CHILD CARE IN A GLOBALIZING WORLD
PERSPECTIVES FROM GHANA
(eds) Christine Oppong, Delali M. Badasu & Kari Waerness
Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon in cooperation with the
Department of Sociology, University of Bergen, Norway. BRIC University of Bergen
PO Box 7810 NO-5020 Bergen, Norway
Oppong’s essay on which
EDITORS INTRODUCTION based
The chapters in this book are ultimately about care, care of babies and children and
care of their mothers. The concept of care is a topic which has come under increasing
global scrutiny of late, as its importance to the promotion of human development and
well-being and the implications of its unfortunate omission, in much theoretical thinking,
academic inquiry and practical planning efforts, have been acknowledged, both in the
recent past and still today.
Accordingly the several essays in this volume respond in various ways to a number of
questions which are being asked in vastly different locations and communities. How are
we managing to care for our children and our children’s children today in increasingly
market driven, cash economies, in which adult time is a scarce commodity, as it is ever
more drawn into (the search for) employment and income earning or diverted into personal
pursuits? Crucially to what extent are busy and resource stretched mothers able to meet
recent global, professional health prescriptions about the length of exclusive breast feeding
required by infants and the weaning foods and feeding regimes desirable? Who is in fact
looking after babies, toddlers and small children, during their most vulnerable early periods
of rapid growth and development in the increasingly frequent absence of their mothers?
To what extent are infants’ needs for continuous, emotionally involved, responsive care
being recognized and met by members of their families or others? How are increasingly
overworked mothers coping in different kinds of challenging and novel environments?
How do they manage their multiple productive and reproductive tasks and assume all
the array of responsibilities thrust upon them, especially when husbands and kin, young and
old, - who used to share child care and production with them, are more frequently absent
– living at a distance, migrating for work, often employed far away or even going to
school? What happens when mothers too can no longer function? What happens to infants?
Who if anyone takes over? Who fills the gap? And ultimately what is the evidence of
outcomes of possible inadequacy of care, - such as numbers of accidents, poor growth
measures and incidence of failure to thrive.
This introduction outlines the ways in which the writers of the subsequent chapters have
responded to such questions, both in their analyses of textual evidence of various kinds
and their observations and enquiries in homes, work places and communities across the
land. Mothers’ places of productive and reproductive work in Ghana include markets, streets
and farms, as well as households and babies and toddlers are to be found there. Mothers
also work away from home in hospitals, schools and offices, where hours of closely
supervised effort can be long and gruelling and the commute through heavy traffic jams
can add hours to the length of every working day in the early morning and late evening.
Who rocks the babies and feeds and cleans them and weans the toddlers, regularly and
frequently feeding them with nutritious foods, while mothers are doing all these tasks?
Who cares and loves them and forms the bonds of attachment babies need to develop
As ethnographies from decades ago have described, Ghanaian mothers have always worked
at multiple tasks – growing and processing foodstuffs and making things and marketing
them and then when education became available they have entered the office jobs and
professions. Indeed they have in the past been renowned for their productive as well as
reproductive achievements and relative equality with their male counterparts, compared
with women in many other countries of the world. But in the past work of different kinds
was often situated in or near the home and kin and affines usually cooperated to make
economic activity schedules more flexible and lighter, even terminated for key periods of
pampered rest and seclusion, during child bearing and after birth. Difficulties began when
work was separated from home and organized to tight schedules by strangers and kin no
longer cooperated with each other so readily to lighten tasks and make them more
Such questions about care are addressed by case studies in chapters 4-13 of this volume;
studies that are based on problem oriented ethnographies, carried out in different
communities both urban and rural in several regions of the country. For the several
contributors to this volume seek to portray some of the trends in child care and their
changing familial contexts occurring in Ghana in recent years. In so doing they provide
graphic examples of parental dilemmas and choices observed during the past decade and
beyond. The cases describe relationships and events occurring against the sad backdrop
of continuing, unacceptably high national levels of infants’ under nutrition and
consequent arrested development, tragic indices of care challenges yet to be addressed.
They are also set within the context of family traditions surrounding reproduction and
customary domestic divisions of labour between women and men, young and old, -
documented in past decades by colonial and post colonial ethnographers. They respond
to the big question - What impacts are globalization and the associated economic and
demographic transformations having on the customary responsibilities of marriage, kinship
and parenthood in Ghana, as people travel far from home, both in country and abroad,
in search of security and livelihoods in an increasingly precarious and fast moving world?
