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close this bookAdam and Eve and the Serpent: Breaking the Bonds to Free Africa's Women (Ghana Universities Press, 1995, 141 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDATA CARD
View the documentPREFACE
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the documentLECTURE 1: Be fruitful and multiply
View the documentLECTURE 2: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children
View the documentLECTURE 3: Socio-economic development and gender equity
View the documentLECTURE 4: Social, cultural and legal practices and gender equity
View the documentLECTURE 5: Gender, sexual and reproductive rights and equity
View the documentBACK COVER

LECTURE 4: Social, cultural and legal practices and gender equity

There is a slogan which has sometimes been used by people supporting greater equality for women that says "Eve was framed". Beneath its humour, the slogan points to deeply-held beliefs that Eve, or women generally, committed some wrong for which retribution must be extracted. And so, throughout the history of humankind and across virtually all cultural, religious and national boundaries, women have paid the price of their supposed responsibility for our fall from grace in heavy labour under the stigma of inferiority to the male species. Their search for knowledge about the world and themselves, which prompted the fall, is still often restricted or repressed, or dismissed as idle curiosity. The tree of knowledge is still guarded against women by the serpent of discrimination.

The original role of the biblical first woman was as Adam's companion and helpmate, positions which imply a certain reciprocity and gender equality: woman and man both as companions and helpmates for each other. But the fall from grace resulted also, it SeemS, in a considerable fall from gender equality and even equity, for nowhere are men and women truly equal in both law and practice in our modern world.

'Culture' is often used as a justification or explanation for the past and present subjugation of women to men. Definitions of culture vary and include references to crop cultivation, experimentally-grown bacteria, the arts, and intellectual refinement. But none of these, surely, is what people are trying to blame for the low status of women! A more appropriate definition for our purposes is supplied by the Random House Dictionary which lists culture as "the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another." So culture itself, like the gender relations which are reflected in it, is socially constructed by women and men in a dynamic process: no society is static. Social and cultural prescriptions get learnt and are transmitted into human behaviour. Such behaviour is further moulded through religious or political practices and codified or uncodified legal systems.

Acsadi and Acsadi state:

"Culture determines sources of authority and power and defines status. It is the reference for judicature and specifies who and what each member is and how others will react to and deal with her or him. It enhances or retards political stability, economic growth, and, importantly, recognition of and respect for individuals' human rights. Every aspect of the systematic maltreatment of women and girls has a cultural reference, is part of an institutionalized phenomenon. Consequently, amelioration of female gender determined sufferings and disadvantages will require alterations or banishment of elements of long-established cultural patterns".1

Obviously this cannot be an easy or a short-term task. Culture acts both as a source of continuity for people over time and as a means by which people can influence their future or manage change on the basis of their past experience. Women's involvement in childbirth and child rearing ensure they have a fundamental role to play in the transmission of culture and social continuity. Women can also be a force for progress - this has been learned in hindsight as we understand that the exclusion of women from development initiatives has been an obstacle to the success of these initiatives all over the world.

Throughout history, women's roles and status have changed in accordance with the different circumstances of their societies. They have been mobilized in times of war to serve as soldiers or factory workers, and given roles and responsibilities formerly considered reserved for men. In other times of recession and unemployment, women have been domesticated and their public and productive roles taken from them. Thus, periods of relative autonomy are mixed with periods of forceful subjugation, but overall, across societies, a general pattern of male superiority over women has been established and reproduced in attitudes, actions and customs.2

I would like to examine with you some of the roots of these attitudes and actions which seek to maintain women in a subordinate' position in the name of culture, and to ask some questions about the effects of these practices on women and society as a whole. Finally, let us also ask what can be done to improve gender equity and ensure that culture is a progressive force for change as we head towards the twenty-first century. Women have adapted to the needs of society for hundreds of years. A new consciousness is needed which recognizes that it is time for society also to adapt to the needs of women.


For many centuries, Western societies firmly believed that women's brains were physically smaller than men's, and therefore women's inferiority was biologically based. As so often happens in science, advances in medicine eventually showed that this was simply not true. Yet dislodging long-held prejudices is a complex process, and scientific evidence alone is not enough. Beliefs that women are naturally more docile, submissive, patient, and tolerant of monotonous or repetitive work are also common, despite the evidence that girls are taught submission as they grow, and taught that lack of conformity carries high personal and social costs. Unfortunately much of this teaching is from other women - mothers, elder siblings or close relations and mothers-in-law.

