Despite the range of legal provisions in Ghana emphasising equality of all persons before the law, there are still significant pieces of evidence to suggest that the rights of vulnerable groups including women are not fully protected when it comes to access and use of land as a productive asset.
For instance, article 17 and 18 of the 1992 Constitution, the Intestate Succession Law, 1985, Head of Family Accountability Law, 1985, Customary Marriage and Divorce Law, 1985 were all supposed to ensure the equality of all persons before the law and the protection of the rights of citizens to property, these provisions do not reflect in rural women’s access and control of land.
A range of economic, social and cultural factors have been identified to have stood in the way of the law. Thus inhibiting women’s access and control over land in their environment. This article takes a critical look at the role culture plays in depriving rural women of their land rights. We pay particular attention to the challenges faced by rural women under the patrilineal system of inheritance.
To put our discussion in context, it must be recognised that for every 10 units of land in Ghana, nearly 8 units is controlled by traditional leaders and family heads. The remaining two units is controlled by the state, although there is a negligible proportion of the land which are controlled by individuals who have acquired them through the customary freehold.
Thus for any individual in Ghana and indeed for rural women who want to acquire land for any purpose, the significance of traditional rulers and family heads cannot be overlooked. Whist the fraternity of traditional leaders and family heads is male dominated and potentially biased against the interests of women, the threat is generally pronounced in patrilineal societies in Ghana.
Traditional leaders operating under the patrilineal system of inheritance are inherently placed in influential positions on matters around land rights and allocation of land to their subjects for different uses including agriculture which is the main economic activity in rural areas.
Though agriculture in Ghana is predominantly practiced by small holder farmers, it continues to support the economy in diverse ways and by contributes about 21% Gross Domestic Product and 12% of tax revenues (Ghana Statistical Service, 2015). Recent studies from the (GSS 2015) suggest that majority of rural women are employed within the agriculture sector, making up about 50-70% of the labour force in the sector. Women farmers have been found to produce about 50% to 70% of the food crop within the sector. Despite rural women’s enormous contribution towards the agricultural sector, they earn less than 10% of its incomes and have very limited access to land.
This have led many women rights activist to question the imbalance of women contributing so much on the land, but yet controlling so little. Although the reasons that have been found to account for this mismatch is enormous, cultural norms and values especially in patrilineal societies is key. Culture moulds the way of life of a group of people- including their behaviour, beliefs, values and symbols they accept and they demonstrate these through customs and traditions. These practices are handed down from one generation to the other by oral history and can be a potential tool for perpetuating discriminatory practices. Although Article 26 of the Ghana Constitution provides that, every person is entitled to enjoy, practice, profess, maintain and promote any culture, language, tradition or religion subject to the provisions of the Constitution, it also places a responsibility on the citizenry. The constitution cautions that all customary practices which dehumanise or are injurious to the physical and mental wellbeing of a person are prohibited. This is however is not the reality at the community level in many rural areas in Ghana.
Findings of WiLDAF Ghana’s researches which focused on a Gender Perspective to Land Ownership Access and Control in Ghana conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2011 in some selected communities in the Volta, Ga West, Dangme East, Akuapem North and Suhum Municipalities, revealed a number of cultural barriers affecting women’s access to equitable distribution of land in Ghana. Discussions will make reference to finding from these researches.
In Ghana, the key modes of land acquisition is through purchasing, inheritance, gift, marriage and leasing. Each mode presents women with a number of challenges they have to deal with before accessing land in their environment. Challenges presented by each mode will be extensively look at only with the exception of gifts. First let’s begin with purchasing. The purchase of land is believed to be one of the options most people settle for during land acquisition in most communities.
This is because it’s based on one’s ability to pay. However, it comes as a surprise that women’s ability to purchase land is not the main challenge they face. Rather, traditionally women need the consent of their husbands or a male family member to purchase land for farming. These are requirements by land owners during land acquisition. Land owners do not deal directly with women without their husbands.
Women are forced to call on their husbands during land negotiations. This leads to women registering the land documents in their husband’s name. The saddest aspect with this practice is that single women and widows are often turned down during land negotiations. Since they are often not accompanied or supported by a husband or any male family member to back them. Men on the other hand are not required to present any spouse or family relations during land negotiation.