The chapters include descriptions of urban and rural families, illiterates and educated
people. Ironically while there is evidence of deficits in care
and persistent under nutrition
among babies and toddlers, nationally food production has been increasing. There is
however evidence that many mothers among the non-poor as well as the poor are
themselves underweight, as they work hard for long hours to care for their families and
become even more heavily involved in agriculture, even replacing migrant men when
It is the task of chapters 1 - 3 to briefly set the micro findings, from individual households
and communities, within several wider contexts. One is Western feminist discourses, - in
particular Nordic experiences. A second is the global pronouncements and prescriptions of
UN agencies. A third is national debates and policy responses to recognized national
challenges to human development. Another is global anthropological evidence on the
universals of human reproductive history and ethnographic evidence of changing family
traditions and altering customs in Ghanaian communities.
Accordingly in Chapter 1 by Kari Waerness, Challenges of Child Care in a Globalizing World,
Ghana is set within the historical and comparative global context of the wider world,
focusing in particular on the Nordic experience. As Waerness reminds us, in all societies,
while cultural specificities have varied greatly from one society and time period to
another, at all times and in all locations child care has posed complex challenges for those
individuals caught up in its daily ramifications and dealing with its continuous demands. In
addition challenges are posed in the communities to which children and their carers belong.
What is crucial and universal to these challenges is the extended period of vulnerable,
needy helplessness of the growing human infant and in particular its continuous requirement
for frequent and lengthy feeding and then very careful weaning onto solid nutritious
foods. In addition there is the overwhelming need for socio-psychological, emotional and
physical stimulation, necessary for optimal development.
Her use of the Nordic example for comparison and contrast is salutary, as it comes
from a region of the world with the highest levels of human development, as measured
by globally recognized indices of the UN and from a region which values highly its
concept and apparent achievement of gender equality. However as Waerness stresses the
Western feminist movement from the sixties did not make the mother child dyad the
centre of its ideological stance and discussion. Indeed there was rather a tendency to value
women’s liberation from motherhood! Moreover the most recent Nordic policies on gender
equality, including on employment leave after a birth, attempt to treat the mother and
father as identical, thus apparently ignoring biological difference, including the existence
of mammary glands only in the female and her physical capacity to breast feed!
At the same time the issues of extended (exclusive) breast feeding (4 -6 months) and
careful responsive weaning have been taken up in a big way by United Nations agencies
- WHO and UNICEF and have become global policy. In fact mounting evidence from
research of different disciplines continues to demonstrate their extreme importance for infant
survival, well being and optimal development. But as Waerness stresses, not only is there
great inequality in parents’ capacity to practice the global norms prescribed, but there is
also the often overlooked additional responsibility of parents to rear human beings and
to socialize their children to become responsible members of their own cultures. The
biological/nutritional aspects of child care tend to be stressed at the expense of the socio-
psychological, at least in some circles. At the same time the mothers’ psychological and
practical needs for care may be overlooked and yet post partum maternal depression is a
globally serious phenomenon increasingly well documented and studied and widely reported
to be rising!
The current truth, as Waerness emphasizes, is that child care practices differ greatly
around the globe for a wide variety of reasons, related to economy, polity, history and
culture. Moreover the prevalent norms in a particular society are subject to change,
sometimes radically, over time. Now most societies are undergoing such significant
transformations of one kind and another that their traditional norms for infant care may
be either inadequate or impossible to practice. Moreover there are known fashions and
fads in baby care as in other areas of life and these change over time, sometimes quite
rapidly. As Waerness notes an important challenge now is to improve knowledge about
how globalization processes change conditions for child care and alter established
traditions, so that new professional knowledge and standards can be better adapted to
suit different local realities and constraints.
Waerness also puts the issue of family change in Ghana into world wide, historical
perspective, by noting that in the second half of the twentieth century family institutions
have globally undergone tremendous transformations, weakening traditional norms and
practices. Among the drivers of such change everywhere have been the processes of
urbanization and proletarianization, involving massive labour migrations and dispersal of
kin and the increase in female maintained domestic groups. Thus Ghana is not alone in
undergoing such profound familial transformations which have been remarked for some
Looking at the infant itself, as Waerness stresses, in order to understand the problems of
breast feeding in contemporary society, in a way that would be more relevant for social
policy, analyses need to be more embedded in their different social and cultural contexts,
than a purely medical or biological perspective permits. Multi disciplinary approaches
are required, sifting evidence from several different disciplines and using their varied
lenses to analyse and assess outcomes. It is such embedding of child care practices in
local socio-cultural and economic niches which is attempted in chapters that follow.
Meanwhile, from the point of view of the mother, the conflicting demands made upon
her have increased rapidly in the past decade or more. On the one hand the need for
prolonged exclusive breast feeding (4 -6 weeks) appears medically infallible and is stressed
on all sides by lactation experts. On the other hand she is being drawn more than ever
out of the home into less flexible occupational contexts, where it is increasingly difficult
to take a suckling infant and the work is not compatible with child carrying and
feeding. At the same time her traditional social supports, the allo-parents, described below,
have to a large extent disappeared. As Waerness then admits, we can well understand,
from the evidence in several of the chapters which follow, why the infant death rate in
Ghana remains unacceptably high, as do the rates of underweight, stunting and wasting,
- even among the offspring of educated mothers. For contrary to many expectations
education per se is not a universal panacea for mothers or for their children. Indeed for
many women around the globe better education and more employment are causing even
more severe conflicts between their reproductive and productive role demands and
responsibilities as parents and workers outside the home.
