shrine, a trokosi is usually also expected to work long hours on farmland belonging to the shrine. She does not receive anything in return for her labour and her family is required to provide her with food and all other necessities.

Once a trokosi reaches puberty, the shrine's fetish priest is entitled to sleep with the girl to consummate the marriage between her and the gods.

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.

Information obtained from other sources indicates that the practice continues to thrive. Reportedly, there are at least 23 shrines in the Volta Region and 3 in the Greater Accra Region.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) traditionally practised by several ethnic groups in northern Ghana, the report say, is still prevalent although it was criminalised in 1994.

UNICEF has estimated that 5.4% of all women in Ghana aged 15-49 have been subjected to FGM.

In 2007, Parliament further strengthened the law against FGM by increasing the maximum penalty to 10years of imprisonment and extending the range of persons who can be prosecuted for involvement in an act of FGM.

Violence against women branded as witches is reported from all regions but it is more visible in the north due to the existence of so-called "witches' camps".

Such women are often violently driven from their communities and homes and forced to take refuge in "witch camps". They lose their inheritance as a result and become destitute.

The report also indicate that some communities still practise humiliating and sometimes outright cruel widowhood rites, meant to determine whether the woman had been faithful to her late husband.

Polygamy is another practice that entrenches women's subordinate position. According to the 2006 Ghana Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS Survey), more than one in five women (21.6 %) aged 15-49 years lived in a polygamous union.

Polygamy is particularly prevalent in the three northern regions, where close to 40% of women live in polygamy.

The Children's Act of 1998 sets 18 as the minimum age for marriage and criminalizes child marriages. However, child and early marriages continue to be performed, because the law is not adequately enforced.

A World Bank paper on child labour in Ghana found that girls were more likely than boys to engage in harmful forms of labour. 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 state's response to violence against women include the adoption of the domestic violence act by parliament in may 2007, after three years of extensive consultations with stakeholders and sometimes heated public debate.

In 2005, the Ghana police service transformed its Women and Juvenile Unit (WAJU) into a Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) tasked to investigate all crimes involving domestic and gender-based violence.

According to the report, the realization of commitments to gender equality made under the Constitution, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa remains a challenge to the Ghanaian Government and society at large.

The Domestic Violence Act of 2007 marks an important step forward, which needs to be swiftly followed by the adoption of a domestic violence action plan and an earmarked budget to implement the Act.

Constitutionally recognized traditional authorities and the customary law, which wield considerable influence in rural areas, often pose additional challenges for the advancement of women. The State authorities, civil society and the international community need to engage and, where necessary, compel the customary system to fully respect the rights women and girls enjoy under the Constitution and international law.

High levels of poverty 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 report recommends the government and other relevant actors to denounce publicly and unequivocally all forms of violence against women and girls including marital rape, wife beating, child and other forced marriages, trokosi, FGM, humiliating widowhood rites and inheritance/property grabbing.

Elected politicians, officials, traditional authorities and other persons vested with public authority must not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to justify or condone such violence. They should also discourage the practice of dowry and polygamy.

Traditional authorities must be engaged at all levels in a frank and public dialogue, about how traditions and customary laws can be reformed to respect the rights of women guaranteed under the Constitution and international law.

At least 50% of district assembly members appointed by the president must be women and adequate funds earmarked in future budgets to implement the Domestic Violence Act and the corresponding domestic violence action plan.

Gender-sensitive media reporting must be promoted to avoid stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes towards women, and ensure respect for victims and their families when covering incidents of violence against women.

The United Nations Country Team should integrate gender analysis into all its activities, including the more seemingly technical areas such as agricultural support programmes, assist the Government and civil society in their effort to develop a sound database on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

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