UniMAC Study finds gender disparity in abuse within cohabiting relationships in Ghana

(Dr. Rosemary Obeng-Hinneh, Lecturer, University of Media, Arts and Communication- Institute of Journalism- UniMAC IJ)

By: Emmanuel Mensah-Praize

A recent research study conducted by the University of Media, Arts and Communication (UniMAC) has shed light on a concerning trend in cohabiting relationships in Ghana. The study, presented during an inter-faculty research seminar organized by the Directorate of Research, Innovation and Development (DRID) of UniMAC on February 16, 2023, highlights a higher prevalence of abuse against women in such relationships.

Dr. Rosemary Obeng-Hinneh, a sociologist and senior lecturer at UniMAC-Institute of Journalism addressed the audience on the topic “Marriage? Courtship? Or somewhere in between? Understanding the lived experiences of cohabiting couples in Urban Accra.” She emphasized the growing acceptance of cohabitation in modern societies but underscored the gendered nature of the challenges faced by couples involved.

The study aimed to delve into the lived experiences of cohabiting couples, filling a gap in existing literature which predominantly focuses on the determinants and forms of such relationships. Dr. Obeng-Hinneh stressed that the purpose was not to generalize but to provide nuanced insights into the dynamics of cohabitation.

“So the purpose of this work was not to come up with generalizations about how all persons in cohabiting unions conduct themselves in Accra. The purpose of the study was to explore and unearth some of the in depth, detailed experiences of cohabiting couples” she remarked.

Findings from the research revealed a disparity in aspirations between men and women in cohabiting relationships. While many women expressed a desire for their relationships to culminate in legal marriage, men often exhibited reluctance towards formalizing the union. This discrepancy, Dr. Obeng-Hinneh noted, contributes to the perpetuation of abuse, as women are more likely to endure mistreatment due to various factors such as financial dependence and societal pressures.

Dr. Obeng-Hinneh pointed out the imbalance of power within cohabiting relationships, where one partner, mostly men,often exerts control over the other, creating conditions conducive to abuse. Additionally, she highlighted societal expectations that pressure men into viewing cohabitation as a symbol of masculinity rather than a precursor to marriage.

“Oh, I just felt that as a young man if I had a girlfriend, yeah, it’s normal. A lot of my friends had girlfriends. As for me I wasn’t thinking about marriage or anything, just to show that I’m also a man’’ a male participant explained.

Participants in the study provided firsthand accounts of their motivations for entering cohabiting relationships, with some women citing economic stability as a driving factor.

“When I first came to Accra, things were difficult for me. I was selling pure water with some other girls…and we were sleeping in a kiosk there… so when I met this man and he said he was interested in me I thought it was a good idea to accept his proposal because he was working and had even rented a place’’ a female participant recounted.

Dr. Obeng-Hinneh emphasized the need for dialogue among scholars, stakeholders, and policymakers to address the complex social phenomena surrounding cohabitation.


One of the key issues highlighted by the study is the legal ambiguity surrounding cohabiting relationships in Ghana. The absence of legal recognition for such unions poses challenges related to inheritance and property rights, further exacerbating vulnerabilities for women, particularly in cases of abuse.

In Ghana, the Intestate succession Act, 1985, (PNDC Law 111) exist to ensure uniformity in distribution of acquired assets of a deceased who dies intestate. However, Couples whose marriage is recognized by the law include customary marriage, marriage under the marriage Ordinance and Islamic marriage under the marriage of Mohammedans Ordinance. She disclosed that there is a bill in parliament that is seeking to address the concerns of cohabiting couples.

“I know, for example, that now there’s a bill in parliament which is called the ‘property rights of spouses Bill’, which is seeking to amend the interstate succession law so that the term spouse there will be redefined to include these cohabiting partners, particularly for those who have been together for five years and more, so that when it comes to issues of property sharing, upon the death of one partner, it doesn’t become problematic, she emphasized.

Dr. Obeng-Hinneh therefore called upon Ghanaian lawmakers to expedite the passage of the Intestate Succession Bill, 2022, which seeks to rectify existing legal gaps and provide equitable inheritance rights for individuals in cohabiting relationships, especially among couples who have jointly acquired properties. She stressed the importance of legislative action in safeguarding the rights and well-being of all citizens, irrespective of the form of the union; married or cohabiting.

The research seminar concluded by underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive legal and societal reforms to address the complexities surrounding cohabiting relationships in Ghana and ensure the protection of vulnerable individuals, particularly women, from abuse and exploitation.

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