The social roles of women in Ghana have varied throughout history. The overall impact of women in Ghanaian society has been significant. The social and economic well-being of women as mothers, traders, farmers, and office workers has evolved throughout centuries and is continuing to change in modern day. Life for women in Ghana varies by generation, location, and culture.
Polygyny refers to marriages in which men are permitted to have more than one wife at the same time. In precolonial times, polygyny was encouraged, especially for wealthy men. Anthropologists have explained the practice as a traditional method for well-to-do men to procreate additional labour. In patrilineal societies, dowry received from marrying off daughters was also a traditional means for fathers to accumulate additional wealth. Today, the percentage of women in polygynous marriages in rural areas (23.9%) is almost double that of women in urban areas (12.4%). The age group with the most women in polygynous marriages is 45–49, interestingly followed by the 15–19 age group and the 40–44 group. Rates of polygynous marriages decrease as education level and wealth level increase.
In traditional society, marriage under customary law was often arranged or agreed upon by the fathers and other senior kinsmen of the prospective bride and bridegroom.This type of marriage served to link the two groups together in social relationships; hence, marriage within the ethnic group and in the immediate locality was encouraged.The age at which marriage was arranged varied among ethnic groups, but men generally married women somewhat younger than they were. Some of the marriages were even arranged by the families long before the girl attained puberty. In these matters, family considerations outweighed personal ones — a situation that further reinforced the subservient position of the wife. The alienation of women from the acquisition of wealth, even in conjugal relationships, was strengthened by traditional living arrangements. Among matrilineal groups, such as the Akan, married women continued to reside at their maternal homes.
Meals prepared by the wife would be carried to the husband at his maternal house. In polygynous situations, visitation schedules would be arranged. The separate living patterns reinforced the idea that each spouse is subject to the authority of a different household head, and because spouses are always members of different lineages, each is ultimately subject to the authority of the senior men of his or her lineage. The wife, as an outsider in the husband’s family, would not inherit any of his property, other than that granted to her by her husband as gifts in token appreciation of years of devotion. The children from this matrilineal marriage would be expected to inherit from their mother’s family. The Dagomba, on the other hand, inherit from fathers. In these patrilineal societies where the domestic group includes the man, his wife or wives, their children, and perhaps several dependent relatives, the wife was brought into closer proximity to the husband and his paternal family. Her male children also assured her of more direct access to wealth accumulated in the marriage with her husband.
Ghana’s child protection law, the Children’s Act, prohibits child marriage; however, data from 2011 shows that 6% of girls nationwide were married before the age of 15. Between 2002 and 2012, 7% of adolescent females (aged 15–19) were currently married. Most of these women live in the Volta, Western, and Northern regions, and generally live in rural areas regardless of region.
Domestic violence in Ghana is likely to happen to 1 in 3 women in Ghana. There is a deep cultural belief in Ghana that it is socially acceptable to hit a woman to discipline a spouse.According to a 2011 survey by MICS, 60 percent of Ghanaian women hold the view that, husbands are justified in beating their wives, for a variety of reasons. In 2008, 38.7 percent of ever-married Ghanaian women between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence by a husband or partner at some point in their lives. Reasons mentioned in the MICS report include: “if she goes out without telling him; if she neglects the children; if she argues with him; if she refuses sex with him; if she burns the food; if she insults him; if she refuses to give him food; if she has another partner; if she steals; or if she gossips.” The rate of women who justify domestic violence is overwhelmingly largest in women with the least education and lowest socioeconomic status.
The transition into the modern world has been slow for women. On the one hand, the high rate of female fertility in Ghana in the 1980s showed that women’s primary role continued to be that of child-bearing. On the other hand, current research supported the view that, notwithstanding the Education Act of 1960, which expanded and required elementary education, some parents were reluctant to send their daughters to school because their labour was needed in the home and on farms. Resistance to female education also stemmed from the conviction that women would be supported by their husbands. In some circles, there was even the fear that a girl’s marriage prospects dimmed when she became educated.
Girls’ access to education has shown improvement since then. Even though the woman have a higher population percentage the education rates are 10 percent higher for men. During 2008–12, the national literacy rate for young women aged 15–24 was 83.2%, only slightly lower than that for males of the same age group (88.3%). However, literacy rates fluctuate across the country and socioeconomic statuses. By region, literacy rates for girls range from 44% to 81%. Women living at the highest socioeconomic status exhibit the highest literacy rates at 85%, while only 31% of women living in the poorest homes are literate.
Based on household populations, about 50% of men and only 29% of women have secondary schooling or higher. This number will soon become more balanced, however, as more girls are in school now and will continue into secondary school. Over the timespan of 2008-2012, 4% more girls were enrolled in preschool than boys. Net enrollment and attendance ratios for primary school were both about the same for boys and girls, net enrollment standing at about 84% and net attendance at about 73%. Enrollment in secondary school for girls was slightly lower than for boys (44.4% vs. 48.1%), but girls’ attendance was higher by about the same difference (39.7% vs. 43.6%).
Today, women make up 43.1% of economically active population in Ghana, the majority working in the informal sector and in food crop farming. About 91% of women in the informal sector experience gender segregation and typically work for low wages. Within the informal sector, women usually work in personal services. There are distinct differences in artisan apprenticeships offered to women and men, as well. Men are offered a much wider range of apprenticeships such as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, mechanics, painters, repairers of electrical and electronic appliances, upholsters, metal workers, car sprayers, etc. In contrast, most female artisans are only involved in either hairdressing or dressmaking. Women generally experience a disparity in earnings, receiving a daily average of 6,280 cedis compared to 8,560 cedis received by men according to the Ghana Living Standards Survey.
The birthrate for adolescents (aged 15–19) in Ghana is 60 per 1000 women. The rates between rural and urban areas of the country, however, vary greatly (89 and 33 per 1000 women, respectively). For urban women, 2.3% of women had a child before age 15 and 16.7% of women had a child before age 18. For rural women, 4% had a child before age 15 and 25% had a child before age 18. Throughout time there has been organizations that have helped with such issues, such as the United Nations, and the Accelerated Child Survival Development Programme, both fought against abortions, and reduced about 50 percent of the child and maternal mortality rates.
Among women 15–49 years old, 34.3% are using contraception. Contraception use is positively correlated with education level.] Sometimes, women want to either postpone the next birth or stop having children completely, but don’t have access to contraception. According to MICS, this is called unmet need.Prevalence of unmet need is highest for women aged 15–19 (61.6%). Highest rates of met need for contraception are found in the richest women, women with secondary education or higher, and women ages 20–39.
Female genital mutilation is not as prevalent in Ghana as it is in other countries in West Africa; 3.8% of women aged 15–49 have undergone mutilation/cutting, and 0.5% of mothers aged 15–49 have at least one daughter who has been mutilated/cut.