Beliefs and attitudes that women's activities are primarily domestic and secondary are prevalent in most societies. Traditional African societies always had their share of male-biased institutions and customs, but research shows that there was also a fair degree of autonomy for women. As I mentioned in Lecture 3, many women operated independently in the spheres of agriculture and trade without interference from men, and the income generated by their activities was solely theirs to dispose of, used for their own upkeep and the needs of their children. Women were not expected to provide unpaid labour on their husbands' farms, but mutually acceptable arrangements for assistance could be made. This relative autonomy did not mean complete freedom for Africa's Eve, however, as she still bore full responsibility for child care and domestic chores, working the classic 'double day' at home and in the fields or market. Women were also under strong pressure to bear children, particularly sons, as pointed out in Lecture 3, as children were an important economic asset in agricultural communities and social status was positively related to family size.

Colonization had a profound impact on these customary practices, which was unquestionably detrimental to African women. Western expectations about family structures and functions were superimposed over a very different reality, and women were forced to comply with new arrangements as their independent access to land and income was increasingly restricted. This 'cult of domesticity' continued in the post-colonial era with the assumptions of development workers that families consisted of a male breadwinner and a non-working mother whose time, apart from child-care and household chores, was available to be allocated to their husbands' farms or to community tasks without any remuneration. This erroneous assumption has meant increased workloads for women and often the failure of initiatives which were to rely on their free labour.3

Throughout the world, many of the traditional practices which contribute to women's subordination are based around family life, and constrain women at all stages of their lives. Women's dependent position in the family means that if they try to become individuals in the public sphere rather than wives, mothers or daughters, they become economically and socially vulnerable.4 Traditional relations of family life may be oppressive to women, but there is considerable social pressure to conform. The personal and private nature of gender relations makes them very difficult to change. Yet researchers and development practitioners are increasingly showing us that it is these relations which constitute the greatest barrier to women's equitable participation in the development process.

I would like to take you through the life cycle of a woman and highlight the myriad of ways, some subtle and others blatant and forthright, in which the serpent of discrimination, wrapped in a cloak of culture, makes women his consistent victim. To get the complete picture, we must begin our examination before a female infant is even born, as her chances of being born may be decreased by various beliefs and practices.


I mentioned a moment ago the pressure upon African women to bear children, and particularly sons. Son preference is widespread across the globe, presumably stemming from the prevalence of patrilineal systems where sons are required to continue the lineage and carry the name and worldly goods of a family into the future. The preference for sons in traditional Chinese culture was so strong that there was an unattributed saying "Eighteen goddess-like daughters are not equal to a son with a hump". Currently, one of the worst forms of cultural discrimination is to be found in some Asian countries where son preference has led to selective feticide and female infanticide. The urge to have at least one son, if possible two or more, is so strong in parts of the Indian sub-continent that new technologies are being abused to satisfy this. Pregnancies are submitted to amniocentesis and if the fetus is found to be female, an abortion is performed. Out of a total of 8,000 abortion operations performed following amniocentesis in one year at a centre in Bombay, 7,999 of the fetuses were female, only one male. It is estimated that about 78,000 female fetuses were aborted after sex-determination tests between 1978 and 1983 in India.5

Discrimination is continued once a female infant is born. There is evidence that many women in India and North Africa breastfeed male babies longer than female babies. Various traditional weaning and supplementary feeding practices also discriminate against female children. In some communities, this favouritism is shown in the use of health services. Daughters get taken to health care centres less often than sons. Immunization coverage in some countries is far poorer for girls than boys. Such wanton discrimination may ultimately lead to stunted growth in girls and much smaller development of the pelvis which could lead to later problems with childbearing including obstructed labour.

Recent demographic analysis has posed the question of the 'Missing 60 million females in Asia'.6 Biology determines that more male fetuses are conceived than female, a ratio of 106 to 100 at birth. Males, being weaker, die more during infancy and childhood than females. The sex ratio for infant mortality in Europe was generally about 130 boys to 100 girls, and for young children about 126 to 100. The female advantage should be maintained if social and environmental factors, including family care and nurturing, affect both sexes equally, but this is not the case. By the age of five, major differences are found in the sex ratios between countries which treat the girl child reasonably well and those which do not. Acsadi and Acsadi give female to male under-five mortality ratios as 85 for North America and 100 for Asia, with Southern Asia scoring 110, a complete reversal of the natural order. In no part of Africa are the ratios reversed, but West Africa with 90 is not as good as Southern Africa with 85.7 That these ratios can be improved is proven from the case of the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala has the most developed school system in India and a literacy rate of more than 90 per cent, an extensive health care system, liberal traditions for property inheritance for women, and substantial economic involvement by women. The male-female sex ratio in Kerala is comparable to Europe and North America, and completely unlike the rest of the Indian sub-continent. As Amartya Sen notes: "It seems that the 'missing women' may be rescuable, after all, by public policy."8


