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Punish My Husband but not so Hard: Religion, Customary Values and Conventional Approaches to Human Rights in Ghana

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AbstractIncorporating international human rights provisions into domestic legislation and implementing them have always been a challenge for several African countries. This is especially so where religious and customary values are involved. The limitations of conventional approaches employing legislation, litigation and protests alone often become radically exposed in such contexts. This was illustrated by a long public debate that preceded the passage of Ghana’s Domestic Violence Act (Act 723), 2007. A national debate, facilitated by the proliferation of FM radio stations that employ both English and the leading mother-tongues, enabled citizens at the grassroots to also participate in the discussions. Using the debate mentioned above as a case-study, this article discusses constraints imposed on the growth of human rights culture in situations where religious and customary values are widely held. Since such values inspire behaviours and attitudes rooted in religious belief and custom, they remain largely resistant to purely secular methods. At the end the article proposes an integrative approach that combines conventional methods with religious and cultural resources in an effort to gain wide acceptance of international human rights norms in such societies.

1. FN11 Ghana News Agency, ‘Victim Collapses over Husband’s 5-Year Jail Term’, Daily Graphic, 23 June 2004, p. 1.
2. FN22 After a long public debate the Domestic Violence Bill was finally passed into Law on 22 February 2007. The Act, known as Domestic Violence Act, 2007 (Act 732) received presidential assent in May 2007. Discussions about this Bill started in about 1993 but it was in 2003 that a draft bill was laid before Parliament.
3. FN33 D. Coker-Appiah and Kathy Cusack (eds.), Violence against Women and Children in Ghana (Accra: Gender and Human Rights Documentation Centre, 1999), p. 138.
4. FN44 Ibid., p. 140.
5. FN55 Several research reports have revealed that society is more likely to understand a person who causes the arrest of a close family member who has been violent if the harm caused is severe. See Sana Loue, Intimate Partner Violence: Societal, Medical, Legal and Individual Responses (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Pub., 2001), p. 101.
6. FN66 Koti is a popular nickname used for a policeman in Ghana.
7. FN77 A song by the Triple ‘M’ Band, an all-female hip-life band in Ghana.
8. FN88 See N.K. Dzobo and S. Amegashie-Viglo, The Triple Heritage of Contemporary Africa (Accra: Studio 7 KAT, 2004), p. 5; Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and African Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 6–7; E.H. Mends, ‘Some Basic Elements in the Culture of Ghana’, 7:1 Universitas (1978), pp. 41–42.
9. FN99 J.B. Danquah, The Ghanaian Establishment (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1997), pp. 298–299; Okey Martin Ejidike, ‘Human Rights in the Cultural Traditions and Practices of the Igbo of South-Eastern Nigeria’, 45 Journal of African Law (1999), pp. 71–98.
10. FN1010 Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (Oxford: OUP, 1997) p. 293.
11. FN1111 Ejidike, supra note 9, p. 86.
12. FN1212 Carl E. Schneider, ‘Moral Discourse and the Transformation of American Family Law’, 83:8 Michigan Law Review (1985), p. 1803.
13. FN1313 The Akan abusua (lineage) is based on the cult of ancestors who are regarded as active players in the life of the community and the custodians of its values. See Peter K. Sarpong, Peoples Differ: An Approach to Inculturation in Evangelisation (Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2002), pp. 98–99.
14. FN1414 Article 16 (1) of the UDHR.
15. FN1515 A.N. Allott, ‘Marriage and Internal Conflicts of Laws in Ghana’, 2 Journal of African Law (1958), pp. 172–173.
16. FN1616 Ibid., p. 174.
17. FN1717 W.C. Daniels, ‘The Legal Position of Women under our Marriage Laws’, 1 University of Ghana Law Journal (1964), p. 41.
18. FN1818 Corinne A.A. Packer, Using Human Rights to Change Tradition: Traditional Practices Harmful to Women’s Reproductive Health in Sub-Saharan Africa, (Antwerp/Oxford/New York: Intersentia, 2001), p. 81.
19. FN1919 Faith-based organizations such as Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Catholic Relief Services and International Needs include human rights interventions in their approaches and perspectives.
20. FN2020 According to the accompanying memorandum by the then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, such efforts included a proposal made by the Law Reform Commission for Legislation and initiatives by the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) together with other NGOs to prepare a ‘Private Members Bill’. But the Executive arm of government later took over the Bill.
21. FN2121 See page 2 of accompanying memorandum by Attorney-General and Minister of Justice.
22. FN2222 See Domestic Violence Act, 2007 (Act 732) Section 1(a)–(d).
23. FN2323 Ibid., Section 2 (I).
24. FN2424 Criminal Code of Ghana, Section 42(g).
25. FN2525 The 27 April edition of the Hausa program, Wanyar da kai (Civic Education) hosted by Nun Dantani was dedicated to discussions on the then Domestic Violence Bill. The Peace FM in its daily Akan newspaper review program, kokrokoo offered opportunity to the public to discuss issues about the Bill anytime there was a newspaper report on it.