This is why the Nordic experience is of special interest. For the Nordic countries have
managed to achieve relatively high levels of fertility, breast feeding and female
employment through provision of comparatively lengthy, paid maternity leaves, as well as
breaks and spaces for breast feeding in the work place and publicly subsidized care
services for children under school age. But nationally disagreement, discussion and even
confrontation continue concerning the length of leave and whether male as well as female
parents should take it and accordingly how the optimum breast feeding schedule can be
put in place!
Meanwhile a crucial change ongoing worldwide, which Waerness highlights, is that in
a globalizing, market driven world, where gold and money are the most admired
commodities, the demands of the market and paid employment in an occupation are
increasingly given precedence, even over reproduction and the role of mother and
associated maternal responsibilities. On the one hand the stick of insecurity and poverty
pushes individuals into the market and on the other hand there is the desired carrot of
more and more consumer goods and expensive experiences.
Accordingly, given the fact of employed mothers and the relative absence of kin support
in most cases, many fathers are being further pressurized to share more of the parenting
activities, a matter taken up below in chapter 12. The relative success of the pressure is
seen to depend upon the relative resources and power of the wife, (echoing evidence
collected from Accra couples forty and more years ago Oppong C. 2008). But of course
there are also class and ethnic dimensions to the challenge of who should care for the
child in the mother’s absence. Rich women in Norway and elsewhere are paying immigrant
carers to help them with their conflicting tasks, but that is another story. It is also one
echoed in these pages, as absent mothers with sufficient money, employ related and
unrelated teenage girls and others to care for their babies in their homes, sometimes
with disappointing results (See chapters 11,12 and 13).
It could be concluded that there is a need everywhere to find and develop models of
social policy which put the mother child dyad and their needs at the centre of the stage.
This is advice that has been given on a number of occasions by scholars and experts in
the past, but as Waerness reminds us, as she cites two of them, it has been consistently
Now one might venture to add among major detractors from this concern are some of
the very women “gender experts” themselves, who appear to have totally absorbed the
pervasive, neoliberal, market oriented values, concerning freedom from family responsibility,
accelerated material consumption and rampant individualism; considering empowerment of
women to mean mainly access to boardrooms and to salaries equivalent to the highest
paid males! Concern with the occupational “glass ceiling” for women workers has often
taken the feminist focus away from the plight of the millions of women laboring at the
bottom of the occupational ladder.
Chapter 2 by Christine Oppong is on Biosocial Aspects of Child Care in Ghana: decades of
Change. It briefly calls attention to recent work in the field of human evolution and
human behavior, which has emphasized and provided evidence of the importance of
cooperative reproduction, that is cooperation between female kin in child rearing and the
prevalence of what has been termed allo-parenting, as well as fostering of older children
by non-parental kin. Pre and post reproductive stage females - that is older siblings (of
mothers and babies) and grandmothers - have long played key parts in child care, enabling
mothers to maintain their necessary subsistence tasks and give birth again after three
or so years. Recently medical and demographic evidence has been analysed to demonstrate
how such help serves to promote infant survival and the case has been argued that such
allo-parenting has not only been important for human’s reproductive success, but has
been an integral part of the very development of our humanity (Hrdy S. B. 2009). For
babies need such social interaction to become human. They may also need such attention
for survival. Micro studies in Ghana have demonstrated how grand maternal help may be
crucial for the survival of seriously malnourished children.
This chapter also refers to ethnographic evidence relevant to the historical state of families
in Ghana and what has been happening to reshape them in the context of escalating
globalization processes, in particular increasing social and spatial mobility and insecurity.
A brief indication is given of where families have come from, in terms of the functions
of descent groups and traditional systems of kinship and marriage of the colonial, pre
independence era, and the directions in which they seem to be moving. In particular ways
are mentioned in which sex and reproduction were formerly carefully regulated and
supported, through enforcement of sexual abstinence of nursing mothers and rules shaping
marital and extra marital sexual congress, with a view to promoting birth spacing, infant
survival and development and maternal wellbeing. The essence of the family traditions
was potential substitutability of actors to ensure survival and security (at death, divorce or
role conflict), sharing of responsibilities and tasks, solidarity of siblings, long term
reciprocity between kin in the same and adjacent generations and continuous cooperation
in child rearing.