Imagine that our girl child has managed to survive past the age of five. In a perfect world she would be able to enjoy a childhood filled with education and enjoyment without the burden of responsibility. Alas for her that in most of the world this is a rare lifestyle indeed for girls. My review in yesterday's lecture of the gender gap in education shows that girls are more likely than boys to be pulled from school to help with household and productive tasks. Older girls are needed to look after younger siblings or to fetch water and firewood. We often say that "a woman's work is never done": how true this is when it starts so early in childhood! Daughters are not considered to be worthy of the investment in education which sons are given. Some people may claim that girls do not need formal education to prepare for their roles as mothers and home-makers, or that the moral standards of girls are endangered by too much education. But these claims can be disputed by evidence which shows that literacy greatly increases a woman's understanding of and ability to implement health care advice which benefits her family; and there is also evidence to show that for many girls staying in school is the surest way of delaying sexual relations and motherhood. Justifications for terminating girls' education are both ill-founded and short-sighted.

Puberty and adolescence bring new dangers to our already disadvantaged girl child. Two perils I would like to focus on are female genital mutilation and early marriage and childbearing.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), euphemistically termed female circumcision is a widespread cultural practice, found mostly in Africa and Asia, from which millions of girls suffer. Nahid Toubia claims that at least two million girls a year are at risk of genital mutilation. She also believes an estimated 85 to 114 million girls and women have had some kind of mutilation performed on them. Estimates are that 50 per cent of all girls in Nigeria have had the operation. In Ghana the practice is largely confined to the Northern and Upper Regions and to migrants from those regions in the major metropolitan areas. Even so, about 30 per cent is claimed as the overall prevalence. Fortunately there is some evidence that the practice is losing favour. Toubia notes a small 1987 pilot survey to show that, while 97 per cent of women above age 47 had had the operation, 48 per cent of those under 20 had not. Across Africa the prevalence ranges from a high of 90 per cent in Ethiopia to a low of 5 per cent in Uganda and Zaire.9

This cruel practice is neither similar to nor the same as circumcision of the male, even in its mildest form.

Approximately 80 per cent of all FGMs are clitoridectomies. In this there is partial or total removal of the clitoris. The female clitoris is the equivalent of the penis. So whereas in male circumcision it is only the prepuce or foreskin which is removed, even in the simple form of mutilation the whole male organ equivalent is removed. The more 'complete' form of FGM also removes the labia minora or the inner lips. In its worst form, known as infibulation, the clitoris and the labia, both minora or inner lips and parts of the outer lips or labia majora are removed. In addition the entrance to the vagina may be stitched together to leave just a tiny opening for urine and for menstrual blood flow. All of this is performed in some bush or home, without anaesthesia and without any kind of sterile instruments.

It has not been possible to find any religious rationale for this horrible practice, although a large proportion of adherents are found in Islamic areas. What is certain is that the main aim is to lessen sexual gratification by women. Statements like "it takes the monkey out of the girls" are among reasons advanced by men and older women for the persistence of the practice. It is usually performed before the girls are of marriageable age, from 10 or 12 to 14, but in some societies it is performed even on infants. FGM supposedly prepares girls for womanhood, but in fact may make many of the normal elements of womanhood, particularly the exercise of a healthy sexuality, both painful and unfulfilling. An infibulated woman may have great difficulty initiating sexual intercourse. The small opening may have to be surgically re-opened and there have been occasions when new husbands, in their frustration, have used penknives to cut an opening on their marital night.

