January 2011. Among the Akan of Western Ghana, women traditionally had limited land rights. Following independence, however, labor in the region became scarce and expensive as men increasingly migrated to urban areas. In order to meet labor demands on their farms, Akan women began planting and cultivating cocoa – tasks that custom had once reserved for men. In exchange for this work, Akan men in Western Ghana now frequently give women plots of land that they control.
In rural Ghana, women are the primary providers of food for their families, but their rights to land are often limited by patriarchal practices. While statutory law largely grants women land rights on par with those of men, in much of Ghana these rights are governed by customary institutions that assign greater control over land to men. Eighty percent of Ghana’s land is governed by customary law.
Among other things, customary law dictates how land is passed to family members in the event of death. Women are regularly excluded from inheriting land from their fathers under patrilineal practices and from their uncles under matrilineal practices, in favor of sons and nephews, respectively. As competition for land increases and land becomes more valuable, male lineage members seek to assert their primary rights to land and women are often the first to lose out.
Under most customary law in Ghana, women have been entitled to lifetime use rights to her deceased husband’s land. More recently though, widows are being subjected to “property grabbing,” whereby their in-laws seek to oust them from the land they occupied and farmed with their husbands using threats, intimidation or physical violence. Countless small “land grabs” ensure that women inherit poverty, not property.
Although the overall picture in Ghana is one of women’s land rights eroding under custom, in Western Ghana Akan women have benefited from the evolution of customary norms in response to expanding cultivation and commercialization of cocoa. Why this is not so in other parts of southern Ghana where cocoa is cultivated is not clear. Differences in land scarcity appear to be one factor. The matrilineal inheritance practices of the Akan could be another. Differences may also arise from shifting attitudes and beliefs about women’s rights as Akan women assert themselves into new roles in the economy and society.