What might be worse than poverty are cultural factors which aggravate the situation for poor women: the culture is strongly patriarchal. A woman, if widowed, does not inherit her husband’s property. It goes to her husband’s family on the parental side, as does most often all male children. The woman will have to move to her native village with her daughters and try to etch out a living for herself. A man can divorce a wife very easily, leaving the woman in a similar vulnerable situation. Decision power remains largely with men as well. Men can marry up to four women.
A typical day for a Ghanaian woman from a northern rural village begins in the early hours of the day, before sunrise. She sweeps the compound and fetches firewood and water to boil for the day’s household chores (cooking, washing dishes, clothes and bathing). After feeding and sending her children off to school in the morning, she tends to her farm. The commonly used tool is a short hoe, therefore she must hunch over and forcefully claw at the earth to soften the dirt. During this work she may well have a baby wrapped in cloth tied to her back, while being pregnant with a new child.
Farm work lasts for hours under the scorching sun. Late in the afternoon, she returns home to prepare dinner for her family. Here you see women pounding cassava to make food, this is a heavy task.
She may have to fetch more firewood and water, depending on how much was used earlier in the day. She feeds her family, bathes the children, and might even prepare the bath for her husband. During night, sleep is likely to be interrupted by breast feeding, sick children, and body aches. Night leads on to a new day, and this is the circle of life.
A woman in average gives birth to 7 children, and many children die young. In the group we talked to, child mortality was 25 %. Health facilities were far away, and if a complications arose during delivery, the only solution was to transport the woman in labour on the back of a bicycle for 4 kilometers. So this is the context, this is the typical situation of the women we talked to. In this context, the word ‘life course’ takes on a different shade of meaning – given the child mortality rate, the ‘life course’ might be shorter than you hope for.
However, a third theme gave more hope: Considerate husband behavior. This had to elements, one emotional and one practical, but both involved the husband showing care and consideration.
Torill bull NHPRC 2013.2
Women and family in a
Torill Bull, Maurice Mittelmark, & Ngasuma Kanyeka
• Combination of production and reproduction
The Bole district of Northern Region
1.Nature as a Threat
2.Lack of Infrastructure
4.Illness and death
6.Culture and religion as a threat
2.Key item ownership
6.Marital relationship quality
9.Empowering group memberships
10.Culture and religion as meaning /joy
12.Women-friendly local leaders
Bull, T., Mittelmark, MB, and Kanyeka, N. (2012). ‘Assets for health and well-being of women in impoverished rural areas of the Global South.’
Research paper commissioned for special issue of Critical Public Health as a follow-up from the conference Assets for health and wellbeing across the life
course. Accepted pending minor revisions.
Wider determinants of health including
genetic, social, cultural and contextual factors
(eg. geography, climate)
Considerate husband behaviour:
“Some men are helpful. He can come up with some work
and say let us both join hands in this work for our
common good. Sometimes he helps you in bathing the
children or in some house work. Then together you
converse on the way to the farm. It is simply nice so.”
“If he talks to you in a loving way, that alone makes you
happy. If you have two children, on the way to the farm,
he can carry one child and you carry the other.”
Considerate husband behaviour:
“Sometimes when you are ill and the man does not have
money to take you to hospital, what he will tell you will
make you happy. “
“When you are tired or ill and he shows signs of care and
love and even uses warm water to massage your body in
place of medicine. In doing this, if he talks gently and
lovingly to you, you will be happy. You may in return
prepare such a nice meal for him as you have never
“Child death is painful. (…) Any day you count your
children their number is always short by one. Anytime
you are lying in bed it is like the child is still lying in front
Survival of children