Girls and Women
Traditional Policies and Practices
Traditional Policies and Practices that Discriminate Against Women (further referred to as TRAPPDAW) are the most pervasive ways women and children are marginalized and their rights abused.
CENSUDI coined TRAPPDAW in 2005 in collaboration with ten (10) communities to describe a set of cultural practices and policies that trap women in degrading and dehumanizing situations and prevent them from effective participation in their own development.
The following section explains the major rites and practices that abuse human rights and trap people in poverty in the Upper East Region of Ghana.
The Place of Women and Girls in the Traditional Setting/Mindset
Women and girls, who are second rate to men and boys, are regarded at best as producers of children. At worst, they are regarded as highly priced property; unfortunately, the following quotes written by a German anthropologist over 40 years ago are still true today.
“Boys and men are more valued in the family than girls and women. If a man has no son he feels inferior in society. If even he has a son who is only yet a boy, it is better than if he has ten big daughters. This is because the girls will scatter to other peoples’ houses (as wives)” (Rattray 1969:138)
“A woman is valued by the number of children she produces as a wife else it is considered a waste of resources to have married her. When a girl is to be given out in marriage the wish, prayer and blessing invoked on her is that her offspring’s will be numerous so that the man (her husband) may not say that he has thrown away his cows in the long grass” (Rattray 1969:146).
“Courtship can be expensive and getting a wife can be economically challenging for many young men and dehumanising for women. In courtship, the suitor goes to a girl’s house a number of trips with guinea fowls, kola nuts and balls of tobacco. When the number of guinea fowls has reached six or eight, either his elder brother or a younger father (i.e. his father’s young brother) will take charge (of the subsequent proceedings). He will take four hoes and three guinea-fowls and go to greet the girl’s household, and he will continue these visits until they tell him a good word”. (Rattray, 1969: 144).
It can be deduced from the above quote that a suitor may have to send twenty or more guinea fowls to a girl’s house before he is allowed to marry her. A few days or weeks after the woman has moved to the husband’s house, her brothers come and demand at least one sheep, one goat, one dog and several fowls to be killed for them in a ceremony dubbed ‘zua’ or ‘running’. This is then followed by the consecration of the marriage by providing a fowl, which is sacrificed to the ancestral shrine –’lu sundorno’ or ‘falling’. A bride price of four (4) cows must then be paid to seal the marriage.
These rites reduce women to commodities bought by the highest bidder. Once the marriage is complete, wives become part of the man’s property. Many women are treated as slaves and feel imprisoned in their marital homes because they or their families cannot or do not want to refund expensive courtship and marriage costs to win their freedom.
The consecration of the girl (sundornu) to the ancestors is a very important ritual because it is believed that this is what gives legal acceptance into her husband’s family. This sacrifice also sexually bonds a wife to her husband’s family. Interestingly, this process does not bond the man to the woman or her family. Any infidelity on the wife’s part is not only an abuse to her husband but to his ancestors. Such an offence must be reported for the necessary ritual reparation to be made. At the death of her husband she needs to be ritually separated from her husband to be able to engage in normal life again. Consecration ratifies slavery of women in marriage
Early and childhood marriages
Betrothals often occur for girls as young as 5 or 6 years and subsequent marriages occur for girls as young as 9 years. The bride wealth often associated with such unions is a traditional means for fathers to accumulate additional wealth, and families accumulate honor because the girls who are forced into early marriages are often virgins. Child marriages lead to early pregnancies and repeated childbirths. These issues coupled with nutritional taboos deprive pregnant and lactating women of essential nutrients and contribute to high maternal and child mortality rates. Early childhood marriages are also a cause of low literacy rates among women and girls.
Traditional funeral policies and practices impose heavy social, psychological and economic burdens on women.
Funerals of Parents and Grandparents
During funerals, married daughters from the house and clan are expected to contribute grains, pulses, soup ingredients, shea butter, malt for making local alcoholic drinks, guinea fowls and other forms of animal protein. As these items arrive, elderly men and women inspect each contribution. Those with small quantities are scorned and ridiculed while those with sizeable contributions are applauded with loud joyful noises and dancing. Aware of this process, married daughters try to be impressive in their contributions. This generates unhealthy competition leading many of them into debt and marital problems. Some deplete their resources in the process or borrow money thereby deepening their poverty. Research shows that many women are not able to request further assistance from their husbands for months or even years after funerals because the men will keep reminding the women how much they, the husbands, spent to make their wives proud at a parent’s funeral.
