Tag Archives: safe sex

A Silent Shout: Marital Abuse in Ghana

Breaking the silence is the greatest hurdle to ending marital abuse.

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.”

Save Our Women International push for safe sex and abortions at Juaben Senior High School

Premarital sex, pregnancies out of wedlock and abortions are taboo subjects that carry a lot social stigma in Ghana. As a result, teenagers often engage in unsafe sex due to lack of knowledge and expose themselves to sexually transmitted infections. Pregnant girls usually resort to traditional remedies to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, putting their lives at risk and jeopardizing their long term health.  Save Our Women International (SOWI) is a non-profit organization aimed at remedying this situation through educational outreach campaigns to Ghanaian youths. They recently visited the Juaben Senior High School in Ejisu, a small town west of Kumasi, to speak to high school students about sex, abortions and HIV/AIDS. Students were encouraged not to be shy, to ask questions and speak to someone knowledgeable about sexual health and fertility-related matters.

Here is a portion of the event and an interview with SOWI Spokesperson, Justina Asofo Adjei.


The plight of the condom

Malawian student Mercy Khowoya says “HIV and AIDS is real – if you can’t abstain then don’t be ashamed to use a condom." Photo by Katie Lin.

“Nyimbo imodzi sachezelela gule.” (One song won’t keep you dancing throughout the night.)

As this Malawian proverb suggests, just one sexual partner won’t satisfy a person for their entire lifetime.

But in a country where approximately 12 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS and having multiple concurrent relationships is common, only 72 per cent of sexually active men and women are using condoms, says a 2010 health report by the National Statistics Office of Malawi.

An informal survey of management-level professionals in Malawi conducted by a Canadian public health specialist found that 100 per cent of the participants agreed they are “personally at risk for HIV and AIDS.” Yet, less than 10 per cent reported feeling “confident” when purchasing condoms.

While the survey results are not statistically representative, they do indicate that many people are simply too embarrassed to buy condoms and indicates that knowledge doesn’t necessarily inform behavior.

Condoms can be purchased in Malawi for 30 kwacha ($0.19 CAD) for a pack of three.

They can also be found for free at all government hospitals.

So if condoms are indeed so widely available, what’s the excuse for not using them?

For one: “Switi sadyera mpaketi.” (You can’t taste candy if you eat it while it’s still in the wrapper.)

This popular Malawian adage speaks to the belief that the use of a condom will make sex less pleasurable. As Veronica Chikafa, Capacity Building Coordinator at the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA) explains many believe “sex was made for there to be no barrier in between.”

Secondly, using a condom is generally viewed as the man’s domain.

“It’s the male who puts [the condom] on,” she says, “so it’s the male who makes the decision.”

Chikafa says that opening up communication between partners is a priority, no matter what the circumstances of their relationship.

However, there remains a gap in sex education which also must be addressed, she maintains.

“I was told that there was a lady who went for family planning and somebody did a condom demonstration using their thumb,” she says. “[She] put the condom on her thumb and got pregnant, of course.”

Dickson Chidumu, Head of Operations at the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (MUSCCO) and leader of a campaign called “Be a Hero. Use a Condom,” acknowledges that such misunderstandings are not only a result of poor sex education, but also not wanting to talk candidly about sex.

“To some people, this language is considered obscene language. But they need the facts. We are running away from speaking about the facts.”

Through the continued efforts of organizations such as MUSCCO and MBCA, and of course with time, Chidumu is hopeful that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexual practices will change.

For the fact remains that you just never know:

Wokaona nyanja anakaona ndi mvuu yomwe.” (When you go to the lake, you might see hippos.)

In other words, you may think you know your partner’s status, but there exists the possibility that you may encounter the unexpected – so it’s best to be prepared.

(For easy listening on safe sex, check out Condom Nalila by Zambian musician, Dalisoul, and Safe Sex by Kaye Styles.)

From culprits to catalysts: Girls’ initiation in Malawi

Esitere Chabwera uses girls' initiation ceremonies to encourage young women to practice safe sex

In their respective villages, Cecelia Muliya and Esitere Chabwera are regarded as cultural leaders.

The two have worked in girls’ initiation camps for decades, tasked with the role of introducing young girls to womanhood.

Upon reaching puberty, more than half of all Malawian girls participate in some form of initiation ceremony, ranging in length from days to an entire month. Sent away to rural camps, this traditional rite-of-passage is meant to teach girls to take care of themselves, to dress like a woman and to show respect to elders.

It’s also during initiation ceremonies that many girls first learn about sex.

“They are taught how to handle a man so that the man should enjoy sex,” says Chabwera. Through sex simulation and dance, the girls are encouraged to practice pleasing men sexually. Many partake in kusasa fumbi, a custom that normally entails having sex with a chosen male—or sometimes several—from the village.

Practices like kusasa fumbi have been directly linked to the spread of HIV and AIDS, and have been categorically denounced by human rights organizations.

But instead of attempting to eradicate initiation ceremonies, one non-governmental organization asks women like Muliya and Chabwera for their input in order to make the traditional practice safer.

Janet Mwangomba of the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM) is devoted to helping villages in Malawi create their own local ways of curbing the spread of HIV, empowering women and deterring gender-based violence. Rather than a top-down approach, the Thyolo-based pilot project gives community members the opportunity to make their own informed decisions.

Equipped with the means to discuss the impact of initiation practices with other counsellors from surrounding villages, many leaders like Muliya and Chabwera choose to become agents of change within their communities.

“We have still maintained the initiation ceremonies, but we have strongly discouraged girls from having sexual intercourse soon after the initiation,” says Muliya. “We are no longer forcing the girls into sex as it was in the past.”

Now, Muliya and Chabwera have incorporated AIDS awareness into their ceremonies and girls in some of the project’s 69 villages are also taught to be assertive rather than submissive.

“What we have done instead is encourage the girls to work hard in their education,” Muliya says. “We also advise those who wish to have sex to ask their partners to have HIV testing before they engage in sexual intercourse.”

Though Chabwera and Muliya have chosen to adapt the focus of girls’ initiation, their approach is still a rare minority in Malawi.

However, in villages where significant changes have come from within the community, young girls are already seeing a difference. “It’s valuable because we can see the change at a personal, household and community level,” Mwangomba says.

“Initiation still plays a crucial role passing on the knowledge of our ancestors and imparting skills,” Chabwera says.

And for a lucky few, these ceremonies will now include knowledge and skills for empowerment.