The surprise of many of us in this field is to see so many women defending the practice. I have personally argued with female doctors and other women professionals who have tried to defend FGM. Recently there have been letters in the international press advocating that it should be accepted and regulated by qualified doctors. Their argument is that FGM is accompanied by valuable sexuality education, that it bonds the individual to her group, and that without it finding a husband may be difficult in some communities. Surely our societies can find other less violent and damaging ways to celebrate a girl's passage to womanhood and to bond her to her community which are more consistent with our rich cultural traditions. The testimony of one woman shows far more than I can the long-term physical and psychological damage for both mothers and daughters:

"The memory of their screams calling for mercy, gasping
for breath, pleading that those parts of their bodies
that it pleases God to give them be spared.
I remember the fearful look in their eyes
when I led them to the toilet, 'I want to but I can't.
Why Mum? Why did you let them do this to me?'
These words continue to haunt me.
My blood runs cold whenever the memory comes back.
It's now four years after the operation
and my children still suffer from its effects.
How long must I live with the pain that society
imposed on me and my children?"10

For those who like novels I would recommend Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" for a deeper involvement with this subject.11 Men and women of good will all over Africa should get up and shout against this barbaric practice performed in the name of culture. It dehumanizes the whole continent and cannot be condemned enough.

And what of early marriage? This practice is also widespread throughout the developing world. Traditional customs may dictate that a woman can be married as soon as she has reached puberty, and she may not even have time to adjust to her own growing womanhood before she becomes a mother. There is a strong link between early marriage and high fertility, which continues to characterize most of the African continent. Young women who bear children before their own bodies are fully matured may suffer permanent damage to their reproductive and overall health as a result. Births which occur too early in a woman's reproductive years, more than four births, and those which are too frequent are all classified as high risk for both mother and child, and all are made more likely by early marriages. The special value which children have in African cultures need not be reduced by starting reproduction later and spacing births further apart; rather this would have positive impact on both maternal and child survival and health.

Apart from the health risk which early marriage and high fertility thrust upon women, prevailing attitudes about the sexual division of responsibility ensure that early and frequent births confine women closely to the home, limiting their educational and employment opportunities. Girls who are removed from school for arranged marriages are very unlikely to complete their formal education. Child marriages are arranged often more for the parents' own benefit, with little consideration of the child's wishes. The marriage may mean land or cattle for them, or improved social connections. For their daughter, denial of the chance to choose her own life partner may be indicative of further constraints on her ability to decide other life options. As men generally marry after they have completed their education or established themselves in a trade or career, shortening women's education puts the women at a permanent disadvantage.


Many customs surrounding marriage should also be called into review in our modern era, if we are serious about promoting gender equity. In parts of South Asia, a bride is supposed to come with a dowry. At times the dowry demanded may be too high for the bride's family to pay at one time, and if unpaid this may lead to subsequent divorce or even in extremes to the murder of the bride. Each year in India some 300 women are burned to death by families who are disappointed by dowry payments.12 Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies in some regions do not treat dowry murder seriously - as a customary practice it is seen as justifiable. Dowry murders and 'suicides' are such commonplace occurrences in some Asian societies that people have begun to clamour and protest against the dowry system. The overwhelming cost of dowries for daughters' marriages also contributes to the son-preference to which I referred earlier. An advertisement for a sex-determination test in India actually proclaimed: "Better 500 rupees now and get rid of the unwanted female child rather than spend a minimum 5000 rupees towards dowry expenses at the time of marriage."13 The ad was apparently withdrawn, but its message still rings loud and clear.

An alternate tradition of bride-wealth or bride-price is common in many African societies, and can have equally complex repercussions for women. While it can be argued in theory that bride-wealth shows the high value given to women in our societies, in practice it tends to result in the commodification of marital relations. Having 'paid' for his wife, a man may treat her more like a piece of property than a human being with inalienable rights: for example by restricting her mobility, controlling all decisions about sexual and reproductive activities and preventing her from making her own choices or protecting her health properly. To the extent that bride-wealth is seen as payment for the bride herself, it denies a woman's autonomy and under-values her contribution to the husband's family. A woman who is ill-treated by her husband may have little avenue for redress. If she seeks divorce there may be pressure for her or her family to repay the bride-wealth, a difficult task at any time but more so in times of drought or recession.14 Even in the kind of situation which operates in Southern Ghana today, where the bride price is usually of token significance only, it is still considered enough to ensure the total submission of a woman to her husband. The Christian religions do not make matters better in insisting that women should 'obey' their husbands, while men make no comparable promise.


We mentioned and condemned violence in the home as a health hazard in Lecture 2. Throughout her life, a woman lives under a shadow of the threat of violence from men, which may take many forms. Violence and the threat of violence has long been used by men as a means to control women, whether individually or collectively. Violence against women affects all cultures and countries, respecting no divisions of class, race, or religion. It is a result of societal structures in which men dominate and women are relegated to subordinate positions. Cultural, and even religious beliefs may provide a form of acceptance or justification for family violence: for example where a wife is seen as her husband's property to dispose of as he chooses, or where it is believed that a man has a right to sexual services from his wife on demand and she can be forced to comply if necessary.15

So much is wife beating taken for granted that it is glorified in the Ga high-life song:

"Eyimi Eyimi
Egbala mitale le fee
Midientse midzole sumoo mi
Ni egbala mitale le fee"

which can be loosely translated as:

"He beat me, he beat me
He tore off all my clothes
My dear man loved so
He tore off all my clothes"

Audrey Gadzekpo recently drew attention to a form of institutional violence in the Volta Region of this country, called Trokosi. To appease the gods for a misdeed by a family or one of its senior members a young virgin is donated to the shrine of the god. She stays there as a virtual slave of the shrine chief. She becomes a sexual plaything and may be beaten or punished in diverse ways for the slightest deviation from what is ordered. She is doomed for life and cannot have her own partner.16 Even if this is not widespread it represents the kind of practices which go on in the name of traditional religions which need to be stopped.

The threat of violence ensures that women will defer to and comply with men's decisions about sexual behaviour and contraceptive use, greatly limiting women's control over their own fertility. And sadly, violence by only a few men may be sufficient to keep many women in fear. If one woman in a village is beaten by her husband for using contraception, many other women may become reluctant to raise the subject in their own homes for fear of a similar reprisal, although their own husbands may actually welcome the discussion of family planning matters. Legal requirements for spousal consent in order to access family planning services, common in many African countries, may therefore deter women, and even put some at greater risk of violence.17

There is a disturbing range of gender-based violence18: including physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse; sexual slavery and enforced prostitution; and the practices of female feticide and infanticide, neglect of female children, female genital mutilation, and dowry-related violence which I have already described. Rape, defilement of female minors and sexual abuse are obvious violations of a woman's sexual and reproductive freedoms, but battering or the threat of physical violence can also have devastating effects, reducing a woman's ability to protect herself against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including, with tragic consequences, HIV and AIDS.

The recent debates in our parliament about rape and defilement gave some of us much cause for concern. The gravity of the issues being discussed appeared lost to some of our honorable members. Reports in the press about some court pronouncements in cases of rape and defilement make one wonder if such technical gymnastics would be undertaken by the courts to deal leniently with someone defiling young boys rather than young girls.

Physical abuse is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality of women and children. As an extreme example, more than fifty percent of all murders committed in Bangladesh are murders of wives by their husbands. A study in Bogota, Colombia, found that one-fifth of cases of bodily injury were the result of conjugal violence and 94 per cent of those hospitalised were battered women.19

In addition to its harmful effects on a woman's body and her ability to exercise her sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women has many other widespread social costs. Evidence from the United States, for example, suggests that 10 per cent of all victims of domestic violence lose work time, and emergency hospital services are also over-subscribed by victims. A Canadian study estimated that in one year (1980) alone, it cost thirty-two million Canadian dollars for police intervention in wife-battering cases and for related support and administrative work.20 Beyond the calculable costs lie the enormous costs in terms of human suffering of women and their children. And the impact on future generations must also be considered: studies show that violence is often a learned behaviour.

Similar statistics have not been published in many African contexts, as research into family violence is still very new. but this by no means lightens the impact of violence here. A 1988 global survey of women's groups in developing countries by a Canadian NGO, MATCH International, concluded that the most frequently raised concern was violence against women.21 In several African societies, a woman is held completely responsible for the failure of a marriage in the eyes of her community, even if the husband has been abusive. Furthermore, she may lose all rights to her own children if she leaves the marriage. These traditions place unfair pressure on women to stay in violent relationships. 'Culture' should not be seen as an acceptable defence against what is essentially cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which prohibits women from having full enjoyment of their social, sexual and reproductive rights and freedoms. To promote change, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women should be strongly supported and widely implemented.


Family life is idealized and seen as above reproach in most cultures, and the resultant privacy confines women to their suffering in silence and shame. These cultural beliefs are often reflected in legal systems and structures supporting the rights of a husband over his wife, children and other property. Legal recognition of women as 'persons' was only extended in Western cultures in this century, and women's legal autonomy was for many years dependent on her marital status. Married women in many countries are still struggling for recognition as independent beings, and may be required to seek the permission of their husbands before taking action regarding their own finances, health or education.

Legal discrimination against women is widespread. Customary and legislative restrictions on women's ability to inherit property, to own land, and to access credit are still common, having a devastating effect on women's economic independence. In some patrilineal cultures, all of a man's 'belongings', including his wife and children, become the property of his relatives upon his death, and his widow may be forced to marry her brother-in-law. These customs are clearly an infringement on a woman's rights to security of her person and consent to marriage. Women who have not borne children in a marriage may also be excluded from inheritance under customary law. The rise of HIV and AIDS is further eroding women's rights as widows in some areas - women whose husbands have died of AIDS-related illnesses are being completely abandoned by their husband's family and shunned as unclean, left without property, children or home. Given that traditionally all African women are subject to a man's guardianship, such rejection can leave a woman destitute.

The minimum age for marriage according to law varies from country to country, but women are often treated unequally. In some parts of Latin America the legal age for marriage for girls is 12 while for boys it is 14. In many parts of Africa girls can be married legally by 15 or 16, but boys must wait two, three or even four years longer.22 Having lower marriage ages for women stereotypes them into childbearing and unskilled service roles while men are permitted extra years of education, preparation and experience to be the breadwinner. In Ghana, the legal age for civil marriage for both women and men is 21, but it is acknowledged that customary or religious practices override the law. There are situations where early marriage practices may come into conflict with laws regarding rape or unlawful sexual intercourse. In Ghana, the laws of rape and defilement of children maintain that statutory rape has been committed if anyone goes to bed with a girl less than 14 years of age. Yet in some parts of the country, traditional or Islamic marriages have been performed before this age and the bride is expected to perform her 'wifely duties'. These young women and girls receive little protection from existing laws.

Laws concerning marriage and divorce in Ghana are in theory fairly equitable, but in practice are often applied or ignored to women's disadvantage. Marriage is governed by customary, civil or religious laws, depending on the ceremonies followed. Traditional marriage and Islamic law both permit polygyny, while Christian and ordinance marriage are meant to be monogamous. Men often find loopholes allowing them to combine monogamous ceremonies with polygamous practice by keeping later marriages in separate churches, or marrying according to customary law following a civil wedding. Men may also deliberately 'forget' to ensure that customary marriages are officially registered. Their wives, often illiterate or financially dependent, may be unfamiliar with the law or unable to enforce compliance with it.

The customary or religious right to polygamy is perhaps one of the most grossly abused practices in Africa. Islamic scholars assure us that the Koran allows polygamy within very strict conditions, one of them being to treat all of the wives equally. How many men do or can? Traditional custom demands agreement of the present wife or wives before taking on another. But how many men do? For what unrespectful polygamy can do to a caring wife I recommend the reading of Mariama Ba's deeply moving So Long a Letter23.

Without registration of their marriage, women have no legal standing for the purposes of divorce or intestate inheritance. Those who knowingly or unknowingly enter into customary marriage with men who are already legally married under the ordinance cannot have any redress by law if they are widowed unless they are specifically provided for through a will. And how many Ghanaians, or Africans generally, make a will?

Divorce in Ghana is relatively easy, under all kinds of marital contracts and for a variety of reasons (although all women can be divorced for adultery but few men are). The statutory divorce laws were altered in the early 1970s to make provision for no-fault divorce. In theory, such a law could be of value to both women and men finding themselves in an intolerable marital situation. But it is a known fact that men are using this law simply to get rid of an older wife and marry someone younger or better educated.

Furthermore, the application of divorce law can be unfair towards women. Alimony settlements are usually very low. In sharing property, there is often a demand for the woman to prove her contribution to joint property by producing receipts. How many of us can produce receipts for all major purchases since we were married? The approach taken by some USA and UK judges in this instance needs to be considered for possible incorporation into our system. There have been several cases where a woman who stayed at home as a 'housewife' while the husband or common-law partner worked and acquired various assets was in danger of losing everything through divorce or being thrown out in the street. The man's assertion that the woman did not make a contribution to the acquisition of their belongings was rejected by the courts, and in some cases the woman was awarded half the total assets. There is little doubt that the man would not have been as free to work and acquire property without the unpaid service of his partner in keeping both him and his property in good working order!

As well as laws on marriage and divorce, other kinds of legislation also affect a woman's adult life by restricting her sexual and reproductive rights. In some countries unmarried women are not permitted access to family planning services and married women must have their husband's written permission. Even where permitted according to law, women may be refused contraceptive services by health workers if they are childless, so strong is the social pressure for motherhood. Male permission (husbands, fathers or sons) may also be required for other health-related services to be provided to women, including surgery, particularly if the doctor is male. Restrictions such as these where no reciprocal demand is made on the male spouse obviously affect a woman's ability to protect her own health.

