IWD 2021: Can Ghana’s government deliver gender equality without a majority?

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Ghana's incoming Gender Minister, Sarah Adwoa Safo:CREDIT-GHANA WEB
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Hung parliaments, coalitions, and deadlock between legislature and executive, are familiar problems in several constitutional democracies around the world. But in Ghana’s Fourth Republic, an election victory for a presidential candidate has always gone hand-in-hand with a working parliamentary majority (albeit with some instances of voter boycott and contestation of election results).

This changed in the closely fought elections of 7 December 2020. Nana Akufo-Addo, flagbearer for the New Patriotic Party, secured a second presidential term, with just over 51% of the vote. But the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Convention (NDC) each have 137 parliamentary seats, whilst one parliamentarian is an independent. The new parliament elected a speaker, Alban Bagbin, from the NDC.

This poses a new challenge for the president and his government. A second term will still provide opportunities to strengthen the implementation of flagship policies from the first term, and improve on the operationalisation or enforcement of laws already passed. But the lack of a clear parliamentary majority adds an element of unpredictability to the government’s ability to secure the passage of new legislation – either in pursuit of manifesto promises or in response to civil society or international pressure.

Getting laws passed in Ghana

In principle, legislation can be initiated through private members’ bills. In practice, however, most legislation is initiated by a government minister. The process is lengthy, since a minister must first gain cabinet approval for a memorandum setting out the problems to be remedied by new legislation, before the ministry sends drafting instructions to the Attorney General. Multiple rounds of drafting, consultation, feedback and revision may take place before cabinet approves a draft bill for gazetting and for laying in parliament.

The simple fact of a working parliamentary majority does not guarantee that the bill will become law in this original form: issues may be raised after the first reading, by the relevant parliamentary committee; amendments may arise following parliamentary debate on the second reading and in the committee and consideration stage; presidential assent is not automatic.

Nonetheless, the processes of prior cabinet approval, consultation and careful drafting, combined with a working majority, have made it unlikely (not impossible) that government-sponsored bills would simply be voted down in parliament. Activists who campaign for new legislation are probably more familiar with the challenges of getting the bill to parliament in the first place, and establishing an acceptable consensus on controversial clauses given constraints on parliamentary time.

Implications for the elimination of discrimination against women

The new element of unpredictability that stems from the government’s lack of a clear majority has implications for a range of policy areas, including commitments to the elimination of discrimination against women. In theory, a hung parliament would make little difference to the Ghana government’s commitments to eliminate discrimination against women, since these commitments are not party political. Rather, they were incurred in 1980 when Ghana signed up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is a key international human rights treaty.

On the face of it, gender activists working through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society coalitions might have an advantage in the context of a hung parliament. Historic disputes over single-party and military government attempts to absorb or influence independent women’s associations have generated a strong ethos of non-partisanship among most gender activists under Ghana’s Fourth Republic. They convene around and focus on gender issues, including CEDAW objectives which are also acknowledged in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and further reinforced in the Maputo Protocol. These do not change with election results. And they are amenable to cross-party action and support.

International commitments delayed

However, Akufo-Addo’s second administration will likely face several challenges in meeting these international commitments and responding to activists in Ghana. When states become parties to the CEDAW, they take upon themselves the obligation to enact national laws and develop policies that are reflective of specific articles of the convention and support its overarching objectives. They also commit to a monitoring process. States parties should report to the CEDAW committee every four years on the actions taken under each article of the convention, and they should respond to the scrutiny and recommendations of the CEDAW committee (which may also be informed by ‘shadow’ NGO reports).

Ghana has not provided a full state party periodic report to the CEDAW committee since 2012 – although in 2018 it did provide a short follow-up report on actions taken in response to the committee’s concluding recommendations in 2014. These concerned the closure of ‘witch’ camps in Ghana, the rehabilitation of ‘witches’ and their children, and the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

State party periodic reports to the CEDAW committee are no small task: they cover a wide range of activities across government ministries, departments, and agencies; and the measurement of problems and progress is partly dependant on the ready availability of fine-grained gender-disaggregated data. Many countries therefore delay and ‘bundle’, as Ghana did in 1991, 2005 and 2012, when each report covered more than one four-year reporting period.

Ghana’s current situation, however, is complicated by the lack of results in some of the areas where the CEDAW committee previously sought commitment. In its 2012 report to the CEDAW committee, the Ghana government could claim some significant achievements in the reduction of poverty, the passage of the Human Trafficking Act (2005) and the Domestic Violence Act (2007), the publication of the Business Code (2007) which contained Principles for the Employment of Women, and expanded coverage under the National Health Insurance Scheme. Some of Ghana’s CEDAW commitments can be met through the rigorous implementation of existing laws and policies.