26. FN2626 Apparent reference to the creation story in Genesis 2:21, the Holy Bible.
27. FN2727 See Ephesians 5:23, the Holy Bible.
28. FN2828 See 1 Peter 3:7, the Holy Bible.
29. FN2929 A local proverb which means it is the nagging old lady who receives a blow.
30. FN3030 Musah Y. Jafaru, ‘Imams Unhappy with Bill’, Ghanaian Times, 14 June 2004, pp. 1–3.
31. FN3131 Graphic Reporter, ‘Bill Can do more harm than good’, Daily Graphic, Monday, 7 June 2004, p. 3.
32. FN3232 Ahmed Shiraj, ‘Dr. Mahama was Right on Marital Rape’, Daily Graphic, 26 November 2004, p. 4.
33. FN3333 Rebecca Quaicoe, ‘Demonstrators Demand Passage of bill’, Daily Graphic, 28 October 2004, p. 9.
34. FN3434 Amos Safo, ‘Minister Throws last punch’, Public Agenda, 21–27 January 2005, pp. 1-2.
35. FN3535 Idem.
36. FN3636 Packer, supra note 18, pp. 131–154.
37. FN3737 Ibid., p. 134.
38. FN3838 Ibid., p. 153.
39. FN3939 Kathy Cusack, ‘Barriers to Effective Interventions’, in Cusack and Coker-Appiah, supra note 3, pp. 138–161.
40. FN4040 Packer, supra note 18, p. 137.
41. FN4141 Abamfo O. Atiemo, ‘International Human Rights, Religious Pluralism and the Future of Chieftaincy in Ghana’, 35:4 Exchange (2006), pp. 360–382.
42. FN4242 Bas de Gaay Fortman, Laborious Law (Inaugural Address, Utrecht University, 2001), p. 3.
43. FN4343 Giandomenico et al., Crossing the Borders: Dialogue among Civilizations (South Orange, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, 2001), p. 101.
44. FN4444 When as a boy-child I suffered an injury in one eye as a result of assault by a relative, I remember being made to rehearse several times what to tell health personnel at the hospital in order not to get the abuser in trouble.
45. FN4545 Audrey Gadzekpo, based on hard data, concludes that “[t]he closer the relationship, the more likely it is that violence would be considered more acceptable, particularly if the victim is female.” Audrey Gadzekpo, ‘Women’s and Girl’s Experience and Understanding of Violence’, in Coker-Appiah and Cusack, supra note 3, p. 81.
46. FN4646 Cusack, supra note 3, p. 140.
47. FN4747 Cusack, ‘Defining Violence’, in Coker-Appiah and Cusack, supra note 3, p. 14.
48. FN4848 Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalising African Economy, (London: Hurst & Co, 2004), pp. 161–200.
49. FN4949 The area of family-life has been deemed too sensitive by many states for direct legislation and where legislation is made its enforcement is approached only half-heartedly. In Ghana, for example, there is some legal pluralism when it comes to marriage and family issues. For example, the laws of Ghana recognize three forms of marriage: marriage according to the various types of customary law; marriage according to the rites of Muslim Law; and marriage under the provisions of the Marriage Ordinance. Each of these types of marriages is regulated differently. But in all cases the man is privileged over the woman. See Daniels, supra note 17, pp. 40–42.
50. FN5050 Gadzekpo, supra note 45, p. 121.
51. FN5151 Catherine Kirkwood, Leaving Abusive Partners (London: Sage Publications, 1993), p. 11.
52. FN5252 Abamfo Atiemo, ‘Atonement and Violence in Popular African Christian Theology: A Ghanaian Perspective’ 36:1-2 Orita (2004), pp. 73–94.
53. FN5353 Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, African Women: A Modern History (Oxford: Westview Press, 1994), p. 56.
54. FN5454 Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, ‘Domestic Violence Bill’, Daily Graphic, 29 April 2004, p. 9.
55. FN5555 Kwabena Ofori-Panin, ‘Rape Within Marriage: How does it feel?’, Daily Graphic, 17 June 2004, p. 9.
56. FN5656 Rebecca Quaicoe, ‘Draft of Domestic Violence Bill too harsh - Minister’, Daily Graphic, 30 October 2004, p. 3.
57. FN5757 James Arthur, ‘Targets of the Domestic Violence Bill’, Daily Graphic, 8 July 2004, p. 7.
58. FN5858 Ofori-Panin, supra note 55, p. 9.
59. FN5959 Agyenim-Boateng, ‘Domestic Violence Bill, is it Necessary?’, Daily Graphic, 23 July 2004, p. 9.
60. FN6060 Arthur, supra note 57, p. 7.
61. FN6161 GNA, ‘Domestic Violence is still a Problem in Ghana-Director’, General News of 9 March 2009, available at <>.
62. FN6262 GNA, ‘Report Domestic Violence Cases to DOVVSU—Inspector Attipoe”, Modern Ghana News, 22 November 2011, available at <>.
