Home > Gender and Land Rights Database > Country profiles > Countries List > Customary law
Gender and Land Rights Database


Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights


Lineage is one of the most important social institutions in the country. Each person belongs either to a matrilineage or a patrilineage lineage (9). Although all subjects of the stool and lineage members, regardless of sex, have inherent rights of access to, and use of the lands held in trust by the stool or family head; in practice, women have secondary access to land, which are further constrained by patterns of marital residence, gender-based division of labour and organization of production. For instance, land clearing, which is the principal means of establishing usufructuary right to virgin land owned by the clan, is a role traditionally assigned to men (11).

In most customary land tenure systems, community-level decision-making about land are taken by chiefs or family heads who exercise that role on behalf of the community, clan or family. Thus, in both matrilineal or patrilineal cultures, it is the men who preside over the allocation of family resources. As a matter of fact, lineage authority allocates land to the male household head (11).

In patrilineal societies, women may acquire land through marriage, but only as long as the marriage lasts (8). Therefore, stability of marriage and good relations with male relatives are critical factors in maintaining women’s land rights (11). In case of divorce or death of the spouse, women may lose the land. In some circumstances, a woman may hold land in trust for her sons and may have access to land which belongs to her grown up sons and brothers (8). A woman’s right to land obtained through marriage may also change if her husband remarries under a polygamous arrangement (11).

In the Volta Region, women in patrilineal communities, generally gain secondary access to their husbands’ land through marriage but loose access to their own lineage land at the same time (14).

Among the matrilineal Akans, women may have a right to the lineage lands, although the lineage heads often discriminate in giving out land to women (8).

Among most ethnic groups, either matrilineal or patrilineal, in general, women are perceived to be inferior to men. Traditional beliefs and practices perpetuate discrimination. For instance, under trokosi, which is a practice of ritual slavery, young girls are given to shrines in expiation of alleged crimes or sins committed against a deity by a member of the girl’s family (8).

Traditional authorities and customary institutions


Customary governments named stools in the south and skins in the northern region administer most of the land. Supreme chiefs and councils of elders hold the offices of the stool and skin land and have the role of custodian over land in each jurisdiction. They hold the land in trust of the community, which is the owner of that land (12).

The land priest, called Tindana, Tigatu or Totem, holds control over land ownership in most rural communities. The land priest is traditionally the community’s spiritual leader. He has the mandate to distribute land to members of the group, mediate land disputes and act as a link between the community and the spirits of their ancestors, who are believed to dwell in ancestral groves controlled by them (23).

Inheritance/succession de facto practices


One of the most important ways women may acquire land is through inheritance, even though women’s inheritance rights are severely limited in both patrilineal and matrilineal systems (11). According to customary law, a widow is not considered to be part of her husband’s family and therefore is not entitled to any property of her deceased husband. In fact, as land is considered as coming from the lineage, it remains in the lineage, usually through the male, and will not pass to the female spouse (14). Widows with children are generally permitted to continue farming on their husbands’ land after his death as they raise the children. However, widows without children are usually not permitted to stay and use the land of their husband, which is generally inherited by a brother (14).

In terms of child’s inheritance, in patrilineal communities preference is usually given to sons over daughters, even if the sons are younger than the daughters (14).

Among matrilineal communities, upon the death intestate of a man, his individually acquired property becomes family property and is distributed to his family in accordance with customary rules. Under the system, the composition of the man’s matrilineal family does not include his wife and children. They are thus not entitled to succeed to any specific portions of the intestate’s estate even though they certain limited rights with regard to maintenance and residence in the matrimonial home. Thus, while women benefit in some cases from matrilineal inheritance, they generally do so as lineage members and not as wives or children, if the parent involved is a man (11).

The Anlo communities that live in the southern zone of the Volta Region, practice an inheritance custom called grandma land, by which land goes from mothers to daughters. Grandma lands refer to lands that were formerly given to women known by the name of Fiasidi. The Fiasidi were privileged and respected women of the community who received deity lands, which they could cultivate while serving in the shrine. They were also given additional land in exchange for their services, which they could pass on to their children, often their daughters. As a consequence of increasing land scarcity, beginning in the 19th century, men started using grandma lands for the cultivation of cash crops eventually gaining more access to and control over these lands (14).

Discrepancies/gaps between statutory and customary laws


Although Article 17[1-2] of the Constitution guarantees equality to all people and prohibits discrimination based on gender, Article 17[4] permits exceptions on matters pertaining to personal law such as adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property on death or other matters of personal law (13).

Although the Intestate Succession Law requires that a portion of the deceased person’s property must be left to the spouse, community traditions continue to override this measure because, customarily, land is considered part of the family’s lineage and widows are not part of it (21).

Women and men have equal rights in relation to access to property, as provided for by Article 18[1] of the Constitution. However, customary law considers property as a family asset to be administered by the family head who is usually a man (16).

The Children’s Act of 1998 grants parental authority to both parents, who share responsibility for child care; however, under customary patrilineal systems, children are deemed to belong to the father’s extended family. If the marriage is dissolved, the husband usually acquires custody of non-infant children (16).

The Marriage Ordinance of 1884 states that marriages are to be monogamous. However, both customary law and Islamic Sharia law allow polygamy which is widely practiced (16). It is estimated that polygamous unions are about 23 percent of all marriages (15).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography