ACCRA, Ghana (WOMENSENEWS)--A recent spate of spousal killings in this West African country has cast a spotlight on the divide between high-ranking authorities who have enacted reforms to end violence and discrimination against women and the less powerful officials whose lack of resources and reluctance to enforce those reforms are hampering such efforts.
After he was elected in December 2000, Ghanaian President J.A. Kufour appointed two women to oversee two new ministries created specifically to act on behalf of the country's women and girls: the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs and the Ministry of Education's Girl-Child Education Unit. Kufour also established the Women's Endowment Fund to assist women entrepreneurs and affirmed the need for the Women and Juvenile Unit of the country's police service, which was created in 1998 to address an increase in cases of abuse against women and children.
But in a country that has largely escaped the civil conflicts that have roiled its neighbors in the region and where violent crime is still somewhat of an anomaly, police say violence against women is increasing. At least seven women were killed in the course of two weeks this spring by their husbands or companions over alleged infidelities. More than 30 women have been murdered over the last five years by what authorities describe as a serial killer or gang, and no one has been convicted in connection with the slayings.
Four men are currently standing trial for killing their wives. The trial of 36-year-old Charles Quansah, accused of the serial murders, also opened Wednesday.
Gladys Asmah, the Women and Children's Affairs Minister, recently condemned the killings, describing a dangerous, emerging culture in the country in which men lash out violently against women, not over alleged transgressions, but to control women's sexuality and sexual behavior.
"We find the increasing rate of domestic violence unacceptable . . . domestic squabbles can be resolved without the use of violence or guns," Asmah said. "Men should not take the law into their own hands and resort to the use of guns to punish their wives."
Hundreds of Women Take to Streets
Galvanized by Asmah's remarks, hundreds of women took to the streets in the capital of Accra on April 6 to protest the killings.
Carrying signs that read, "Stop killing us," "Stop the violence against women," and "Women are also human beings," protesters led by Sisters' Keepers, a coalition of women's rights activists, accused the country's courts of failing to punish men who have tortured and attacked women. Such complicity, they said, has created a climate of acceptance of violence against women in Ghana.
"The abuse of women in Ghana is alarming," said Esther Appiah, the commanding officer for the Women and Juvenile Unit of the police force. "There is too much superiority complex among their male counterparts. They think women cannot think on their own; they think women are part of their property. Some Ghanaian men even think women don't have sense and so they should decide what a woman should do."
Appiah said that while more women are reporting domestic violence, many of them continue to take the abuse, intimidated by the stigma and embarrassment heaped on victims and the long delay between reporting and the resolution of a case in the courts.
Many people, moreover, don't even know her agency exists, Appiah said. The unit has only seven branches in six of Ghana's 10 regions, and one outpost per region is not enough to address the crimes reported to officials, she said. In Accra alone last year, the agency received as many as 204 cases of defilement, defined as sex with a girl younger than 12 years old, 262 cases of assault, 58 cases of rape and 16 cases of indecent assault, or forcibly touching the buttocks, breasts or other parts of a woman.
"Women don't even know what options are available to them when they are abused," said Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, executive director of The Ark Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works for women and children's rights. In addition, she said, "There is so much societal pressure on these victims that they refuse to bring the perpetrators to the sanction table. Most Ghanaian women prefer not for their husbands and family members to be jailed, but rather an order to stop them from abusing them."
Tradition Trumps Progressive Laws
The power of tradition also prevents local officials from enforcing reforms, Dwamena-Aboagye added.
In 1998, Parliament added new definitions of sexual offenses to existing laws and increased punishments for others. Legislators banned the practice of "Trokosi," in which young girls are forced into slavery to atone for offenses committed by family members. They also protected women accused of witchcraft, doubled the mandatory sentence for rape, criminalized indecent assault and forced marriages and increased punishments for incest and child prostitution.
But such official condemnation hasn't eliminated these practices or female genital mutilation, which the women's ministry says is still conducted in more than a third of rural communities in Ghana.
Appiah said that her agency recently began an outreach project in schools and churches to educate people about how to prevent violence against women.
"We are educating them to know that there is the need to report abuses when they occur," she said, adding that legislators should also review the country's laws, which some judges have cited in dismissing domestic violence cases because the say the offense as charged is not criminal according to current law.
A spokesman for President Kufour could not be reached for comment. But a judge in Accra, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, admitted that he sometimes dismisses domestic violence cases, arguing that there are no laws for such offenses. "It is un-Ghanaian for a man to be sentenced into imprisonment because he slapped or pushed his wife," the judge said.
Dearth of Women in Government an Obstacle to Enforcement
Laws protecting women and girls would be better enforced if more women occupied decision-making roles in government, but women are often dissuaded from participating, Dwamena-Aboagye said. Of the 200 members in Parliament, 17 are women. Of the 79 ministers of state, six are women. Seven out of the 110 district chief executives in Ghana are women. And no woman has been appointed as a regional minister.
"The political parties and institutions of governance are all dominated by men," Dwamena-Aboagye said. "Women have to behave like men to survive and they end up being called derogatory names."
Emelia Arthur, coordinator of Sisters' Keepers, said the April 6 demonstration marked the beginning of a massive campaign to combat violence against Ghanaian women. She said the group would take its fight to the country's attorney general, its minister for the interior and the inspector general of police.
"Some of the men have threatened to continue killing us and so you know that we have a long way to fight," Arthur said.
Raymond Archer is a reporter for the Ghanaian Chronicle, the largest independent daily newspaper in Ghana.
For more information:
Gender Profiles: Ghana:
"Fury over women's killings in Ghana":
"Liberating girls from 'trokosi'
Campaign against ritual servitude in Ghana":