Of all the laws influencing reproductive choice and human sexuality, none is more contentious than the laws on abortion. In simple terms, abortion is the termination of pregnancy prior to the ability of the fetus to live an independent existence. It can be natural or induced. The laws governing abortion are of rather recent origin. Prior to 1861 there were no abortion laws, although there were religious and moral arguments against the practice. It was the cruel death of women who had abortions from incompetent medical practitioners or quacks at the time when surgery was in its infancy and asepsis and anaesthesia were yet to come that ultimately led to the enactment of the first anti-abortion laws. Thus those laws were enacted to help preserve the actual life of the woman and not really the potential life of the fetus. It is ironic that, given today's technological advances, anti-abortion laws are perhaps responsible for so many unsafe abortions and the deaths of women.

There are in principle three types of abortion legislation. Laws which forbid abortions under any circumstances, those which permit it only within certain narrow limits, usually to save the life of the woman or when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act; and those laws which leave the decision to a woman and her doctor. Whatever the state of the law, women have used abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies from time immemorial, and will continue to do so. The reality is that where the laws are restrictive, those women who are rich, educated and well-connected will have safe abortions while the poor, illiterate and young women will have unsafe abortions which may be a threat to their lives and health.

It is an irony that the colonial powers left us with restrictive abortion laws which they have now given up completely. Until recent changes in legislation in Germany and Poland, all the more developed countries, plus India and China had liberal abortion laws. In Africa, only Zambia can claim to have a really liberal law in this respect. The influence of law even here is diminished, however, by the need to have some three doctors including a specialist approve of the procedure in a country with so very few specialists. The Ghana law of 1985 is a major advance on the previous laws. It was an amendment of the criminal code of 1960 (Act 29) It states:

"The Criminal Code 1960 (Act 29) as amended is hereby further amended by the substitution for section 58 and 59 thereof the following new sections:


a. Any woman who, with intent to cause abortion or miscarriage and administers to herself or consents to be administered to her any poison, drug or other obnoxious thing or uses an instrument or other means whatsoever; or

b. Any person who:

i. Administers to a woman any poisonous drug or other obnoxious thing or uses any instrument or any means whatsoever with the intent to cause abortion or miscarriage of that woman whether or not the woman is pregnant or has given her consent to causing abortion or miscarriage,

ii. Induces a woman to cause or consent to causing abortion or miscarriage,

iii. Aids and abets a woman to cause abortion or miscarriage,

iv. Attempts to cause abortion or miscarriage or

v. Supplies or procures any poison or drug or instrument or other thing knowing that it is intended to be used or employed to cause abortion or miscarriage, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.'


It is not an offence under subsection (1) of this section if an abortion or miscarriage is caused in any of the following circumstances by a registered medical practitioner specializing in Gynaecology or any other registered medical practitioner in a government hospital or private hospital or clinic registered under the Private Hospitals and Maternity Homes Act 1958 (No.9) or in a place approved for the purpose by legislative instrument by the Secretary.

a. Where the pregnancy is the result of rape, defilement of a female idiot or incest and the abortion or miscarriage is requested by the victim or her next of kin or person in loco parentis if the victim lack the capacity to make such a request,

b. Where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant mother or injury to her physical or mental health and such a woman consents to it or if she lacks the capacity to give consent, it be given on her behalf by her next of kin or person in loco parentis.

c. Where there is a substantial risk that if the child is born it may suffer from or later develop a serious physical abnormality or disease.'


For the purpose of this section, abortion or miscarriage means premature expulsion or removal of conception from the uterus or womb before the period of conception is completed."

By expanding the grounds for abortion to include physical and mental health, and by leaving the decision to the doctor and the woman, many of the blocks to safe abortions have been removed. It is a pity that the woman is still criminalized in certain circumstances.

Despite this relatively good law, unsafe abortions are still a major cause of maternal mortality in Ghana. Why is this so? The answer is simple. The government which passed the law probably could not face the uproar from the anti-abortion lobby, particularly the Catholics and the far-right Christian groups so they did not publicize it. The doctors have refused to know the law. And the health authorities have been playing the traditional ostrich, hoping that the problem will go away. Well it will not go away.

Health workers should be moral but not moralists. They should seek to apply the laws for the benefit of those in need. To see a young girl die from a night's error and the withholding of a one or two dollar technology which could have assisted her in five or 10 minutes is a crime from which I am asking my medical colleagues to depart.

