There are very clear ideas in Ghana about what girls can and should do, and how boys ought to behave.
Parents use a number of methods to try and raise their children well – rewards, punishments and consciously modelled behaviours or instructions. These approaches are steeped in a country’s traditions. But such practices are not without problems. In most societies, boys and girls are raised very differently. And in Ghana, this almost certainly reinforces the notion that men are “better”.
Our research explored how parents “train” their children to fill certain roles in society and at home.
Raising boys and girls in Ghana
Traditionally in Ghana, the moral and ethical instruction of children was and remains the responsibility of the immediate and extended family. There are rites of passage at every stage of life, each of which introduces the individual involved to his or her new social status and roles. Folk tales, proverbs and songs are also used to teach young people about their roles in the home and society.
Research has shown, though, that proverbs and folk tales are used to romanticise or underscore elements of both masculinity and femininity. Growing children can internalise such ideas if they are repeated often enough.
Adults are assumed to know what is best for the young. Proverbs are frequently used to exert the supremacy of older people and command implicit respect from the young.
In almost all parts of Ghana, the general practice is for mothers and their female relatives to be responsible for the early care, training and discipline of children. From between the ages of six and 10, and certainly by the time of puberty, boys are generally expected to be brought up by their fathers – often outside the home. Girls are raised by their mothers in domestic spaces, especially the kitchen.
Girls receive profound affection from their mothers, and are taught how to serve and be submissive to their fathers, brothers and any other older person. They are equipped with the kinds of skills thought necessary to make one a good wife and mother, such as being diligent and productive.
Crucially, girls are conceptually viewed as “minors”, sometimes even alongside their younger brothers. This view persists until their maturity is “proven” through marriage or independent productive work.
Boys, meanwhile, drift slowly towards their fathers or uncles as they grow up. These men often treat them sternly: it is regarded as a father or uncle’s duty to prepare his son to shoulder the responsibility of looking after his mother, sisters, future wife or wives and children.
Boys participate in “female” activities such as cooking, sweeping the house or eating with a group of women when they are young, but this is increasingly discouraged as they move towards adolescence and young adulthood.
How kids are ‘trained’
We worked with 524 junior secondary school students who were between the ages of 12 and 15, as well as with their parents or guardians. The research took place in Ghana’s Eastern region.
We found that most of the young adolescents were socialised to define appropriate female or male roles as opposite and polarised. Girls were taught to assume domestic roles and a position of deference to males. Boys expressed a sense of entitlement for a dominant role in male-female relationships. These beliefs were reinforced through direct instruction, rewards, punishments and by observing adult role models.
Parents used rewards to show their approval of good behaviour, often in the hope that their children would repeat such behaviour in future. One woman said:
My daughter did well the other time so I promised her some malt drink which I did. I saw that she was very excited and so I knew that if I continued to do that for her, she would be happy and be of good conduct.
The research suggests that parents are more likely to use praise and positive affirmation for daughters than sons. Punishment, though, is used more or less equally with boys and girls – at least until they get older, when girls are punished and beaten less. Parents generally said that girls were more obedient and so needed physical punishment less often than boys.
One father acknowledged that this difference in obedience might be the result of different “training” for boys and girls:
I think it’s because of the way we train them.
This would suggest a circular pattern in practice and results. Boys and girls are are “trained” differently, so girls turn out more obedient and as a result boys are caned more frequently than girls.
Typically girls were expected to stay at home or come home earlier, while boys were given the freedom to explore. This feeds into a sense of entitlement among boys, and possibly as a result of their more strict “training” they believe they can do more. So they overstep their bounds and are punished with a beating.
Watch and learn
A few adults underscored the importance of adult modelling and stressed that children learn from what they see. It was in this area that parents were found to be most open to teaching children about different gender roles.
One mother explained:
For my sons, yes, I have taught them how to pound fufu so that they can help their wives when they are pounding fufu. I am aware that there are some men who wish to help their wives but the truth is they do not know how to do most of the household chores. I have asked them (sons) to be around when I am cooking, so they can learn how to do it.
Similarly, a father explained that he does not see anything wrong with letting his son see him perform non-traditional roles.
Men still rule
This research makes it clear that attitudes to gender roles among this sample begin in the home and in childhood.
While this is generally universally true for all societies, the dominant role of the family – especially with the very unbending gender norms that privilege men – means it is likely that men will continue to be accorded higher status and value than women.