63. FN6363 Patience Dappah, ‘Domestic Violence Law Deters Husbands from Hitting their Wives in Ghana’, Shetizen Journalist, 6 January 2010, available at <>.
64. FN6464 Graphic Reporter, ‘Domestic Violence: More Men Victims’, Modern Ghana News, 21 September 2007, available at <>.
65. FN6565 Idem.
66. FN6666 AfriMAP, Ghana: Justice Sector and the Rule of Law (OSIWA, 2007).
67. FN6767 U.K. Preuss, ‘Constitutional Power-making for the New Polity: Some Deliberations on the Relation between Constituent Power and the Constitution,’ in Michel Rosenfeld (ed.), Constitutionalism, Identity, Difference and Legitimacy: Theoretical Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 150.
68. FN6868 For a discussion of the problems associated with the rise of nation-states in Africa, see Basil Davidson, The Blackman’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (New York: Random House/Times Books, 1992).
69. FN6969 Packer, supra note 18, p. 154.
70. FN7070 William Burnett Harvey, ‘A Value Analysis of Ghanaian Legal Development since Independence’ 1 University of Ghana Law Journal (1964), p. 5.
71. FN7171 G.P. Hagan, ‘Cultural Pluralism, Religion and Educational Philosophy Paradigm’, in Conflict: What has Religion Got to Do with it? (Accra: Woeli Publishing Services & Goethe Institute, 2004), p. 229; Kofi Antubam, Ghana’s Heritage of Culture (Kochler & Amelang Leipzig, 1963), pp. 27–29; Mends, supra note 8, pp. 41–42; Wiredu, supra note 8, pp. 8–9.
72. FN7272 In Ghana people have multiple senses of identity resulting from the country’s historical experience. Such identities, which also generate multiple loyalties, are drawn from religion, ethnicity and membership of the nation-state.
73. FN7373 Wim van Binsbergen, ‘Cultures Do not Exist: Exploding Self-Evidences in the Investigation of Interculturality’ 13:1-2 Quest (1999), p. 45.
74. FN7474 Since 1992, ecumenical prayer meetings have been used to create awareness about the need for responsible involvement in politics. The recognition of the importance of such meetings is evident in regular calls by political leaders for prayers at critical points in the life of the nation.
75. FN7575 Scott Thomas, ‘Religion and International Society’, in Jeff Haynes (ed.), Religion, Globalization, and Political Culture in the Third World (London: Macmillan, 1999), p. 30.
76. FN7676 Long before talk about globalization became fashionable, religious people in different parts of the world were linked together and shared basic ideas and convictions about a wide range of issues including marriage. Christian ecumenical movements, especially the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, through special efforts have placed otherwise sophisticated global issues within the grasp of the ordinary person. In Ghana in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Churches through the community-based Local Council of Churches that carried the message of Women emancipation to the people. See also Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar, Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (London: Hurst & Co., 2004), p. 108.
77. FN7777 See Sally Engle Merry, ‘Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology along the Way)’, 26:1 Political and Legal Anthropology Review (2003), pp. 55–77.
78. FN7878 Gerrie ter Haar, Rats, Cockroaches and People like Us (The Hague: Institute of Social Studies, 2000), p. 3.
79. FN7979 M. Kishwar, ‘Introduction’, in M. Kishwar and R. Vanita (eds.), In Search of Answers (1984), p. 14 (quoted by Packer, supra note 18, p. 181).
80. FN8080 K. Appiagyei-Atua, ‘Contribution of Akan Philosophy to the Conceptualisation of African Notions of Rights’, Constitutional and International Law Journal of Southern Africa (July 2000), p. 165.
81. FN8181 Packer, supra note 18, p. 182.
82. FN8282 Coker-Appiah and Cusack, supra note 3, pp. 85–90.
83. FN8383 Rodriguez, Craig, Mooney, and Bauer (1998), cited by Loue, supra note 5, p. 91.
84. FN8484 K. Appiagyei-Atua, ‘Civil Society, Human Rights and Development in Africa: A Critical Analysis’, 2:2 Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development (December 2002).
85. FN8585 William Bossman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1704) (Fourth edition published in London, 1976; quoted by Daniels, supra note 17, p. 50). See also Allott, supra note 15, p. 177.
86. FN8686 Danquah, supra note 9, p. 29.
87. FN8787 Martin Chanock, ‘Human Rights and Cultural Branding’, in A.A. An-Na’im (ed.), Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in Africa (London/New York: Zed Books, 2002), p. 48.
88. FN8888 A.A. An-Na’im, ‘Remarks’ (Forum on Religious and Cultural Rights), 44 American University Law Review (1995), p. 1384.

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Affiliations: 1: Study of Religions, University of Ghana Legon Ghana, URL:


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