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Ghana: Widowhood rites performed by the Akan people, particularly for chiefs and sub-chiefs; whether the widow has to marry the customary successor of the sub-chief and consequences for refusal (2004-2006)

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa
Publication Date 12 July 2006
Citation / Document Symbol GHA101539.E
Reference 1
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ghana: Widowhood rites performed by the Akan people, particularly for chiefs and sub-chiefs; whether the widow has to marry the customary successor of the sub-chief and consequences for refusal (2004-2006), 12 July 2006, GHA101539.E, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
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The following information was provided by an instructor of sociology at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia and former senior lecturer at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, who obtained his PhD in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Ghana.

Most widows of chiefs or others who may have many wives are older, and the remarriage to the new chief stands as a form of senior social security for most of them.

As a function of Akan being a matrilineal society, no women are forced to marry against their will. (This does not apply to the ethnic groups in the North of Ghana where women are more subservient. I have also heard of forced marriage among the Ewe of the Volta Region and some fishing villages along the coast of Ghana).

The marriage of a woman to a chief, except to, perhaps, the one he had married prior to being enstooled, is a representation of the confederation of matrilineages which forms the basis of the Akan oman (socio political organization). The lineage providing a woman to a chief is therefore obligated to provide a new one when the old wife dies, or chooses to divorce the chief. This may happen, but is rare, when the chief dies and is replaced by his matrilineal successor. Lineage elders may put pressure on a wife of the chief if she is reluctant to marry the new chief, but there are no sanctions if she chooses otherwise. The lineage will have to sacrifice a sheep to pacify the ancestors, and find another female member of the lineage to fulfill the confederation obligations. This is not difficult, as it is an honour to marry the chief.

There are no widowhood rites per se, but a sheep may be sacrificed, and perhaps some head wine ("tiri nsa") provided by the chief to the FATHER (not to the matrilineal uncle!) of the widow to reconfirm the marriage. It is seen as a confederation or political obligation, and usually does not involve conjugal duties (sex). The widow may cook one meal for the chief, and then, if they both agree, provide further meals. The widow stays in her own matrilineal house, and goes to the chief's house for a night if he calls her and she agrees. She may choose at any time to divorce him, but because of the political obligations, must consult her lineage elders to provide a replacement. The obligation is on the lineage, not on her as an individual (4 July 2006).

No further information regarding widowhood rites of widows of chiefs or sub-chiefs could be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Although sources did not specify whether the following widowhood rites apply to the Akan people, this additional information regarding widowhood rites in Ghana is of interest. The Widows and Orphans Ministry (WOM) was founded in 1993 by Betty Ayagiba [or Ayageba] (Public Agenda 19 June 2006; CUSO Fall 2005, 4; CBC 7 July 2004). Based in Bolgatanga (Accra Daily Mail 24 May 2004), it is a non-governmental organization whose mission is to fight for the rights of widows and orphans, including addressing the negative impacts of widowhood rites (Public Agenda 19 June 2006; WOM n.d.; CUSO Fall 2005, 4). The WOM conducted research on inheritance in the upper east region and found that widowhood rites are considered dehumanising by many widows (Accra Daily Mail 24 May 2004). The WOM identified the following widowhood rites: stripping the widow naked and having her wear only shea tree leaves; having the widow bathe naked in public; forcing the widow to marry a man from her late husband's family; having the widow feed the ritualist during and after the funeral; and isolating the widow and exposing her to black ants (WRI 3 Jan. 2006; Accra Daily Mail 24 May 2004). WOM found that being bitten by black ants would be considered an indication that the widow had been unfaithful to her late husband (ibid; see also Public Agenda 19 June 2006 and CBC 7 July 2004). In its contribution to the United Nations Secretary-General's study on violence against women, WOM added that widowhood rites include forcing a widow to drink a concoction made from the leaves worn by a previous widow (n.d.).

