By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.

 

            The two bills regarding property and wealth sharing in the event of the dissolution of common-law marriages, that are reported to be currently under consideration before the full-house of Ghana’s parliament, are long overdue (See “Ghana to Recognize Cohabitation as Marriage” JoyOnline.com 2/2/12). To be certain, I was utterly flabbergasted to learn that the major informal conjugal institution that is common-law marriage, and a cultural practice that has been widely recognized by almost every significant indigenous ethnic and/or sub-ethnic polity in the country since time immemorial, has yet to be accorded due recognition by the courts of our land.

At any rate, one aspect of the two pending bills, namely, the Property Rites of Spouses Bill and the Intestate Succession Bill, that needs to be critically reexamined before these bills become laws, regards the number of years that common-law spouses ought to cohabit before their union is officially legitimized. The bills under discussion, we are told, peg such conjugal duration or probationary period at five years.

Needless to say, such stipulation is rather arbitrary and practically unsound, especially where a couple happens to have been cohabiting for less than a half-decade but have at least one or two offspring between them at the time of the decision to dissolve their conjugal partnership. In this particular instance, should the woman be accorded the proverbial short end of the stick, as is highly to be the case in our male-dominated society and culture, on the grounds that her cohabitation with her common-law husband had not gone the stipulated five-year conjugal distance, both the common-law wife and her children (who did not ask to be brought or factored into the equation, as it were) stand to suffer an unjustifiable loss of property and wealth unless, of course, a viable child-support and/or alimony mechanism, or schedule, is established by the courts.

Thus, for instance, it would be far more constructive for the two bills to be conditionally modified to ensure that they squarely take the plight of innocent third parties, such as the biological and/or adopted offspring of the cohabitants or common-law spouses into account in the event of an abrupt and transient dissolution of such partnership. And one of the best ways to go about this process is, of course, for Parliament to defer deliberative authority to recognized and respectable traditional institutions such as the various regional houses of chiefs and experts and professionals on marriage and child-welfare issues. In sum, Parliament ought to allow the latter groups to hash out the sticky question of how long a common-law couple ought to cohabit in order for their conjugal partnership to be judicially reckoned as legitimate and then report back to the House within a reasonable space of time, after which deliberation legal finality, or closure, could be fairly and soundly brought to bear on the same.

Ultimately, what makes the formal codification of conjugal cohabitation worthy of such exercise is, of course, the certain morale booster that such a law is apt to invest in this widely tolerated albeit morally disdained social and cultural arrangement. Needless to say, such a law would also drastically reduce the patently unprovoked stigma which such conjugal arrangement has on both the social status and self-esteem of children born out of wedlock or conjugal cohabitation.

It is, however, not clear precisely what she means when Mrs. Sheila Menka-Premo, the noted legal practitioner, faults some parliamentarians for unnecessary foot-dragging, since nothing publicly revealed about the two bills, so far, points to any mischievous intent, real or perceived, on the part of the sponsors, besides ensuring gender equity vis-à-vis the relevant conjugal arrangement targeted by the same.

On the other hand, what is unmistakably clear, here, and proactively so, of course, is the fact that Ghana seems to be fast becoming an enviable leader on the African continent in the unquestionably enlightened struggle against gender discrimination and patriarchal tyranny. And here, also, it goes without saying that this is the one salient aspect of social existence in which an executive, or presidential, edict could do great good, in the apparently gaping inability of Parliament to promptly act as a progressive vehicle of socioeconomic and cultural justice.

*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English, Journalism and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is Director of The Sintim-Aboagye Center for Politics and Culture and author of “Ghanaian Politics Today” (Lulu.com, 2008). E-mail: okoampaahoofe@optimum.net.

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