The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is celebrated on 25th November every year. On this day, the world recognizes the challenges of women and with one powerful voice speaks out against it and promotes gender equality.
Violence against women is undoubtedly a global phenomenon and has over the past three decades occupied a central position in international discourse. From the staples of commonwealth ministers responsible for women's affairs conference in 1985, the United Nations conference on human rights in 1993 through to Beijing platform for action in 1995, the issue has been regarded as a source of concern and a number of conventions and charters have been agreed upon. According to the United Nations 2010 World Women's report, the rate of women experiencing physical violence at least once in their lifetime varies from several percent to over 59% depending on where they live. Around the world, at least one in three women will either be physically or sexually abused during her lifetime. Governments as well as civil society groups have committed a lot of time and resources into this fight but the statistics keeps on rising every year.
Reported Domestic Violence in Ghana
The 2005 Ghana Country Report reveals that, Ghana is amongst the countries that records high levels of gender based violence including physical, psychological, economic and sexual abuse. Records available to the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana police service indicated that, between the period of 1999 to May 2010, 109 784 cases of domestic violence were reported of which a greater portion was perpetuated against women.
Violence against women throughout their life cycle is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men. It is perpetuated by traditional and customary practices that accord women lower status in the family, workplace, community and society (United Nation (2010) The World Women 2010: Trends and Statistics)
The 1992 Constitution spells out fundamental human rights and freedoms for all citizens and specifically outlines rights to equality and freedom from discrimination. In the Ghanaian society, women are subjected to discriminatory cultural practices that expose them to the violent tendencies of their male counterpart. At the workplace, they often find themselves in a similar atmosphere of abuse including sexual harassment and verbal abuse. This leaves psychological scars that are as damaging as physical abuse. It is estimated that about 74% of female employees experience sexual harassment within the working environment (Andoh (2001) Sexual Harassment in Workplace: The Ghanaian Experience).
Recently, the Ghanaian media has been flooded with reports of abuse of women in our higher educational institution where one would have thought that high level of civility and respect for human rights would be upheld. The most recent one is the case of Amina who was alleged to have stolen a mobile phone at the Mensah Sabah Hall of the University of Ghana. This alleged thief was physically as well as sexually assaulted by the male occupants whilst onlookers recorded the assault with their mobile phones which they later uploaded on YouTube and facebook. This incident was not taken lightly by gender advocates who called on the university authorities to institute an investigation and bring the culprits to justice.
Another dimension to the issue of sexual harassment against women in our higher education is the case of lecturers demanding sexual favors from their female students for a pass mark. Media pundits as well as gender advocates conceive that, this problem has been in our institutions for a very long time. They report that the lack of effective systems and procedures to deal with this problem, and the associated stigma, has often prevented victims from taking any action against these lecturers. On different occasions, the University of Ghana, the Sunyani and the Takoradi Polytechnics have all found themselves in the media over cases of sexual exploitation of students by tutors (Source: http://news.peacefmonline.com/social/201105/44362.php?storyid=100&).
Addressing Gender Based Violence in Ghana
Ghana has ratified a number of international charters and conventions that seek to promote an end to violence against women. Beyond this, it has put together its roadmap to steer programs aimed at ensuring that women enjoy their fundamental human rights. This is evident in the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill into law by parliament on 21st of February 2007. This ushered in a new era and revitalized the hope of women and women advocacy groups in the Ghana.
The government's full commitment to this fight is demonstrated by ensuring that the necessary structures to see to the implementation of the law were effectively in place. The DOVVSU of the Ghana Police Services was established with this task. Formally known as the Women and Juvenile Unit, considering all the challenges, it is helping to address cases of abuse and violence against women and children. Currently, the unit operates in all 11 police regions and has 52 offices nationwide.
The fight against domestic violence in Ghana has been taken up by civil society groups such as Abantu, the Ark Foundation and other civil coalition group including Sister's Keeper. These groups were very instrumental in the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill and on timely bases undertake studies into domestic violence in Ghana. These groups are however, challenged due to their dependence on benevolence of international donors.
Until recently, very little was heard on the part of higher educational institutions in addressing violence against female students as there is no enacted law specifically to address gender base violence in schools. The cry of gender advocates and the media is gradually yielding results. The University of Ghana now has in place a 15 member committee to help address cases of violence against female students. Also the cases of Sunyani and Takoradi polytechnics received a swift condemnation from the school authorities and the case was handed to the police for prosecution after internal investigations.
Challenges in Addressing Violence against Women
The road to eradicating violence against women in Ghana has been with lots of impediments. Integral amongst them is attitudes, belief and cultural practices which place men high above women and also overlooks certain violence actions perpetuated against women. The danger is that, the youth hold firm to these practices, even though it violates the Domestic Violence Act. According to the United Nations website, 28% of males and 41% of females in Ghana between the ages of 15 - 19 still think that the husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances. These practices that subordinate women to men to a large extent remain unchallenged in Ghanaian societies.
The penalties for violence against women have to date not helped to influence attitudes and behaviors. The level of criminalization and prosecution at the law courts has been low. Even though the law outlines parameters for prosecuting perpetrators, charges filed against men by the wives are often not prosecuted. The Accra branch of DOVVSU reported that between 1998 and 2004, 11,335 cases of domestic violence were reported (United States Department of State 8 March 2006, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2005 - Ghana). Of these, only nineteen per cent resulted in a court hearing and fewer than three per cent of cases led to actual convictions.
The Beijing Platform for Action requests all governments of the United Nations to promote research and collect and compile statistics relating to the prevalence of different forms of violence against women. A very high value source for compiling statistics against violence against women is the police and the courts. However, these outfits are challenged because the majority of the cases often go unreported. According to a study conducted by Gender Centre on Violence against Women and Children in Ghana (Source: Ark Foundation Ghana), 95% of women who reported to have been raped did not lodge a formal complaint with the police. The health sector is another source of statistics on women who have been abused. However, statistics from these sources are scarce and lack full reliability. Information on the occurrences and consequences of violence is usually collected on a voluntary basis since recording incidents and reporting on victims of violence is often not mandatory for health-care and other systems.
The Way Forward
Ghana ranks high on the development indicator in the Sub Saharan region but is struggling in the fight against gender based violence. In the Ghanaian society, likewise in many others, abuse such as beating, rape, verbal assault and sexual harassment result in intense social stigma. Many women in this situation have accepted it as their fate and are not compelled to take any action to address the situation. Those who are bold enough to challenge the status quo end up with little or no support. Their options are limited and they are often without sufficient means of earning income. The government and the business community need to strengthen their responsibilities by providing direct financial support to organizations working to end violence against women to assist victims and to expand their income generation options.
Without a very reliable statistical data base relating to prevalence of different forms of violence against women, no scientific step can be taken against it. The reliability of funds from donors to fund gender based programs in Ghana should be minimized. The government needs to show more commitment by ensuring that funds are committed in the national budget for domestic violence. The DOVVSU and gender rights organizations should be adequately supported and the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act should be duly monitored and evaluated on timely bases for proper evidence based planning purposes.
The media over the years has proven to be a very reliable stakeholder in advocating for an end to violence against women. Partnering with the government and civil society groups, the media can shine more light on the issue and champion innovative ways to deal with the problem. They need to go a step further from just reporting the incidence and statistics. It is necessary to follow a story through to the prosecution stage and let the public know the full consequences of abusing women. The media can also make significant contributions by helping to raise awareness on the dangerous cultural practices hindering gender equality.
This government and any subsequent government need to continue to prioritize this agenda. Having a bill passed into law does not solve the issues at hand. The appropriate institutions need to be empowered and sufficiently funded to intensify investigations into cases of violence against women and culprits have to face the consequences of their actions.
As the world celebrates this very important day, let us all join forces and say NO to VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.
PDA refers to Participatory Development Associates Ltd