In saying this, I am not unmindful of the very weighty moral, religious and ideological arguments advanced in favour of the rights of the fetus versus the rights of the pregnant woman. While I am prepared to accept that the conceptus is a potential life, I am not prepared to accept that the pregnant woman should therefore be considered a walking incubator. I am maintaining that those are not medical arguments. Rightly or wrongly unsafe abortion is killing many of our women (20-30 per cent of maternal mortality in Africa). They must be saved while the religious and other concerned citizens educate them in how to behave. The time has come for the authorities to see that the health workers are properly trained in the new technology. With help from outside we can make the technology widely available and save our girls and women from untimely and painful death. The ethical basis for laws which make criminal an act which affects only women is very debatable.

Laws which treat women as children, unable to decide their own needs and best interest, will continue to ensure gender inequality until we eliminate them. Or as Marsha Freeman, Director of International Women's Rights Action Watch, states:

"Recognition of women's capacity - their full adult personhood - is the essential element in developing policy to improve their reproductive health. Economic barriers, social attitudes and legal prohibitions can be challenged and changed if policy-makers and non-governmental organizations start with the premise that women are fully adult human beings with the capacity to take responsibility for making decisions."24


I began by noting that culture is a dynamic and creative force in society. Our African cultures have survived through many centuries by adapting to new physical and social circumstances. As we noted yesterday, we have historically underestimated the vital economic as well as social contribution of women both within and outside the family. Much of this is due to adherence to anachronistic and in some cases harmful practices. While women have always had status as mothers, their reproductive labour has, paradoxically, been given low status. More than that; they have been made the reasons for oppressive cultural, social and even legal practices that hurt the cause of women's emancipation and their full participation in national development. Women's economic value and status should be re-examined. Their exclusion from productive and decision-making roles is needlessly depriving our societies of the wisdom, experience and skill of half the population. Laws and practices which encourage their subordination and alienation from national decision making should be identified and removed, as should those which seek to suppress their expression of their sexuality.

Greater gender equity and equality requires a breaking down of the conceptual and gender divisions between reproductive, productive and decision-making roles, recognizing that both men and women can and should be involved in all areas of human activity. Eliminating the serpent of discrimination from our social, religious, cultural and legal environment will allow women to exercise their full and equal human rights for the benefit of us all.


1 George T. F. Acsadi and Gwendolyn Johnson-Acsadi (1993) "Socio-economic, cultural, and legal factors affecting girls' and women's health and their access to utilization of health and nutrition services in developing countries", Washington: World Bank.

2 UNESCO (1989), "Culture and the economic role of women", in the 1989 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, New York: United Nations.

3 Barbara Rogers (1980) The Domestication of Women, London: Kogan Page.

4 Diane Elson (1992) "Gender issues in development strategies", Women 2000, No. l/92.

5 Vibuthi Patel (1988) "Science in the service of mass murder of female babies in India" Women in Action, No. 3/88.

6 Anesty Coale (1991) "Excess female mortality and the balance of the sexes in the population: an estimate of the number of 'missing females'", Population and Development Review Vol 17 No 3.

7 Acsadi and Acsadi (1993).

8 Amartya Sen (1992) "Missing women", British Medical Journal, Volume 304, 7 March.

9 Nahid Toubia (1993) Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action; New York: Population Council.

10 Ibid.

11 Alice Walker (1993) Possessing the Secret of Joy, London: Vintage.

12 Population Communications International (1987) "Asia Insert", International Dateline, November.

13 Ibid.

14 Florence Abena Dolphyne (1991) The Emancipation of Women: An African Perspective, Accra: Ghana Universities Press.

15 United Nations Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs (1989) Violence Against Women in the Family, New York: UN.

16 Audrey Gadzekpo (1993) "Sexual bondage", Awo, Volume 1 Number 2, May/June.

17 Lori Heise (1993) "Freedom CLose to Home", Populi, Vol. 19 No.6/Vo1.20 No.1, December/January.

18 See for clarification the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

19 Joanne Leslie (1992) Women's Lives and Women's Health: Using Social Science Research to Promote Better Health for Women, Washington D.C.: Population Council/International Centre for Research on Women.

20 UN Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs (1989).

21 Leslie (1992).

22 IPPF (1990) "Reproductive Rights Wallchart", People, Vol. 17, No. 4, October.

23 Mariama Ba (1992) So long a letter, London, Heinemann.

24 Lezak Shallat (1991) "Reproductive Rights as Human Rights", Women's Health Journal 3/91.