Inheritance is the second mode of accessing land. The two systems of inheritance in Ghana are the Matrilineal and Patrilineal. The Matrilineal system of inheritance promotes inheritance through the mother’s lineage and that of the Patrilineal system through the father’s lineage. Under the two systems of inheritance, women experience their fair share of difficulties with regards to land inheritance. Both systems make women secondary owners of land since they only enjoy temporary use rights over land, and cannot own these lands. This practice is based on the misconception that women will take family property away from the family. This arrangement only allows men to inherit individual family land for farming purposes. Women are on the other hand put together and given a common piece of land to cultivate.
In addition, marriage is another mode of land acquisition in Ghana. Women easily access land in Ghana through marriage. This is however dependent on whether the land is owned by her spouse. Our customary laws obliges a woman to help her husband on the farm. Immediately they marry, women are made to abandon this farms and join their partners on theirs. This arrangement deters women from patronizing cash crops cultivation such as cocoa and coffee, because these cash crops are perennial and they would abandon these farms once they are married. It is also common for a woman to cease farming on her husband’s farm at divorce or the demise of her husband. Additionally, during divorce women cannot access land within their own families, since these lands would have already been taken over by other family members. Under the matrilineal system of inheritance, it is the nephew of the land owner who takes over the land when she is no more. Women who inherit land do so as lineage members, not wives or children especially if the parent involved is a male.
Ghana’s constitution also provides under article 22; assets jointly acquired during marriage shall be distributed equitably between the spouses upon dissolution of the marriage and a spouse shall not be deprived of a reasonable provision out of the estate of a spouse whether or not the spouse died having made a will. In addition, the Intestate Succession Law guarantees the right of succession for the surviving spouse, children, parents and the customary family and a greater portion of the property is shared among the surviving spouse and children. Despite these provisions in our legal frameworks, women still face discrimination in accessing their property rights due ignorance and enforcement of the law.
Also, most small holder farmers often do not progress beyond farming on their family land. At their demise, their family members often come to take over the land from the spouse. The woman is made to look for another land to farm on. This is sometimes done irrespective of whether the woman has children with the man or not. On few occasions, some families allow the spouse and children to access the crops cultivated on the land over time.
Finally, men and women both access land through leasing, however like outright purchase, women need the consent of their husbands or male family member to be given leased land for farming. Also women are not allowed to lease out land that has been leased out to them. Only men are allowed to do so
Also, women’s exclusion from decision making in their communities is another cultural discrimination they face with respect to their land rights. Such decisions are mainly the exclusive preserve of Chiefs and Heads of the families. Thus, whether women belong to the Patrilineal or Matrilineal cultures, it is the men in these families who allocate the family resources.
These practices have serious implications on the livelihood of the rural women with respect to their socio-economic lives as well as on food security in Ghana. WiLDAF research revealed that if women were to obtain greater access to and control over land, its positive impact on the household’s food supply household’s income and family welfare cannot be underestimated, due to increased agricultural productivity. In addition, more secure land rights would give the users of the land greater control over their labour, a rational to invest both short term and long term investment in the land and crops, access to extension services, access to credit and inputs, bargaining power and a higher status within the community.
Research has stressed that families and our society stand to gain, when women were to gain greater access to land this goes to benefit the households. It would contribute an increase in the food supply at the household level. An increase in the household income, and an improved family welfare and an increase in food supply at the household level.
Finally, increasing women’s access to and control over land alongside supporting them access agricultural resources, empower them on improved agricultural technology and their ability to access both the local and regional markets, will make them economically empowered to better positions them control the agricultural sector they find themselves in.
In a conclusion, one key way in reducing poverty, a major problem battling most rural communities and accounts for their economic situation, is through the recognition, and respect of human rights principles particularly women rights. The marginalisation of women with respect to the denial of their political, social, economic and cultural rights, undeniable affects their access to health, education and property rights, water, services and basic commodities leading to high poverty levels within their environment. Thus, the enforcement of legal provisions protecting women’s rights particularly their property rights and the review of traditional practices affecting women land rights in our rural communities by our traditional authorities will go a long way in improving the economic situations of most small holder women farmers’ in Ghana.