Spring seminar and trip focus on women’s rights in Ghana

October 19, 2011Duke Law News

Applications are currently being accepted for enrollment in a spring semester seminar that will focus on comparative legal and cultural issues relating to spousal intestate succession and property rights in Ghana. Developed by Professor Kathryn Webb Bradley, the seminar will supplement weekly class sessions with a spring break trip to Ghana where students can assess the legal and cultural issues in context through meetings with various interested groups and individuals, such as government officials, lawyers’ groups, NGOs, tribal chieftains, and local citizens.

Enrollment in the three-credit seminar, titled Integrating Legal Frameworks: Customary Law, Statutory Law, and Spousal Property Rights in Ghana, will be capped at 12 upper-year students. Application packets are available from Bradley or her assistant, Sharon Sebolt. The deadline for submitting applications to Sebolt is Monday, Oct. 31 at 5:00 p.m.

The seminar directly focuses on women’s rights in Ghana, explained Bradley, an expert in family law. Ghana’s 1992 constitution reflects the country’s history as a former British colony, through its reliance on common law and equitable principles derived from British law, and through its delineation of a parliamentary process for enacting statutory law. An intestate succession law addresses spousal rights and on its face, clearly gives women the right to inherit property from their deceased husbands. But customary law pertaining to spousal property and inheritance rights often conflicts with statutory law, said Bradley.

“Customary law is treated as common law in Ghana. It’s defined that way in the constitution, as being part of Ghanaian common law,” she said. “It’s tribal law, so it’s not all written down and it’s localized. But it’s also extremely important. So in a lot of areas, even though there is a statute that outlines what will happen when a spouse dies, customary law is applied. As a result, there has been a lot of inconsistency as to what women can get and whether they can get their rights under the statute.

“Even though the constitution guarantees equal spousal property rights, there hasn’t been any mechanism for guaranteeing that,” she said. Other challenges include the prevalence of polygamy, which as a matter of custom is recognized under Ghanaian common law, but not addressed by the intestate succession statute. Various mechanisms for recognizing marriage within the country and regional and tribal customs towards property distribution further complicate the picture.

Two bills currently pending before the Ghanaian parliament collectively seek to revise the intestate succession law and enact, for the first time, a spousal property law to apply at divorce. Parliament will vote on the legislation before its term ends in December with the outcome helping to shape the students’ final collaborative project, Bradley said.

“If the bills pass, we will do something to help implement the new law, such as educational information or a strategy memo for lawyers,” she said. “If they don’t pass, we will focus on materials that can help implement the existing intestate succession law and educate women about their rights regarding inheritance and the need to register their marriages. We will work within the existing scheme.

“My goal is that whatever we do will be useful to women in Ghana after we leave.”

Bradley is co-teaching the seminar with Professor Esther Acolatse of Duke Divinity School, a Ghanaian native. In developing the syllabus and planning for the class trip, Bradley has also worked with cultural anthropologists at Duke and faculty members at Fordham Law School who have done extensive work in Ghana. They have connected her with various women’s groups and NGOs there, as well as Ghanaian lawyers who have worked extensively on women’s rights and matters of property succession. Bradley will meet with them in Ghana in December to finalize plans for the spring-break trip.

“I want our students to come away with a sense of how the law plays out in people’s lives,” she said. “This isn’t just about the law; it’s not just about a statute or a constitution that has a treaty obligation superimposed on it. What does it mean when you take a statute to the village level? If it conveys rights women have never had before, what do they do with it? How do you get a statute implemented in a way that actually makes a difference for people? And what happens if it doesn’t — if women can’t inherit property from their husbands because of the way the customary law is set up? What does that mean for them going forward in terms of their abilities to be independent and to raise their children?”

Bradley’s seminar represents the third successive initiative that combines classwork with an overseas trip, sponsored by Duke’s Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL), to provide students with a hands-on learning experience in international and comparative law and human rights. In 2010, Professor Laurence Helfer led a seminar on Afro-Brazilian land rights that included a trip to Brazil, and in 2011, Professor Curtis Bradley developed a seminar that allowed students to examine housing rights in East Jerusalem which comprise a thorny dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.

The latest seminar continues the trend with its focus on issues of housing and home, notes Kathryn Bradley.
“The issues we’ll be encountering involve questions of how you keep a home going, how families exist and work, and addressing them in a manner that respects the culture and does not dictate solutions. Instead, how do you create something that gives the rights that are necessary to protect individuals and protect families and make it fit into a culture that is very different from ours?”
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