The former First Lady of the Republic and current flagbearer of the National Democratic Party (NDP), Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, says she fought for the passage of new succession laws in Ghana in 1985 to address the unfair matrilineal and patrilineal structure of inheritance in the nation. She also wanted to stop the abuse of women by their husband’s relatives in the event that their spouse died without a written will.
Speaking on Asaase Radio’s flagship personality talk show programme, Sunday Night, hosted by Nana Yaa Mensah on 27 September 2020, Agyeman-Rawlings recalled how the prevailing customary law made possible the abuse of widows and their children by extended families following the death of a husband.
She decided, with the help and support of people such as Justice Annie Jiagge and the lawyer Tsatsu Tsikata, to get the revolutionary Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) to pass laws that addressed the problem at the root.
Among the succession laws relating to marriage and women’s rights that were passed as a result of efforts by Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings are the Intestate Succession Law 1985 (PNDC Law 111), the Customary Marriage and Divorce (Registration) Law (PNDC Law 112), the Administration of Estate (Amendment) Law (PNDC Law 113) and the Head of Family (Accountability) Law (PNDC Law 114).
Matrilineal and patrilineal systems
Historically, in Ghanaian custom, “family” refers to individuals related by blood rather than marriage, the lineage being traced either through the female (matrilineal) or male line (patrilineal).
The term “family” is also largely used to describe the nuclear family. In Ghana, however, spouses in some ethnic groupings customarily may not be regarded as related to each other, as in the Western conception of family.
Essentially, there are two types of lineage systems in existence in Ghana. These are the matrilineal and patrilineal systems, and everyone in Ghana belongs to at least one of these systems. The matrilineal system is mostly observed among the Akan (except those Akan groups found in the Volta Region and Jasikan District), the Lobi, the Tampolese, and the Vagala or Baga, who live in the Upper East and Upper West Regions.
The patrilineal system is mostly practised in Ghana by the Ewe and most other groups in the Volta Region, most of the people of Northern Ghana, the Ga-Dangmes of the Greater Accra Region and the Guans.
The matrilineal and patrilineal systems share many characteristics but diverge in ways significant to women’s inheritance. It was this anomaly against widows and mothers when it came to women’s inheritance rights that the law sponsored by the former first lady and her group set out to eliminate by passing new succession laws for Ghana.
In answer to a question about what she holds dearest among her achievements, Agyeman-Rawlings said that of all the landmark laws she helped her husband pass, she is proudest of her contribution to the Intestate Succession Law.
“That came with the family accountability law, marriage registration law, and so on and so forth. It was a whole comprehensive set of laws that would help to release women from the difficulties of living and looking after their children when their husbands passed,” the former first lady said.
She recalled the role her father played in initiating the processes leading to the passage of the law. He had personal experience of having to take care of many of his sisters’ children after a brother-in-law died.
This is because the customary practice in the Ashanti Region was such that when a woman’s husband died, the deceased’s sisters and birth family inherited everything, to the detriment of his children and wife.
“That particular law – Law 111 – [and] 112, 113, 114, 115, I think to 118, these are all laws that explained and made certain things illegal for people to do. It sort of streamlined things for every woman, so that on the occasion of the death of your husband, the demise will not affect the household as much as it used to,” Agyeman-Rawlings said.
The venerable former first lady said that there were many other roadblocks to the empowerment of women that were removed using some of the laws she championed and got passed by the PNDC government led by her husband, Jerry John Rawlings.
“There were so many things that were happening that people did not know about. Women could actually open accounts all right, but you [could not] open an account without a man coming to sign that he agrees that you should open that account.
“Even if it is your little son, they had to sign for you,” Agyeman-Rawlings said.
Mrs Agyeman-Rawlings said there was a similar arrangement regarding a woman’s ability to purchase land in Ghana.
“If you wanted to buy land, a man had to say that it is okay for you to buy that land. So, all those laws had to be made that women can open their own accounts, take loans from the bank, they can go to the Lands Commission and register that land without the problem of having some guy coming to say, ‘Yes, it’s okay, she can register this land or she can buy it and register it.’
“So a lot of little laws were also made by the PNDC that actually helped make it easier for women that we don’t talk so much about,” the former first lady said.
Click on the kink below to listen to excerpts of the interview.
Wilberforce Asare / Asaase Radio