Supporting women and girls against violence in Ghana

Evangeline Arethwala

26 July 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

When it comes to intimate personal violence, anything and everything can be an excuse for somebody to commit violence against a woman.

Adoma Afful-Kwaw

The prevalence of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a major human rights and public policy concern. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 736 million women are subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) or non-intimate partner violence (NIPV) globally. Civil society and governments across the world claim that eliminating all forms of VAWG will help achieve at least 14 out of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In Ghana, it is estimated that at least 1 in 4 women have faced at least one form of violence such as physical, economic, psychological or sexual. Despite significant government measures to eliminate VAWG, cases of violence go unreported. Due to existing dominant patriarchal norms, traditional religious beliefs, and low socio-economic status, Ghanian women often lack power to challenge abuse.

Following the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action conference on women’s rights, a study was conducted on violence in Ghana by the Gender Studies and Human Rights Documentation Centre (popularly known as the Gender Centre), an NGO in Ghana that addresses a pressing need for a place where information on women and human rights issues could be obtained. The results revealed a high prevalence of violence against women and that violence was perceived as a normal and acceptable behaviour.

At the time of the research, violence against women was largely a hidden problem. The 1999 study report, ‘Breaking the silence and challenging the Myths of Violence against Women & Children in Ghana’, launched a national movement against the widespread problem of violence against women, which culminated in the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act in February 2007. To respond to the growing concern of violence, in 2002, the Gender Centre developed a Rural Response System (RRS), a community-based intervention involving stakeholders within the community to sensitise people on violence, refer and report cases of VAWG.

Commonwealth Alumnus Adoma Afful-Kwaw joined the Gender Centre in 2020 as a Project Officer and is responsible for implementing RRS based community-intervention projects on gender-based violence (GBV), women in leadership, SRHR and girls’ access to education. One such intervention is the Community-Based Action Teams (COMBATs) programme.

Changing attitudes towards social norms

The COMBATs programme seeks to prevent and respond to VAWG in communities in different regions in Ghana. The programme is currently being implemented in the Central region using community-based action teams and had already been implemented in the Greater Accra, Eastern and two other regions prior to Adoma joining. It seeks to shift the attitudes of traditional and religious leaders about social and gender norms, improve knowledge about women’s rights and the laws and services that protect these rights, and provide counselling to people affected by IPV and NIPV.

The programme engages state actors, service providers, and community volunteers to raise awareness of VAWG, coordinate efforts between community members and state agencies to report and respond to violence, and enable access to support services for survivors of violence.

Supported by the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) under the STAR Ghana Foundation’s G-REP, Adoma currently works with COMBATs in five communities in Central Ghana. One of her main responsibilities is to build and maintain strong relationships with the FCDO or donors, partners, state agencies, and communities to support programme implementation.

This stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of the programme. Adoma works closely with state agencies, such as the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, to identify communities for delivery and in establishing referral systems between COMBAT members and state agencies, including police, and legal bodies, to enable teams to report cases of VAWG.

The power of community

Communities play a vital role in nominating volunteers to create community action teams, each comprised of 6 volunteers, with equal male and female representation. To date, Adoma has supported the training of several volunteers under the COMBATs intervention. The training curriculum includes topics on understanding gender and gender roles, sex, equality, violence, GBV, family laws of Ghana (such as Domestic Violence Act, Marriage Laws, Wills Act, Intestate Succession Law, the Children’s Act), case referrals, and Alternative Dispute Resolution (basic counselling and mediation skills).

Although, the interventions are targeted towards women and children, Adoma believes it is essential to include men in the activities. She notes that one of the challenges COMBATs encounter is prejudice from men and great effort is required to change their perceptions of and attitudes towards women.

“One challenge is that in most of the communities, some men feel like the project of is ‘polluting’ the women with foreign concepts. Because, initially the women would not speak up or would not report cases of violence. But now because of the knowledge they have acquired, they’re able to speak up and report cases.”

These efforts have been fruitful. Through COMBATs and targeted training with men and women, there has been a rise in the number of GBV cases being reported and a visible change in the attitude and behaviour of men towards women.

To achieve wider programme impact, Adoma supports COMBATs to expand their outreach services to neighbouring communities where state agencies typically lack presence and resources. As such, the COMBAT members are helping to bridge this gap through these exclusive grassroots outreach services and are reporting real change at the community level.

