Breanna Wilkerson is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations. She graduated from Spelman College with a degree in Women’s Studies and is the founder of GlobeMed at Spelman.
Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, making it the first nation in sub-Saharan Africa to shatter the chains of colonialism, and it is now considered a success story of African development. It has been named the seventh most prosperous and second safest nation in Africa. However, Ghana is not exempt from the global problem of widespread domestic and sexual violence.
Ghanaian women face barriers in reporting violence. These obstacles are rooted in a cultural belief that domestic and sexual violence is a private matter that should be addressed outside of the criminal justice system. A public health report shows that 33 to 37 percent of women in Ghana have experienced intimate partner violence in the course of their relationship (this includes physical, sexual, and emotional violence). In Ghanaian schools, studies found that 14 percent of girls are victims of sexual abuse and 52 percent have experienced gender-based violence. These numbers are likely understated, as girls tend not to report crimes for fear of reprisal.
Under the international human rights law, the Ghanaian government is obligated to address, prevent, investigate, and punish domestic violence perpetrators. It has taken critical first steps, one of which is the establishment of the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU).
DOVVSU is a department within the Ghana police service established to protect the rights and promote the welfare of women and children by preventing and prosecuting crimes committed against them. The unit has been instrumental in bringing a once private matter into the public sphere. Today, DOVVSU has eighty-seven offices across the country and plans for continued growth. The unit provides the main entry point into the justice system but recognizes that its efforts are more effective when it works in partnership with other ministries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
DOVVSU and NGOs at the grassroots level have created culturally sensitive workshop curriculums directed at sexual assault against women and children. They have been taught in over 150 primary schools across the country since 2010. These dynamic curriculums work toward deconstructing cultural victim blaming stigmas by defining domestic and sexual violence, educating pupils on the warning signs, and directing them toward safe avenues of counseling if assaulted.
Although grassroots level organizing has been initiated to reduce stigma around gender based violence, there is still more work to be done. For instance:
- Ghana should improve the guidelines and procedures used in handling reported cases to promote the best interest of victims;
- More in-depth sensitivity training of DOVVSU staff should be implemented;
- Greater evidence-based research and advocacy needs to be conducted; and,
- The implementation of alternative dispute resolutions should be established, coupled with in-camera hearings for sensitive cases to reduce stigma.
Sexual and gender based violence isn’t just a problem for women, but the entire community at large. It will take a collective effort to ensure a large-scale prevention of its occurrence, but Ghana’s DOVVSU is a good start.