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Making Decentralization Deliver for Ghana’s Female Population


Over the past few decades, the concept of decentralization has been closely associated with the development and governance discourse. Decentralization can be defined as the transfer of functions, resources and some amount of political and fiscal autonomy from central government to sub-national and local government structures. Across Africa, most countries have embraced the concept as a mechanism for promoting more inclusive and participatory governance and driving local development. This is a departure from the highly centralized and personalized mode of governance that characterized the history of modern public administration on the continent. This renewed interest in decentralization has been part of a wave of governance reforms that swept through Africa from the 1980s and 1990s. While the nature of decentralization reforms varies from country to country, overall, they have opened up the space for broader citizen engagement and participation in governance, and have made development resources available to local authorities. The system has also promoted local ownership of the development agenda.

Of significant importance is the way in which decentralization has been characterized by its potential to empower historically marginalized groups, such as women, and help meet their basic needs through efficient delivery of services. For instance, by providing vital social amenities like potable water, energy and markets, the system stands to benefit women whose daily activities and responsibilities are directly impacted by the availability of such facilities. Decentralization also opens up the political space for more citizens – and more women for that matter – to directly take part in local governance .

But to what extent has the implementation of decentralization lived up to these expectations and how has it impacted the situation of females in Ghana, for instance, where it has been implemented for more than two decades? This piece examines Ghana's decentralization program and how elusive it has been for the female population.

Implementation of Decentralization in Ghana and the Impact on the Female Population

Ghana is one of the foremost countries in Africa to have adopted decentralization in the late 1980s. Grounded in comprehensive legal and operational provisions and frameworks, including the 1992 Constitution and the Local Government Act, 1993 (Act 462), Ghana's decentralization program entails political, administrative, and financial decentralization. It grants deliberative, legislative and executive powers to metropolitan, municipal, and district assemblies. The objective of the introduction of the system is to promote popular participation in democratic governance, foster local development and promote efficient delivery of local services.

Since being implemented over two decades ago, the decentralization reforms have succeeded in creating local government structures responsible for local development. The political space has also been opened up for grassroots participation. These notwithstanding, implementation of the process has been faced with difficulties, such as delayed releases of financial resources by the center; inability to generate adequate resources to carry out requisite development projects; limited human resource capacity to drive planning and development; and low levels of citizen interest and engagement with local government process.

Of particular interest, the implementation of decentralization in Ghana has yet to make much impact on women, particularly in terms of participation, but also in meeting basic socio-economic needs of rural Ghanaian women. Politically, even though a major objective of the decentralization program is enhancing popular participation in government, females who constitute no less than half the population are seriously underrepresented in local government structures.

The situation is even worse at the national level, which itself is far below internationally-accepted levels. For instance, while the percentage of females elected into the national legislature currently stands at 10.9%, that of females elected into the district assemblies, which are the highest decision-making authority at the local level, is just around 7%. This was a decline from the previous 10% in 2006. The percentage was also around 7.4% in 2002 and just 4% in 1998. The situation is not any better with regards to the election of Presiding Members for the Assemblies. With membership into these district assemblies being composed by 70% of elected representatives and 30% government appointments, governments have in the past tried to reserve 30%-50% of its appointees for women. This led to some improvements in the districts where they were strictly applied. However, overall this still does not transform the composition of assemblymen membership, since the percentages of women who get elected remain extremely low.

Potential Consequences of Low Rates of Female Political Participation in Ghana

Women's low participation in decision-making at the sub-national levels have been associated with lack of family and societal support, inadequate financial resources, socio-cultural attitudes limiting women's involvement in politics and lack of confidence, among several others. These factors notwithstanding, women themselves have yet to make use of the country's decentralization system, which makes elections into the district assemblies non-partisan and thus devoid of the disadvantages of the intensive multi-party politics associated with national elections. Few women contest local government elections. In 2006, female candidates constituted about 11.9% (1,772 out of the total of 14,942) of the total number of candidates that contested the local level elections. This was a significant improvement from the previous 7% in 2002 and 3.6% in 1998.

On the economic and social side, although local government structures are supposed to be agents of local development and responsible for providing social and economic infrastructure, the non-availability of sufficient resources has rendered them less effective in meeting all the basic socio-economic needs of local communities, especially in the rural areas. Many communities continue to be faced with challenges, such as lack of health facilities and effective management of waste, among others. Metropolitan, municipal, and district assemblies continue to depend massively on resources from the central government, which are often released very late and are inadequate. While the provision or absence of such amenities generally affect the broader community, they also particularly impact women, whose daily lives, activities and responsibilities in the home and family are entwined with the use of such amenities. There is still a lot more that decentralization needs to deliver in terms of meeting the basic needs and services of society in general, and women in particular.

Window of Opportunity

The recent (2009-2010) review of the implementation of decentralization program in the country which resulted in the National Decentralization Policy Framework and its accompanying National Decentralization Action Plan recognizes the problem of lack of  resources for women. Consequently, a range of interventions have been outlined as mechanisms for addressing the problem and making decentralization meaningful for women.  Among key objectives are the promotion of a rights-based orientation to local level development and ensuring equitable access to public resources and inclusiveness in decision-making. Recommended policy measures include review of the representation of the membership of local government structures to ensure that groups, such as the marginalized and excluded, are effectively represented; and the promotion of gender responsive planning and budgeting at the district level. Ghana's draft affirmative action bill that is currently being considered also recognizes the problem of women's low participation in local government structures and is pushing for a minimum 30% quota for candidates for the position of District Chief Executive.

While these efforts are commendable, they will need to be followed through to give them meaning and make the relevant impact. Civil society will need to closely monitor progress and draw attention to any serious lapses that may take place. Government needs to show much more serious commitment towards gender parity by demonstrating it in all its appointments especially of district chief executives (to the extent that they are appointed by the president). In addition, women and the broader society will need to be sensitized on the essence of participation in local government. The objective is to whip up interest in participation. More importantly, women who show interest in political participation need to be encouraged and supported by family especially regarding their responsibilities at home. Capacity-building for district assemblies should emphasize gender issues and improve awareness about it.


Ghana's decentralization program has a great potential to empower citizens, deepen participatory governance and drive local development. The challenge remains making this a reality. As efforts are being made at the national level to address the weaknesses in the system, their actual implementation will be crucial. Women's increased participation in local government structures will be an important entry point to national level politics. It will provide exposure on the conduct of government business and boost self-confidence. Their participation in the district assemblies will also help prioritize local development issues. As the 2015 elections into the district assemblies approach, efforts will need to be made to get more women elected into the assemblies. Similarly, a well-resourced and effective district assembly that integrates gender in its development planning is essential to the provision of equitable development outcomes. By doing so, it will not only be meeting the needs of half of its population, but also the broader needs of local communities.

Rhoda Osei-Afful is a Southern Voices African Research Scholar with the Africa Program at The Wilson Center and also a Research Officer at the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana.

Photo Credit: Chad Skeers via Flickr

About the Author

Rhoda Osei-Afful

Former Southern Voices African Research Scholar;
Research Officer, Ghana Center for Democratic Development

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more