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Striving to flush out domestic violence

Domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women are prevalent in the Ghanaian society despite attempts to stem the tide.
Sam Sarpong

Until recently, domestic violence was seen in the Ghanaian setting as a trivial issue not worth investigating. This was quite understandable because such abuses among spouses especially, are seen as inevitable and are deemed to be part of marital progression.

Some men even find it incredulous to be questioned about their actions in relation to such abuse, let alone being arrested. And for the victims, they do not report such abuse because they have been brought up in the belief that it is acceptable, even normal, for a man to beat his wife.

Emile Francis Short, Ghana's Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice, acknowledges the existence of this view. "Many Ghanaians still believe that the violent abuse of a woman by her husband is an 'intimate family matter which neither the police nor the community should involve themselves in".

As a result of such attitudes, it has traditionally been very difficult for women to report such abuses to the authorities. The fact that the police often dismiss domestic violence as a private issue rather than a criminal one has also been a huge impediment to women prosecuting their violent husbands.

Lately, however, women's issues have received much attention largely as a result of the increase in women advocacy groups, which seem to be springing up each other day. With it has come a tentative arrangement by the government to give hearing to women and children's issues. The present government headed by President John Kufuor, has created a cabinet position for women and children and the police now seem more concerned. Two years ago, the police established the Women and Juvenile's Unit (WAJU) to provide victims of domestic violence with support. During the first half of 2002, 679 spousal abuse cases were reported and according to a representative at WAJU, on an average day, up to 35 women and children walk through the unit's doors, each of them with problems that need complex assistance.

The unit has only seven branches in six of Ghana's 10 regions which is inadequate to cater for the teeming number of women reporting abuses. In order to address this, WAJU and other organisations have organised seminars to sensitise other police departments on domestic violence. It has also made a proposal to incorporate gender violence sensitisation into the police training curriculum.

Although the tide seems to be changing now at least for the better, not much has been achieved in the women's front as would have been expected. Recent developments in Ghana tend to undermine the freedoms and development of women. It is less than a year that the phobia created by the mysterious serial killing of women subsided.

Between 1999 and early 2001, the movement of women in the urban areas, especially in the night, was restricted following a serial killing of women. More than 30 women were reportedly killed as a result and presently one man is standing trial for allegedly masterminding the killings. Barely a year after the serial killings subsided, media reports also accentuated further stories on men killing their wives mostly over trivial issues. The spate of these killings baffled many Ghanaians.

Gladys Asmah, the Women and Children's Affairs Minister, was quick to condemn the killings, describing them as "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.

"The abuse of women in Ghana is alarming," says Esther Appiah, the commanding officer, WAJU. "There is too much superiority complex among their male counterparts. They feel women cannot think on their own; they think women are part of their property. Some Ghanaian men even think they should decide what a woman should do."

Appiah says while more women are reporting domestic violence now, 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.

"Most women don't even know what options are available to them when they are abused," says Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, executive director of The Ark Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works for women and children's rights. "There is so much societal pressure on these victims that they refuse to bring the perpetrators to the sanction table."

According to Dwamena-Aboagye, most Ghanaian women do not prefer jail terms for their abusers, but rather an order to stop them from abusing them."We are educating them to know that there is the need to report abuses when they occur," Dwamena -Aboagye said, stressing that, legislators should also review the country's laws, which some judges have cited in dismissing domestic violence cases because the say the offences often cited are not criminal according to current laws.

In its most recent annual report, international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, expressed two concerns about Ghana, both of which pertain to women and girls - the practice of genital mutilation and domestic violence. Whilst genital mutilation has been a criminal offence since 1994 (albeit still practised in some regions but on a very low scale) a bill specifically addressing domestic violence has yet to be passed in Ghana.

The Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Nana Akufo-Addo has given the assurance that the constitution would be reviewed to adequately address the concerns of women in such areas as domestic violence and the intestate succession law.

"The Ministry of Justice is actively considering proposals on legislation relating to domestic violence to increase protection for battered spouses," says Akufo-Addo. He reckons that much work has to be done to educate people on offences such as female genital mutilation and customary servitude because such practices unfortunately cannot be wiped out by the mere creation of an offence in the statute books.

Akufo-Addo bemoans the fact that there is no specific offence in the constitution that relates to the trafficking of women and children. He maintains that "the loophole in Ghanaian criminal legislation has been identified and the Criminal Procedure Code, 1960 (Act 29) will be amended shortly to proscribe the practice."

At the moment, the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Bill currently before Parliament has provisions to protect pregnant and nursing mothers in the prisons. This means such women would not be given custodial sentences and alternatives to institutional confinement would be provided for them.

It is known that the bill will, in addition to defining domestic violence and outlining perimeters for prosecuting perpetrators, contain procedures which will allow women to gain civil protection orders to keep their husbands away from them. This is one of the elements that has always been called for by advocates of the bill as protection orders will safeguard many women who desperately want their abuse to be terminated but do not actually want to prosecute their husbands.