“Now, everybody in the target communities has benefitted from my work [on COMBATs] particularly, women, girls and other vulnerable groups. The men, who are normally the perpetrators of GBV in the target communities, are involved in the activities and learn about the repercussions of their actions. The intervention has brought relative peace, promoted child rights, increased education outcomes, created awareness of GBV, and reduced its high incidents.”

To monitor and evaluate the impact of the programme, Adoma organises regular meetings with the community intervention groups and state agencies. The collaboration between COMBATs and state agencies such as the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU), Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the Health Directorate, and the National Commission for Civic Education, has led to a reduction in cases of VAWG in remote communities, and, where violence occurs, the mechanisms are working to fast-track referrals and support survivors and prosecute perpetrators.

Adoma’s journey

Following her undergraduate studies, Adoma interned at Nubuke Foundation, an institution promoting Ghanian arts and culture. It was here that she found her passion to work with communities on social issues, but she was not convinced she had the relevant skills and experience to apply for roles in the development sector. To further her skills, Adoma applied to pursue an MA Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) through a Commonwealth Scholarship.

During her studies, she joined LSE’s Programme for African Leadership (PfAL) as a network member which provided her the opportunity to network with other African students and engage in topical discussion on challenges in Africa. She also actively pursued extracurricular activities to build her skills in networking, leadership, public speaking, all of which she notes have been useful for a career in non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Whilst in the UK, Adoma volunteered at Oxfam where she learnt the importance of raising funds for development impact projects in low-income countries. Reflecting on her current work, she admits that in general, funding towards GBV interventions has reduced, and that her voluntary experience at the UK charity has better equipped her with skills to deliver projects with limited resources.

Creating space for women and girls

Upon returning to Ghana post-studies, Adoma took up a role at ActionAid and in 2018 set up the Child Protection Network in Greater Accra, Ghana, in collaboration with state agencies. The network provides a system to report cases of abuse towards young girls which can prevent their access to education and engages state agencies including the Ghana Education Service (GES), Department of Social Welfare and Community Development, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), and Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU).

To expand the initiative on improving girls’ access to education whilst still at ActionAid, Adoma established over 22 Girls’ Clubs in basic schools in the Ga South and Ga West Municipalities. Serving as a safe space, the clubs provide support to adolescent girls in rural, remote communities and to those who have dropped out of school due to teenage pregnancy to go back to school under the Re-entry Policy. Some club patrons confirmed that some of pregnant girls and teen mothers returned to school to complete their education. Adoma has trained teachers to mentor re-enrolled girls, encouraged parents to re-enrol girls, and referred cases of abuse to state agencies. The end of project evaluation accounted that 60% re-enrolled girls transitioned to senior high school to complete their studies.

Adoma is passionate about eliminating injustice towards women. In her experience, apart from sexual, physical, psychological, and traditional violence, women and girls often face economic violence.

“Some men work with their wives on farms. They do the work equally. But when they get the proceeds from their farms, they refuse to give the women their share because they are the men.”

To address this challenge, during her time at ActionAid, Adoma set up women’s groups in 8 communities in the Ga South Municipality. Partnering the Department of Food and Agriculture and other state agencies, Adoma trained women in livelihood and entrepreneurial skills leading to financial independence.

Building confidence through the Commonwealth Scholarship

Alongside her role at the Gender Centre, Adoma is a Social Media Committee member of the Affirmative Action Bill Coalition on Gender Equality (I am on the Social Media Committee), advocating for its passage into a Law in Ghana. She lends her expertise on gender rights and uses her leadership skills to promote the Bill to the general public. The Bill has received huge support, including from the current President of Ghana, and is currently being reviewed by parliament, awaiting to be passed into a law.

“We are all pushing for gender equality in Ghana. We realise that although it’s a human right as women to be given opportunities in Ghana, the number of women is woefully inadequate even in the parliament. The Affirmative Action Bill was drafted in order to pass it into law to ensure that women are being given the needed opportunities and attention to contribute to decision-making, especially ones that affect them.”

Adoma plans to pursue a PhD in Gender Studies and/or Conflict Management. She notes that her Commonwealth Scholarship experience helped her develop the relevant skills to work with communities to reduce VAWG and achieve impact in the development sector in Ghana.

“Being awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship has shaped the trajectory of my career. Initially, I lacked the confidence to even apply for roles that were advertised in newspapers or to ask for a pay raise. During the award, I gained confidence from the interactions I had with my course mates and through the voluntary work.”

Adoma Afful-Kwaw is a 2015 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from Ghana. She completed her MSc in Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.