Gender Considerations in Developing Commercial Agriculture in Northern Ghana: A Political Economy Analysis

Although the Constitution of Ghana guarantees the right of every person to land use rights, women in Ghana still own significantly less land than men. Their rights to land use and land ownership are also not protected.

By Jennie Persson

Land Use Rights and Land Ownership Rights

The Constitution of Ghana (1992) states that “a person shall not be discriminated against on grounds of gender, race, color, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status”. It does not make any distinctions between men and women with regard to land use rights or land ownership rights and it guarantees the right of every person to own property alone or together with others. The Constitution further states that spouses have equal claims to property that has been acquired together during marriage. However, as the Parliament has not enforced the laws of property rights of spouses, women's rights to land use and land ownership are not protected. Customary rules are recognized as the foundation for land tenure rights which has negative implications on women's access to land. This legal pluralism system governs access, ownership and transfer of land and has in practice created various conflicting sources of law.                                                             

Most agricultural land in Northern Ghana is communally owned and governed by customary rules and laws. Customary laws do not permit selling or renting out farmland, indicating weak individual rights to household land. A 2016 study evaluating gender in agricultural practices suggested that the most significant factors determining a woman's right to land were the conception of women´s capabilities, the inheritance system and the availability of land. Land clearing and rituals performed in relation to land allocation were two examples of activities that may grant land under customary law; however, these activities are associated with male capabilities. Hence, women are placed in an inferior position compared to men in obtaining land rights. Other research findings revealed conceptions by the Northern Ghana society of women as poor managers of land and unable to fulfill the spiritual aspects of land management.

Agricultural lands are either owned collectively by a household or owned separately by individuals in a household, depending on the use of land such as crops and income for household consumption, income for investments in farm or household, or private expenses of individuals in households. The last category is more common in polygamous households. Typically, the husband controls most or all farmland of a rural household, and as the family head, he is responsible for the household income. Women in Northern Ghana are particularly dependent upon their husband's approval for access to land that is not collectively owned by the household. Women are given marginalized, smaller and less fertile land, as they tend to grow crops for subsistence farming rather than cash crops. Case study findings in the Tamale region concluded that women hold both fewer and smaller plots of farmland compared to men.

Women access land primarily through marriage. Upon marriage, a woman is no longer considered part of her birth family and will move to her husband’s family home. The Intestate Succession Law (ISL) guarantees equal rights of inheritance to women and men and protects women’s access to property acquired during marriage. However, the ISL is limited as the constitution recognizes customary laws, which in many cases contradicts state law. Further, the ISL does not apply to lineage land, which is allocated to the husband's lineage upon his death. Widows are often required to give up land in favor of the husband’s family. In Northern Ghana, descent is normally patrilineal, in which property and land are passed on to the male heir. Polygamy is fairly common and it is beneficial for men to have a second wife as it increases the resources of labor available in the household. Women substantially contribute their labor on their husband´s farms.

Economic Activities

In Northern Ghana, men and women have different roles when it comes to making livelihood decisions. Economic activities and responsibilities are distributed based on gender. A study published in 2015 found that 71 percent of the men are engaged in paid wage labor, compared to only 21 percent of the women. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations similarly found that men participate five times more in paid wage labor compared to women in rural areas. Women in Northern Ghana continue to have the main responsibilities for performing household chores and providing childcare. Typical female tasks still involve cooking, cleaning, child rearing, and selling small amounts of crops at markets.

Further research demonstrate clear gender differences in growing food crops versus cash crops. Female participants were involved in 32 percent of cash crop production whereas 84 percent were engaged in food crop production. The division of cropping is often associated with the strengths required to grow a specific crop. Males typically grow staple food crops such as cassava, sweet potato and yam whereas females grow vegetables, spices and groundnuts. In addition to traditional gendered norms, women face restrictions on mobility and communication between sexes. These restrictions are additional factors determining women’s access to land. While men can travel far from the household to cultivate land over longer periods, women cannot, as it often requires spending several nights away from home.

The cultural norms associated with women's roles and mobility restrictions limit women’s ability to access credit. A study published by the African Journal of Agricultural Research found that women were more likely to receive microcredit loans whereas men were more likely to borrow larger loan amounts. However the authors point out that since men are in control of most of the household resources, women are often dependent upon their husband's approval to borrow. This dependency limits women's ability to access credit.

Decision-Making at Different Levels

Although differences remain in household decision makings, major recent changes involving women's roles in the household economy have strengthened their position in the household. Women are increasingly earning their own income and do not have to contribute their labor on the family farm to the same extent as in the past. However, despite increased individual decision-making, many household issues are still solved by chiefs and family elders who hold dominant roles.

Chiefs are traditional rulers and are still considered by the government to be the official political representatives of their community. According to Owusu-Mensah, Professor at the University of Ghana, gender is a unique feature of chieftaincy in Ghana in which male and female responsibilities are clearly defined according to customs and traditions. In order to be considered for a chief position, a person must belong to an appropriate family and lineage, be validly elected, and installed as a queen mother or chief according to customary law. In terms of decision-making, this poses challenges for women in patrilineal societies under customary laws that discriminate against women.

Other studies have explored how political participation and decision-making rights are gendered in Ghana. In 2016, women in Ghana held 10.9 percent of the seats in the national Parliament, according to the World Bank. Barriers to female political participation in Ghana include adverse traditional norms and practices, lack of education, insufficient financial resources and marital obligations. In a recent study discussing women's participation in the northern region of Frafra, the authors confirmed that men still dominate politics.  Political gender discrimination includes ignoring women during political meetings and perceiving women as incompetent for political posts.

Commercialization of Agriculture through a Gender Perspective

The evidence presented suggests that gender issues should be carefully considered before undertaking commercialization projects of agricultural land. Where customary laws govern land use and ownership rights, commercializing land will likely intensify the already existing gender gaps as the owner of the land, often the man and household head, is the one who will benefit from the increased income. Women spend a larger proportion of their controlled income on their children’s education and healthcare than men do, suggesting that increased income from commercialization of agriculture will not necessarily benefit women and children. Gender differences also need to be considered in large-scale commercialization projects that may bring job opportunities for the local population. Women in Northern Ghana are involved in subsistence farming to a higher extent than men, performing household chores and providing childcare. Thus, the prospects for women to benefit from possible employment opportunities and increased income from commercialized agriculture are smaller, suggesting fewer incentives for women to support commercialization of land. In situations where women gain access to land through their husbands and where they are underrepresented in decision-making forums, women have a limited ability to influence negotiations of commercialization agreements. As long as gender inequalities and discriminatory customary laws persist, women will be less likely to support the commercialization of agriculture in Northern Ghana.

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Jennie C. Persson is an M.A. Candidate in the International Development Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Jennie has research experience from Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, as well as social enterprise experience from Cambodia and academic studies from South Korea.

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