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Sharing property after divorce

by Maxwell Suuk


When a marriage ends in Ghana, it is common for the wife to be denied any property acquired during the time spent together. But the law is increasingly interpreted in a different way these days. In an exemplary case in August 2018, the court in the northern Ghanaian city Tamale ruled that a couple that divorced after 15 years of marriage shared ownership of their six-bedroom house.

The court was presided over by judge Anthony Adoku-Addo. It  ruled that the plaintiff, Abena Aninya is entitled to two bedrooms, while the defendant, Issahaku Amoah, could take the remaining four rooms. In default, he would have to pay 7000 Ghana Cedis (the equivalent of around 1,000 Euros) to his ex-wife. The couple worked and built the house together. In 2016, her husband divorced Abena.

In spite of the marriage, he got involved with another woman. Abena reports: “When I confronted him, he and his brothers drove me out of our house.” She says that she worked hard, contributing sand and carrying bricks, when the house was being built. For months, Abena became homeless, sleeping at car parks until she found an apartment to rent.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of Ghana had stated and that “property acquired during marriage is joint property even if the spouse did not make any contribution”. Therefore, both spouses are entitled to a share in the said property. Earlier, ownership depended on whether a spouse had contributed to acquiring an asset – and if so, how much. Due to the Supreme Court decision, Abena’s lawyer, Stephen Azantilow, had strong arguments when reasoning that her rights were violated. He is also a leader of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). 

“All women have to be aware of the fact that once they contribute towards the building of a house or towards the acquisition of any property, they can’t just be thrown out or be deprived of the enjoyment of that property,” Azantilow explains.

Ghana’s legislature is yet to pass the “Spousal Bill”. Parliament has been debating the issues for years. The new law is supposed to spell out clearly that any property acquired during marriage belongs to both the spouses.

Hafsat Sey Sumani is a women’s rights champion who works with Northern Sector Action on Awareness Centre (NORSAAC), a non-governmental organisation advancing women and girls’ empowerment. Sumani thinks the issue has a “cultural dimension”: Although the bulk of farm labour is done by women, in rural Ghana’s social system men think they own their wives, including their properties.

However, the court ruling in Abena’s case gives hope to women like Mary Anaya, a divorcee. “You have wasted your time and your money to build up something to support the family, and in the end they tell you no, you don’t deserve it,” she says. “It’s high time Ghanaians know that women are important.”

Maxwell Suuk is a journalist and lives in Northern Ghana.

Northern Sector Action on Awareness Centre (NORSAAC):