Flashy, kitsch and heinously dubbed – soap operas are the window of entertaining escape from the day to day in Ghana. In an episode I witnessed last week, our heroine was trapped by fate in a loveless marriage, unable to bear any children of her own. Raped by her husband and ostracized by her family, she is too afraid to admit to misdeeds in her past that made her barren. Would she go to jail? Would she ever escape the clutches of her husband? Before any questions could be answered, the power went out.
I had my quota of full body gasps and furrowed brows for the day and got up to leave. Halting my exit, my friend Wasila quickly explained that while the details might be far-fetched, the theme is a reality for many women in Ghana. She believes that a woman’s ability to negotiate safe sex in a marriage can be hard to come by. People may be willing to talk about it as it happens on TV, but few bring it up personally.
“When I was growing up, there were many instances where a woman, often below 16, was given to a man,” says Saratu Mahama, programme director for the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Tamale. “At night, when a man was holding her, the woman would cry out loud and no one would come closer because they already knew what was happening. Nobody will talk about it. There are still girls being betrothed against their will today.”
For many victims of marital rape, Mahama says, “the moment you are married, your body becomes the property of the man. He can use it, as and when he likes.”
In 2007, Ghana introduced the Domestic Violence Act, a bill meant to protect the rights of those most marginalized by abuse in the household. However, Mahama explained that public opposition and a desire to speed up the passing of the bill left a controversial clause from the Ghanaian Criminal Code of 1960 unchanged. The clause states that the act of marriage is grounds for consent. If a spouse refuses to consent to sex and a rape occurs, in the eyes of this particular clause, consent was already given, voiding the case against the accuser.
Inspector Lawrence Adombiri, Metro Coordinator for Tamale’s Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit, says that in a year he has never seen a case of marital rape brought to their office. “It is a silent issue,” he says.
Even without the specific mention of marital rape in the Domestic Violence Act, many cases fail to even reach the courts. Societal pressure and threats directed at the victim deter many of these cases from seeing redress. Adombiri believes that the community must support the process of the victim before the laws can react accordingly.
Mahama echoes his concern, attributing the lack of reported cases to stigma attached to women in the domestic setting.
“[Society] feels that a woman should bear it, especially when it has to do with sex,” she says. “All other things can be mentioned, but not sex.”
An absence of women’s shelters, the cost of obtaining a doctor’s report confirming instances of rape and the bureaucratic nature of police follow ups to cases were other issues Mahama described that deter women from vocalizing cases of marital rape.
“Most women do not have money to feed themselves, let alone pay for such medical bills. Because of the fee, they are deterred and the cases go unreported or are not followed up,” argues Mahama.
While soap operas may see a happy resolve before the credits roll, many women fear to bring their cases to light. Talking to Mahama and Adombiri, it becomes clear that the issues of marital rape extend beyond the courts to underlying issues of patriarchy and discrimination reflected in Ghana’s traditional domestic structure.
In a report by ActionAid, one woman details her experiences being given to her sister’s brother-in-law at an early age. “I reluctantly went into the room because I was tired of sleeping outside. I was then about fourteen. He forced me to have sex with him.”
Overpowered by her husband and ignored by her family, the recurrent rapes gave way to three children, and left her HIV positive. “I should have fought harder,” she says. Her struggle fell on deaf ears, being told that abuses such as these “are what all women go through”.
Abdallah Abubakari, programme manager of ActionAid, in Northern Ghana, acknowledges that women’s abilities to negotiate terms within the household are affected by structures of patriarchy. He advocates that women must be given more opportunities to express leadership in the household.
“Where women are empowered, the men get awareness,” says Mahama. “They should appreciate the situation of the woman, and there can be change. But when you keep silent but keep the law in place, it still won’t work.”