Posted by: rumnet | April 18, 2012

Domestic Violence: The Root Causes…..and Why It Still Persists In Northern Ghana 

By Katrina Charnley

While sitting at a local restaurant in central Tamale, a friend of mine witnessed a heated argument between a man and a woman at a nearby table. The argument seemed to end when the man slapped the woman in the face. When the story was recounted to me later, I began to wonder the frequency of domestic violence in Northern Ghana behind closed doors.  My research led me to incomplete statistics, as the number of women, children, and men who experience domestic violence is notoriously under reported and therefore the numbers of reported cases only begin to shed the light onto this underrepresented problem. 

Hearing of this public display led me to question what are the causes of domestic violence, and what are the best ways to prevent it?  First, it’s important to understand exactly what ‘domestic violence’ is, and for the purpose of this article, we will focus on domestic violence towards women.

The Domestic Violence Act, which was established in 2007 by the Government of Ghana, defines domestic violence as “specific acts, threats to commit, or acts likely to result in physical abuse (defined as ‘physical assault or use of physical force against another person including the forcible confinement or detention of another person’),  sexual abuse (defined as ‘the forceful engagement of another person in a sexual contact…or a sexual contact by a person aware of being infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or any other sexually transmitted disease’), economic abuse (defined as ‘the deprivation or threatened deprivation of economic or financial resources which a person is entitled to by law’), and emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse.”

What are the causes of domestic violence?

A study recently conducted by ActionAid-Ghana concluded, after holding discussion groups with both men and women from six districts across Northern Ghana, that although a man’s insecurity at home and in the community was cited as a causative factor, there were three major causes of domestic violence that were mentioned and discussed.

Polygamy:  In all six districts involved in the study, participants ranked polygamy as a primary cause for domestic violence. Some of the reasons why this was described as a leading cause is many men felt that they had too much pressure to cater to the needs of their wives, and this pressure led to quarrels not only between the husband and wife, but also between a mans wives, who often feel the need to compete for their husbands affection. In Tamale, participants of the study claimed that another reason why polygamy is linked to violence is because of the inability of the man to sexually satisfy all their wives, which leads to frustration and unprovoked physical and verbal abuse.  Also, it is important to note that women claimed to be more likely to put up with a violent husband out of fear of losing the little attention paid to them.

 Notably, the Chiefs who participated in this survey explained that they felt polygamy was only relevant to the past when more children were needed on the farms for additional help, and felt that the practice of polygamy was no longer relevant in today’s modern world.  The study noted that although Islamic teachings permit a man to have no more than four wives, this practice needs to be revised to modernize our culture and protect our younger generations from the number of possible repercussions this practice can bring, with domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS as being the two main repercussions noted in the study.

Poverty: Because it is the tradition that the man is the breadwinner in the family, women in the discussion group felt that this was a key reason why they would stay with an abusive husband.  It was also mentioned that the reason of poverty can not stand alone as a reason for domestic violence, it must be accompanied by illiteracy and ignorance in order to fully represent the root causes.  A more recent study interestingly points out that 70% of people living in poverty are women.

Traditional beliefs: Five out of the six districts listed traditional beliefs as the third common reason for domestic violence. It was expressed that in their communities, women are considered to be in the lower rungs of the social ladder, therefore they are unable to take part in making family decision and are “expected to be totally submissive to their husbands, fathers, brothers and other males in their lives”. The study described participants expressing that accepting domestic violence is “seen as a mark of a good woman. On the other hand if the woman perpetrates the violence, she would be called a witch. The women are not prepared to report because it is not our custom. Even the chiefs do not hear let alone police.” 

 A male participant in Tamale noted that the lack of documentation of traditional practices is also a cause of perpetuated domestic violence over generations.  This participant claimed “the problem is that most of our customs are not documented so people pick and choose what suits them. They should be documented so they can be referred to correctly”.

Other traditional practices that the study mentioned were around widowhood rites, distortions and taboos about sex, forced marriage, the dowry system.

On the topic of widowhood rites, participants claimed that the practice in most of their communities was at the death of a husband, where his wife is confined to her room for four months.  If she wants to maintain her rights to her children and to her house, she must remain single regardless if she is young.

Forced marriage was pointed out as yet another traditional practice that leads to violence. Participants claimed that this practice leads to two parties being together against their will, regardless if one loves someone else, and frustrations around this has led to physical and verbal abuse. This led the group to the topic of the dowry system in the northern parts of Ghana. A male participant described his feeling of wanting to kill his wife when food is consistently not prepared for dinner because when he considers how much he paid for her, it creates frustration.


Also, participants pointed out that although it is often the woman who cares for the children in their societies, it is the father who sets the dowry prices and receives it.  These were all practices that were pointed to as being traditional beliefs and practices that acted as barriers to protecting women against domestic violence.

What can put an end to domestic violence?

Researchers representing the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) discovered in a study that interviewed and discussed with many women in the USA  who fall victim to domestic violence whom they first turn to, and discovered a majority turn to those closest to them, i.e. extended family, friends, and neighbors, before they reach out to an organization or service provider. Their study found that abused women seek out government institutions such as police, courts, and child protection agencies, last. 

Therefore to understand how to go about reducing the number of those who fall victim to domestic violence, the study found that communities played a critical role in being the place to hold the conversation on preventing and stopping violence in the home. The study concludes with recommended ways we can all play our part to prevent those around us from being victimized by domestic violence. These recommendations are:

-Encourage those in our communities to see violence in the family as a priority.

-Encourage our neighbors and community leaders to address domestic violence in a way that does not stigmatize people as “abused” or “abusers”. This has been proven to make it more acceptable in communities to discuss domestic violence in a more open manner.

-Encourage men in the community to become part of the process of eradicating domestic violence. Assuming all men are perpetrators or possible perpetrators of domestic violence can make it difficult to include them in the conversation.

-Address issues related to domestic violence while respecting the cultural context of your specific community.  Each community has its own cultural practices, and a plan to eradicate domestic violence must be designed while keeping the cultural context of the community in mind, if it is to be successful and sustainable.

-Identify new community-driven ways to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for putting an end to their abusive behavior. Try not to rely so heavily on the criminal justice system.

-Include promoting awareness about domestic violence into the day to day life of the community. Talk about violence in the home at community events, or any gathering you may have with trusted friends.

-Familiarize ourselves with the information and resources that could help our community members who may fall victim to domestic violence. In Ghana’s context, it may be a good idea to know which organizations in your community provide services to women who experience abuse. Becoming familiar with the Domestic Violence Act is also recommended, as it clearly outlines the rights of Ghanaians and legal processes to follow if you are experiencing domestic violence.

-Understand that people only ask for help from people that they trust. If a community or family member approaches you to say they are being abused, it is important to recognize that bringing this issue forward took the individual a lot of courage, and this courage should be commended and recognized in a positive way.

This material was adapted from the publication entitled “Preventing Family Violence: Community Engagement Makes the Difference” produced by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, as well as a publication produced by ActionAid, an organization working to improve the lives of women.


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