However, the Ghana government also recognised in its 2012 report, and its 2014 replies to the CEDAW committee, that legislative action was needed in several areas, and it therefore detailed intentions and efforts in relation to the Intestate Succession Bill, the Property Rights of Spouses Bill and the Affirmative Action Bill. None of these bills was passed under the then NDC administration, and none of them was passed under Akufo-Addo’s first administration either, even though both had working majorities in parliament. This fact could not be ignored in any forthcoming report from Ghana to the CEDAW committee.

Bills not yet passed

The Intestate Succession Bill seeks to improve upon the Intestate Succession Law that was originally promulgated under the PNDC regime in 1985, and subsequently amended in 1991. That law aimed to secure the right of widowed spouses and children to ‘reasonable provision’ out of a deceased’s estate (per article 32 (2) the 1979 constitution and article 22 (1) of the 1992 constitution), but implementation has been problematic. The gender-neutral language of the original law (‘spouses’ rather than ‘husband’ and ‘wife’) also creates some peculiar effects in polygynous customary law marriages where husbands may have more than one wife from whom they might inherit, but a wife only has one husband at a time.

The Property Rights of Spouses Bill is a related initiative, which responds to the instruction in article 22 (2) of the 1992 constitution, that parliament should enact ‘as soon as practicable…legislation regulating the property rights of spouses’. In the absence a statute, the courts have had to apply on a case-by-case basis the articles of the constitution that refer to ‘equal access to property jointly acquired in marriage’ and its equitable distribution on dissolution. Although the Land Act of 2020 goes some way in establishing a presumed interest of a spouse in landed property acquired by the other spouse during marriage, the Property Rights of Spouses Bill would provide clearer definitions of the terms ‘spouse’, ‘jointly acquired property’, ‘equal access’ and ‘equitable distribution’.

Ghana’s 2012 report to the CEDAW recognised that the previous Affirmative Action directive, in conjunction with the efforts of the Ministry for Women’s and Children’s Affairs, “have not so far generated the result that reflects serious commitment to dealing with under-representation of women in decision making”. The report also detailed the work carried out by MOWAC to secure technical expertise, broad-based consultation, and legislative drafting instructions: “It is expected that Ghana’s Affirmative Action Law will be enacted before the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections in December, 2012.”

Whilst there has since been a notable increase in the numbers of women appointed to high public offices, there has not been a corresponding shift in elected representatives (just under 15% of 275 parliamentarians are women, putting Ghana behind the international average and behind several other African countries in 2021).

Outlook

Ghana’s 2014 response to issues raised at the CEDAW committee noted that the former Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs had been reorganised as the Ministry for Gender, Children and Social Protection, but despite its expanded mandate, the ministry had been allocated less than 1% of the total national budget at that time. Resource constraints on the implementation of existing laws and policies are still significant, and some of the ministry’s programmes rely on donor support. It is understandable that some of the ministry’s recent activities have been geared towards the alleviation of hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the effects of the pandemic will make the work of the ministry even more challenging during Akufo-Addo’s second term.

Debate will certainly continue in Ghana about how exactly the principles of the CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol should be domesticated in national legislation that pertains to marriage, divorce, inheritance and political representation. But now that the government does not enjoy a clear majority in parliament, the passage of government-sponsored bills seems less predictable, and more reliant on cross-party support.

International reputation

Although Ghana is far from alone among nations in the slow implementation of some of the CEDAW committee’s general or specific recommendations, the current situation is a little surprising in view of Ghana’s historic connections to and support for the CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol. The government of Kwame Nkrumah nominated Annie Jiagge (Ghana’s first woman high court judge) to serve on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She played a key role in drafting the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and this formed the basis for the Convention.

Since then, a number of prominent Ghanaian women have been nominated by the government to stand for election to the CEDAW committee. Successful candidates include Charlotte Abaka, Akua Kuenyehia, Dorcas Coker Appiah, and most recently Hilary Gbedemah. Although they ultimately serve in a personal capacity, their strong performance reflects well upon Ghana. Akufo-Addo has also served as the African Union’s gender champion.

Ghana’s international reputation and the rights of its citizens can be enhanced through renewed commitments to gender equality. But the road ahead will not be easy.

Author: Kate Skinner, for the Archives of Activism project.

Funding acknowledgement: The Archives of Activism project has received funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund via the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme.

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