While married daughters are imposed these heavy requirements and scrutiny, sons are treated more leniently and are required to make contributions based on their financial ability. For example, sons who cannot afford to purchase a cow are allowed to use sheep, goats or even fowls in some instances.
Widows are expected to perform these rites and rituals upon the death of their husbands. The main purpose of these activities is to separate women ritually from their dead spouses and to establish that they were faithful to their husbands. The practice is manifested in various forms including:
• Long periods of confinement in dark rooms
• Isolation of the widow with the corpse
• Eating from dirty utensils
• Drinking horribly bad tasting herbal concoctions
• Parading naked in front of the whole community
The bride price or dowry is often paid from family property. Wives are, therefore, considered the property of husbands and their families. “In the event of the death of a husband, one of his brothers (usually the most senior) inherits (‘vai’ or ‘collects’) the widow and all family property. It is this brother who either marries or gives the woman out in marriage.” (Rattray 1969:207).
Widowhood rituals are extreme and burdensome compared to what men have to perform as widowers. These rituals also infringe on women’s right to dignity, life and health. Some widows’ die and others never recover their full health and mental states after undergoing these rituals.
The “Widow with Living husband” Syndrome
Traditionally the three justifiable reasons for which a man can divorce his wife and expect to get back some of the bride price are witchcraft, adultery and stealing. Usually the woman’s family will expect some evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt before they can accept the woman back. This is not only for economic reasons but also and most importantly to protect family honour. Wives who are caught in this cross fire between families then remain marginalized in their marital homes. This syndrome has a name among the Frafra people in Ghana – “poku-ure voa” translated literally it is “a widow with a living husband”. In the past, many women who suffered this kind of abuse were old and post-menopausal. In the last three decades, many living widows are young women in their childbearing years who have been ignored and abandoned by their husbands for resisting unfair treatment or polygamy.
Under local customs, women cannot inherit property or retain custody of their children. Under this patrilineal system, land belongs to either the boys as brothers or men as husbands and from them women derive rights to till the land. Upon death, land reverts to the man’s sons and not the spouse or his daughters. For centuries such cultural biases have prevailed unchallenged and embraced as defining norms in the Ghanaian value system.
Land is an important factor of production in every economy, especially developing economies where agriculture remains the major economic activity. In Ghana land is one of the most important productive assets for over 80% of the rural population. Insecurity of land tenure has been shown in numerous studies to contribute to the decline of agricultural production and to entrench women and poor farm families in poverty.
Traditional Division of Labour
Customarily, women are the workhorses of their families. Women and girls carry out multiple productive, reproductive and community management roles and responsibilities. They are mothers and wives, economic producers, formal sector employees and community workers. Women’s heavy burdens of household chores are in sharp contrast to men’s considerably lighter domestic activities. According to the 2009 Ghana Living Standards Survey, women’s roles and responsibilities are 30% higher than men’s largely due to women’s traditional commitment to childcare and housework. In the last 2 decades, women have stepped up to the plate by taking on more male traditional responsibilities to help households cope during hard economic times. Men, on the other hand, have refused to take over some of the traditional female responsibilities for domestic work and childcare.
Beliefs about Education and Skills for Girls and Women
In the traditional mind, every woman belongs to another man’s house because she will marry in future and move out of her family home into her husband’s family home. Males will continue to live with parents and take care of them in their old age. Parents believe that investing in the education of boys will bring greater returns to parents than the education of girls. Interestingly, modern developments and evidence have debunked this belief yet communities are still slaves to this antiquated thinking. Participatory research done with ten communities in 2005 revealed the following:
• 95% of parents receive regular and substantial support from their single and/or married daughters, with or without formal education
• 30% of fathers identified seasonal unemployment as the main reason why their sons are not able to consistently support them
• 60% of fathers and 85% of mothers described their sons as ‘useless and lazy people dependent on their parents, sisters and wives for survival’.
Good Cultural Practices