Secrecy stands in the way of justice for victims of incest in Ghana
Everyday, Madam Amina Sato (not her real name) goes through unbearable pain when she recalls how her husband defiled their nine-year-old daughter at Dedeso, a farming community in the Fanteakwa District of the Eastern Region.
The first time he defiled their daughter, Madam Sato did not report it, but the second time, she mustered the courage to inform an elder from her husband’s family, who called a meeting to discuss the matter. The meeting was attended by the stool father (the head of the clan), clan elders and her brothers-in-law to ‘sit on the case’.
The elders ruled that her husband had committed an abomination against the gods and his wife, and he was fined two fowls and two bottles of schnapps to pacify the gods. He was also asked to buy six yards of cloth and minerals for his wife and a crate of eggs for his daughter, to appease her soul.
“Since it was the second time, he had defiled her, the elders sent my daughter away to live with my sister-in-law who lives in a nearby village to prevent a recurrence. I was not happy with the outcome, so I declared my intention of consulting my family for further action,” said Madam Amina.
That did not sit well with the elders. They forbade Madam Amina from talking to her family or reporting to the police. They told her that because incest is an abomination and talking about it would bring shame to the entire family, it should not be disclosed to outsiders.
Thus, her 48-year-old husband is still walking free while the daughter he defiled was sent away from home.
Ideally, incest, which is a crime under the Criminal Offences Act 1960 (Art 29), should be reported to the authorities. However, because incest is considered a taboo, perpetrators are often not reported, and families opt to handle it discreetly. Consequently, looking at official data, it would appear as if there are few cases of incest. For instance, a data report by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection published in 2017 found that of the more than 16,000 cases of violence against children reported to the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service in 2014 and 2015, there were 22 and 19 reported cases of incest respectively.
However, a Unicef report published in 2020 observed that there are low levels of reporting of cases of violence against children in Ghana. Unicef noted that close to 55 per cent of cases involving children are reported through traditional systems such as chiefs and heads of families. Only 38 per cent are reported through the formal justice system. According to the UN organization that champions children’s rights, gender norms, power dynamics and the lack of decentralised formal services play a role in keeping the cases out of the formal justice system.
“Many severe violations (domestic and sexual violence cases) are still being addressed and resolved at the community level with the involvement of local and traditional authorities. In nearly all such cases, the outcomes are to women’s and children’s disadvantage,” noted the report.
Traditionally, incest is handled discreetly and only elders and trusted family members sit to deliberate and find restitution. They are sworn to secrecy and sometimes libation is poured as a sacred oath.
The public only gets insights into the abuse when some cases are reported in the media. For instance, between January and June this year, the Ghana News Agency reported on not less than 15 incest cases where fathers have either been arrested or are being sought by the police for incest. Many of the cases involved fathers and their teenage daughters.
The reported stories include a 14-year-old girl who accused her father of sexual abuse in Tamale in the northern part of Ghana; a 52-year-old father jailed for 15 years for defiling his 14-year daughter in Accra in April, and a 64-year-old father arrested for sexually abusing his 14-year-old daughter in the Central Region in May.
Further, an analysis of 48 media reports on incest happening between January 2008 and July 2015, found that father-daughter incest was most frequently reported. Of the 48 reports analysed, 47 involved girls and young women aged three to 25 years, and a boy aged three. The researchers found that the perpetrators applied physical or psychological methods to coerce their victims and that the incest usually lasted between a day and 13 years before disclosure.
Some survivors do disclose to people close to them, but given the taboo surrounding incest, the people they confide in may not report, even though Article 16 of the Children’s Act 1998 provides that any person who has information on child abuse or a child in need of care or protection should report to the Department of Social Welfare.
In one of the cases covered by GNA this year, a teacher noticed a change in one of the brilliant girls in his class. Her self-confidence was waning, and her performance was dropping. When he talked to the girl about the change, she confided in him that her father sexually abused her whenever her mother travelled. The teacher only sympathised with the girl and did nothing beyond that.
In another case, a civil servant defiled his daughter for many years starting when she was 14 years old. She suffered in silence and only gathered the courage to confide in the school chaplain when she joined secondary school. She also told her grandmother, but none of them offered help and her father continued to abuse her until one day when he physically assaulted her for not giving in to his demands. The neighbours reported the assault to the police and that was when the girl told the police about the sexual abuse. The father was arrested, taken to court and sentenced to 20 years in prison for incest and defilement and the girl said that people felt she had brought shame to the family.
Mrs Joyce Larnyoh, the Country Director of the International Child Development Program (ICDP), a non-governmental organisation working in the interest of women and children, explained that it is often difficult for outsiders to intervene, given the family relationship between the perpetrator and the survivor.
“Unlike other cases of gender-based sexual abuse, the case of incest involves a direct blood relation which is often the father or a stepfather,” she said, adding that this makes it difficult for an outsider to take up such matters.
Dr John Boakye, an educationist and professional counsellor, told GNA that often, mothers who reach out to him in distress are hesitant to report their husbands to the authorities because they fear they will carry the burden of a failed marriage.
“Pressing criminal charges against their husbands for sleeping with their daughters or step-daughters is exceedingly difficult for women. They face a dilemma. In the quest to protect their marriages and family names, women are sacrificing their daughters’ wellbeing and it is very sad,” he said.
Dr Boakye said that women who have separated from their husbands are more likely to report because they feel they have nothing to lose. He said that to fight incest, the dilemma of having to choose between reporting and saving the marriage should be taken away. This, he added, can be done by empowering women to be self-reliant, which will in turn empower them to speak out.
Like Dr Boakye, Mrs Larnyoh believes that economic empowerment of women would help them stand up for their children in cases of incest. In addition, she says that sensitising women, children, opinion leaders and entire communities would help deal with cases of gender-based violence, including incest.
On the other hand, Lawyer Kwaku Attakora Dwomoh who wrote The Law on Incest in Ghana in 2019, observed that the disparity between the law and cultural practices surrounding incest, and especially the lack of enforcement powers of traditional communities, keeps the abuse under wraps.
Traditional leaders can help bring more cases into the criminal justice system, as highlighted by a recent case covered in the media. Police arrested a 60-year-old man for sexually molesting his three daughters for 15 years at Assin Andoe, a community in the Central Region. The father impregnated all three daughters, who are now 32, 27 and 20 years old.
The abuse only came to light when the 32-year-old’s fiancé got to learn about it. He reported to the traditional leaders and the man was fined by the traditional council before being handed over to the police.
While there is a clamour for incest to be reported, authorities note that reporting is only half the battle; getting the cases to go through the legal process is also an uphill task. Unicef Ghana noted in their 2021 annual report that the attrition rates for sexual violence cases coming to the criminal justice system remain very high, with only 15 per cent of the cases filed at the Accra Gender-based Violence Court ending in a guilty verdict through trial. This, observed Unicef, is because of the limited linkages between social welfare and the criminal justice system and the low allocation of resources to decentralised services.
A source at the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police in the Eastern Region who spoke to GNA on condition of anonymity because she is not authorised to speak on behalf of the police, said that 12 cases were reported between 2020 and 2022.
“The reported cases are just a tip of the iceberg, and even those who report make it difficult for the prosecution process because after reporting, family mounts pressure on them to abandon the case,” said the DOVVSU source.
By Bertha Badu-Agyei
This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) through the support of the Ford Foundation.