Besides, the country's Intestate Succession Decree 1985 (PNDC 111) is to be reviewed because the law does not clarify polygamous situations and the concept of joint inheritance between the surviving spouse and children where the former may not be the parent of all the children.

Domestic violence has huge costs for the Ghanaian society. Not only is it an abuse of the human rights of its victims, it also negatively affects the emotional development of children who witness it and consequently damages the nation as a whole, leading to such end results as streetism, armed robbery and teenage pregnancy.

It is also a major cause of poverty in communities. Research carried out in Ghana in 1998 by the Gender Studies and Human Rights Documentation Centre found that many of the women who sustained injuries after beatings from their husbands, had to spend limited family resources on medical care or were forced to abstain from income-generating activities until they recovered.

It was also found that when women reported abuse to the police very little action was taken. In 65 per cent of cases, the perpetrators were simply given a verbal warning, in 10 per cent of cases no action was taken at all and in only 3 per cent of cases was an arrest made, the research indicated.

The research also found that the majority of women reporting cases were told to be patient with their husbands, to seek advice from family members or to withdraw their case altogether. In only 2 per cent of cases were women advised to press charges. Police attitudes, and the fact that a woman's family and community may refrain from 'interfering' in what they see as a 'delicate' matter, can actually result in men inflicting serious injuries on their wives and sometimes walking free because the incidents go unreported.

Although domestic violence cases now go through the regular courts, there seem to be some inherent problems with that. Many women often feel too frightened to go ahead with the proceedings or worry that if they prosecute their husbands, there will be no one to provide for their children. Another concern is that when domestic violence cases do get to court, they are not taken as seriously as they should.

Fortunately, in recent years, a number of organisations have emerged to spearhead efforts at changing attitudes towards domestic violence.

Most of them run public education programmes on the human rights of women and children. A few have have crisis response centres and shelters. There is also a network of organisations devoted to delivering accessible, affordable and integrated support services to women and children victims of domestic violence.

The network currently provides counsellors, administers a survivor's fund which pays for medical reports (required in order to prosecute perpetrators and often beyond the financial capabilities of victims) and refers victims to lawyers and doctors who can treat them free of charge or at a subsidised rate.

The government on the other hand is also helping to alleviate the severe hardships faced by women in the country.

In 1998, Parliament added new definitions of sexual offences 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 offences committed by family members. They also protected women accused of witchcraft, doubled the mandatory sentence for rape, criminalised 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.

Laws protecting women and girls, it has been argued, would be better enforced if more women occupied decision-making roles in government, but women are often dissuaded from participating. 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," says Dwamena-Aboagye. "Women have to behave like men to survive and they end up being called derogatory names."

The Minister for Women and Children Affairs, Mrs. Gladys Asmah believes, "it is when young women are in leadership that they can help to formulate policies that will favour women and raise their quality of life."

Presently, what has become worrying to many is that, while the nation can boast of over 51 percent of women in the Ghanaian society, only a handful of them continue to offer themselves to contest elections.

Prof. Takyiwa Manu, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, who also works on women's rights' issues, has expressed her disappointment at the trend. She believes, women should begin to accept the fact that they equally have the right to participate in local politics to influence decisions affecting them for their own good, since nobody can do that for them.

Nadia Ibrahimah, who is a Regional Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says women holding top positions should play a vanguard role because of their special position in the society. "Although good governance affects all and sundry in the country, in many situations of governance, the men dominate while women are not visible," she notes.

She believes women do not have the courage to stand for elections because they are ridiculed, tainted and dismissed as nothing good, citing recent elections to District Assemblies and to Parliament which recorded poor turn-out for women. In Ibrahimah's view, the role of women in good governance can be enhanced if they come out to participate as candidates in elections.

But problems on the women's front are not only dogged by politics alone, rather it pertains to tradition and the need to do away with certain taboos.

A recent report from Krotease, a village in eastern Ghana indicates that teachers have refused postings there because of the villagers' insistence on the observance of some customary practices and taboos, which include the banning of women in their menstrual period from the village.

Unfortunately, the District Chief Executive for the area is reported as saying that the assembly would not want to interfere with the cultural practices of the people. This stance has angered a good number of Ghanaians who believe the taboo is retrogressive.

Indeed, such practices are serious violations of women's rights and they pose serious threats to the progress and developments of individuals and society as a whole.

But for now, most Ghanaian women can say with much pride that although they are a long way off from realising their dream, they have made some inroads and the future looks bright for their cause.

What will still be called for however, is a national re-evaluation of the socially acceptable attitudes that perpetuate the use of violence against women. This is a mammoth task, but one which, with the full commitment of the government, should, and must be undertaken if Ghana is to develop to its full potential.

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