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that the ritual of stripping the widow is common in Ghana's upper east region, and that in some cases the widow is "taken out to bathe by a rubbish dump" while hot and cold water are thrown at her, sometimes resulting in her being scalded (7 July 2004). According to an article from Public Agenda, throwing hot and cold water at the widow is said to be a practice that occurs in the Kasena Nankana District and that, if the widow is burned, it is an indication that she was unfaithful to her husband (19 June 2006). In other cases, widows have to spend the night outside sitting on a mat with only leaves covering their private parts (Public Agenda 19 June 2006; CBC 7 July 2004). In addition, some widowhood rites include shaving the head of the widow and having her wear a rope tied around her neck (ibid.). Wearing a rope around the neck is considered a widowhood rite among the Kusasi people (Public Agenda 19 June 2006). Many widows are also forced to marry into their late husband's family (CBC 7 July 2004).

Public Agenda also reported that a widow must be accompanied at all times and that she is given a knife, a stick and a calabash (a bowl or dipper made from the shell of this fruit), which she must carry with her (19 June 2005). The article also indicated that "[o]n the fourth day, the widow is led outside in nakedness and bathed" (ibid.).

An article from The Ghanaian Chronicle reported an increase in widowhood rites in the Asutifi district of the Brong Ahafo region (6 June 2006). The article went on to describe one widow's experience following the death of her husband: she indicated that she was forced to wash herself with cold water three times a day, that she was required to cry when she was in her late husband's house and that she was prohibited from eating "root crops" (The Ghanaian Chronicle 6 June 2006). The widow also stated that this went on for a year and that the family of her late husband was no longer willing to care for her children (ibid.).

In a report on violence against women in Ghana, the United Nations (UN) Division for the Advancement of Women indicated that widowhood rites included confining the widow to a room, shaving her head, having her wear a rope around her neck and conducting a ritual bath (11-14 Apr. 2005). The report also stated that "... 31% of widowed respondents said they were being asked to marry their dead husband's brother and 23% of the other respondents said their relatives (who are widowed) were asked to marry their dead husband's brother" (UN 11-14 Apr. 2005). No information regarding the consequences for refusing to marry the customary successor of the sub-chief could be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

Sources reported that widowhood rites are prohibited under Ghana's penal code (Accra Daily Mail 1 Mar. 2006; CBC 7 July 2004). However, according to Ayageba, founder of WOM, many widows are not aware of this legislation and those who are will likely not want to proceed to trial because of lengthy delays and because they could face "more and increased abuse" (ibid.). Specific reference to the legislation could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Accra Daily Mail. 1 March 2006. "Pass Domestic Violence Bill! Workshop Participants Tell Parliament." [Accessed 6 July 2006]
_____. 24 May 2004. "Upper East Widows Bear the Brunt of Poverty." [Accessed 6 July 2006]

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 7 July 2004. Lyndsay Duncombe. "Woe for the Widows of Ghana." [Accessed 6 July 2004]

CUSO. Fall 2005. "CUSO Promotes Women's Rights in Ghana." CUSO News. [Accessed 6 July 2006]

The Ghanaian Chronicle [Accra]. 6 June 2006. Michael Boateng. "Widowhood Rites on Ascendancy in Asutifi ... A Victim Narrates her Ordeal." [Accessed 5 July 2006]

Instructor at Camosun College, Victoria, British Columbia. 4 July 2006. Correspondence.

Public Agenda [Accra]. 19 June 2006. "Woman Accused of Killing her Husband Brings Solace to Women." [Accessed 6 July 2006]

United Nations (UN). 11-14 April 2005. Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). Violence Against Women: The Ghanaian Case. [Accessed 6 July 2006]

Widows and Orphans Ministry (WOM). N.d. "Contribution by: Widows and Orphans Ministry (WOM, Ghana)." United Nations Secretary-General's In-depth Study on Violence Against Women. [Accessed 6 July 2006]

Widows Rights International (WRI). 3 January 2006. "Work of Widows and Orphans Ministry Ghana." [Accessed 6 July 2006]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: A professor from the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto did not provide information within the time constraints.

An associate professor from Indiana University and a professor from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh did not have information on the subject.

Publications: Africa Research Bulletin.

Internet sites, including: Africa Confidential,, Amnesty International, British Broadcasting Corporation, Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice Ghana, Factiva, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Integrated Regional Information Networks,, Lawa (Ghana) Alumnae Inc., Legislationline, MATCH International Centre, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, United States Department of State and World News Connection.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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