Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ghana Close to Adopting Law on Domestic Violence

After years of advocacy and debate, Ghana is moving closer to adopting a comprehensive law on domestic violence. The country's male dominated parliament passed a bill last week, but removed a controversial clause that would have made rape in marriage a criminal offense. Efam Dovi reports for VOA from the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

It is a normal day at this office of the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit of the Ghana Police Service. People, mainly women, are seated on benches in the corridor, waiting to lodge a complaint.

Among them is Eunice. She has a black eye and her face is swollen. She says she has been beaten by her partner. She carries a dress stained with blood from what she describes as a previous beating.

Eunice says she left home the week before, following consistent battering.

Eunice says the man is the father of her two children. She says she went back to their house to demand the children's school fees and their upkeep money. Instead, she says, she was beaten up again. She says the man has threatened to kill her if she leaves him.

A recent study in Ghana on violence revealed that one in three women has been beaten, slapped or physically punished by a present or a previous partner.

Available figures also indicate thousands of women, children and sometimes men, yearly suffer all forms of domestic violence, including physical and psychological abuse.

However, victims often do not get adequate redress because of gaps in Ghana's criminal code, which treats such cases as family affairs.

The new domestic violence law aims to provide victims like Eunice a broader set of remedies.

Beatrice Vib-Saaziri is coordinating director of the domestic violence and victims support unit.

She said, "For instance before the passage of this bill, victims of abuse, especially psychological and economic abuse, found it very difficult to get their cases prosecuted, this new bill makes room for prosecution of people who abuse others psychologically or emotionally."

"The bill also makes room for protection orders and also restraining orders which we didn't have before which created a lot of problems during enforcement," she added.

The bill, first presented to parliament in 2002, sparked protest marches and prompted several amendments. The most controversial one sought to repeal an old law that made consent to marriage a defense for domestic violence, including rape.

Ghanaian men generally felt threatened that striking that section of the law would make them vulnerable to charges of rape within a marriage.

Some say those concerns resonated with members of the country's male-dominated legislature.

Esther Obeng Dapaah, who chairs the gender and children's committee of Ghana's Parliament, says the process would have been easier if there were more women in the 230-member parliament.

She said, "But because there are more men, we are only 25, we have to work harder, to sensitize them [male members] to let them see it from our point of view and not feel threatened, and had to explain the bill to them, where as its not difficult to explain it to women, women straight away, they will understand it, but the men felt threatened that the bill was there, was coming into being a law to be against them, to fight them."

After heated debate in and outside parliament, the controversial amendment was removed.

Some men, like this taxi driver say they are happy.

The taxi driver says it was the issue of marital rape that worried him. He says once that had been taken out of the bill he didn't see anything in it that could worry anyone. He says women are difficult and that a little force is needed sometimes, so if marital rape was introduced, it would destroy marriages."

But Ursula Owusu, vice president of the Ghana chapter of International Federation of Women Lawyers, which initiated the process, says all is not lost.

She said, "There is a clause in the domestic violence bill as passed by parliament, which says that you can't use consent as a defense to an action of domestic violence, all that the repeal of section 42 (G) was seeking to do was that."

Owusu was hopeful that the old law will die a natural death or that lawmakers will eventually find it necessary to repeal it.

She says it is understandable why women embraced the bill most, because the vast majority of victims of violence in Ghana are women. But she says a significant proportion of men are also victims of violence and says the public needs to be educated.

"And some women are also perpetrators of violence not to men but to other women and children as well, so it is a kind of double edge sword but that is all part of the process we need to embark on to educate everybody in this country that it is not just a women's bill, it is a bill for everybody who is a victim of violence and it is against all perpetrators of violence," she said.

For now, gender activists and women parliamentarians are applauding themselves for a job well done, while the bill awaits the president's signature to become law. That will make Ghana one of the few African countries with a comprehensive law on domestic violence.