Ghana: Where'd all the men go?

TEFLE, Ghana — A blue poster on a wall of the women's empowerment center in the Ghanaian village of Tefle reads, "Where are the women?" 

But walking through the dirt roads of the village, women — many young mothers — and loads of children are often all you see. The question might then also read, “Where are the men?"

The men? They’ve gone to the cities in an attempt to escape rampant rural unemployment, leaving behind wives and children whose own employment and education opportunities then suffer. 

Some send money home; many do not.

“Education in Tefle is very low,” said Praise Atikpui Djabeng, 55, a former district assembly member in the village. “So their main occupation is fishing and farming. Some time ago the Volta River was very full, but after the construction of the Akosombo Dam, the river has been blocked.” 

Decreasing river levels and rainfall coupled with aquatic weed invasions and the high risk of bilharzia, a parasitic disease caused by worms in the Volta River, has driven fishermen and farmers to cities in search of other employment or to fishing communities north of the dam.

“Those places are a long way from home, if you can’t see anyone, to send food to your family,” Djabeng said. “They go hungry.”

Those who go to cities like Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast are attracted by the opportunities to work at factories or construction sites, or to sell food, water or crafts to the massive crowds of people, adding pressure to an already overwhelmed urban population.

“When you go to Accra and Kumasi, the population is very dense, so when you are selling something like water they will buy it,” said Bright Kwame Abotsi, 34, who lives in Tefle and is unemployed. “Here the population is sparse and they don’t buy, or they can’t buy. And when you go to Accra they have a lot of factories there — we don’t have those factories here. In Accra you can surely find something small to do to bring some money.”

Of these men, Djabeng estimates that less than one-third send money home from the cities. “They just leave their families,” she said. “Some can stay there for many years, maybe five to six years even without coming home.”

Some stay away because of lack of money and transportation, returning home only during holidays or funerals, if at all. But others shirk their responsibilities to their wives and children simply because they feel they can, she said. 

The men who don’t send money home often get away with it due to a lack of awareness of the law in rural areas. “[Women] don’t know their rights,” Djabeng said. “The law actually is protecting us, but since we don’t know much about it, that is what’s disturbing us.”

The Domestic Violence Act, passed in Ghana in 2007, protects citizens from all forms of domestic violence including financial neglect, but many abandoned women have either never heard of the law or are discouraged from reporting because of how common and accepted the practice has become. 

“Women need to come boldly to report neglect,” Djabeng said. “Some of the women say, ‘Oh after all, let me stay like this, even my grandmother or my mother was able to endure such things, so why can’t I also do it?’”

“People are ignorant in such a way that they don’t want to report their problems; they will not go,” Abotsi agreed. “Most of them don’t know, and some of them who know something small about it still don’t go because it’s not common.” 

And those who do report the neglect are often defeated by a system that demands responsibility on paper but does little to follow through in reality.

“Sometimes they will tell the man to be responsible, or maybe tell him to pay such an amount every month for the children or the wife,” Djabeng explained. “They will say it, but they don’t see to it that it’s being paid. There is no follow-up. There’s no seriousness here.

“If the law is being pursued the right way and then follow-ups are being made, I think all this will come down,” she said. 

The absence of men in the village affects the entire community, fueling the cycle of poverty: Women are unable to pursue their own higher education or employment opportunities once they become solely responsible for their children. They are unable to pay for education for their children past primary school when school fees are implemented. Even those children who are in school often can’t attend regularly because of the pressing need to contribute money to the family. And the potential for village-level economic opportunities continues to lie quietly unrealized. 

Indeed, there are many unexploited economic opportunities in Tefle, including the ripe potential for irrigation projects, large-scale commercial farming instead of subsistence farming, and vegetable-processing factories. 

“We have plenty of land,” Djabeng said. “Irrigation can also help farms a lot because the Volta River is here, but it’s not being used for irrigation. During some seasons, we have plenty of tomatoes, but there’s no factory here that can preserve them and make tomato paste. So when you go to the markets you just see people bringing large quantities of tomatoes, but when it’s not bought you see people pouring them out, wasted. If there should be any factory for the tomatoes to be processed, I think they will not be wasted.” 

But for now, much of the fertile land sits empty, the Volta River flows on largely untapped and factories remain only in the cities, all while urban areas continue to swell and both areas suffer. “If we were to have large farms and factories here and people were employed, the youth were employed, I don’t think there would be such things going on,” Djabeng said. “People will stay in the community, and life will go on.”