Complementarity and cooperation characterized these systems, as well as established rules
and norms of conduct. Important safety nets were built into these systems to deal with
the vulnerable widows, orphans and divorcees. The goal was pursued of child bearing at
well spaced intervals throughout the female reproductive span, from physical maturity
until grandparenthood was reached (possibly around the age of forty or earlier). After
which mile stone a woman’s task was often to help rear the grandchildren. These customs
and traditions noted in chapters below have now widely disappeared or are the subject
of conflict and difference and the associated values are waning, as a result of many
factors, including teachings of Christian churches, which have all served to break down
and weaken the community sanctions which supported the customary rules and norms.
As elsewhere at the heart of the changes ongoing affecting child care are changes in
the gender roles of females and males - in their occupations and as parents, spouses, house
wives/husbands, kin and members of communities. At the same time, as kin and community
surveillance is relaxed, individuals are diverting more time to their own pursuits including
both life enhancing and life destroying pastimes (such as alcohol). The chapter closes with
a brief highlight of some statistics on nutrition, health and population, indicating that for
some time there have been serious challenges to overcome in terms of persistent infant
hunger and stunted development at all levels of material wellbeing.
Chapter 3 by Delali Badasu on Child Care: Global and National Goals, Policies and Norms
notes the ideological and policy contexts, both global and national, within which child
bearing and rearing take place. Pronouncements of UN agencies and government
departments and pressures from bilateral donors and NGOs have been followed up by
various programs and events at the local level. These in various ways have impacted
the prevalent norms, rules and aspirations of parents and others, and by diverse means
they affect the resources available, the behavioral choices made and the goals of those caring
Badasu notes the key global parts played by specialist agencies of the UN, including
the WHO and UNICEF. These, since the nineteen-nineties have been involved in research
and reviews of evidence on care and nutrition of the young child. At the same time the
UN and other agencies have been deeply involved in the recording, documenting and
improving the status’s of women and establishing the comparative global dimensions of
human development and its multiple indicators.
At the present time there is concern to see whether the development goals for children’s
wellbeing laid out in the Millenium Summit will be met. Such endeavors and related
pronouncements have had visible impacts on national government policies and programs
and have brought gender issues and child development concerns further up the agenda in
the world’s media. Ghana has been no exception and in 2001 a Ministry for Women and
Children’s Affairs was established and the Department of Social Welfare, the Ghana Health
Service and Nutrition Unit have all played whatever parts they could in the promotion of
child health, nutrition and other areas of well being. A number of programs have been
initiated as part of the country’s social protection initiative and in 2005 an Early Childhood
Care and Development Policy was adopted. Obviously as elsewhere the reach and impact
of such policies and programs is constrained by resources allocated and available.
At the same time as Badasu admits, like in many other countries development of Day
Care facilities remains inadequate to meet the escalating demands of working parents.
And simultaneously the HIV/AIDS pandemic has also brought further challenges of care
provision, which as research demonstrates is gendered ( See chapter 8 below). Fostering of
children by non parental kin, especially grandmothers, remains important, during labour
migration and family crises ( see chapters 5 & 8 ).
In conclusion Badasu notes that since the nineteen-nineties global human development
paradigms and UN agency reviews and pronouncements have emphasized the importance
of care to the state of children’s wellbeing, especially hunger and under nutrition.
Government has responded in a number of ways and in the case of feeding, emphasis on
the importance of breast feeding in education messages has managed to raise its
previously falling levels. However more than a fifth of under fives are underweight, which
threatens their development and survival. Badasu finally makes the point that among the
challenges facing researchers at the present time is the task of uncovering the negative
factors currently affecting women’s capacity to nurture their children as they did in the
Such factors are the subject of several of the chapters to follow.
Chapters 4 and 5 take up the topic of co-parenting (fostering) and social parenthood among
the Dagomba and Nzima. Katherine Abu discusses Child Fostering in Tamale Thirty years
Ago. Douglas Frimpong Nnuroh writes on Fostering and Social Parenthood in Ellemebelle
Nzima Today. These chapters both indicate continuity and change over time in customary
practices in the North and South. They do this by examining the traditional practice of
child fostering in new urban and rural community contexts.
Abu’s chapter takes us back in time to 1981 and looks at how at that time there were
elements of both tradition and change in how sibling caretaking/fostering was continuing
to operate in Dagbon. An important observation was on the beginnings of class formation
and the growing differentiation in the way children were being treated as they grew up.
Another important point is the continuing impacts of the diverse traditional norms and
practices of the different cultural traditions present in the urban population. Fostering
remained a mechanism for coping with care of children after parental death, divorce or
migration. It also remained a mechanism for women to increase assistance available to
them in their multiple tasks.
Among the educated there was a new kind of voluntary fostering with a clear gendered
pattern - girls were overwhelmingly found in service fosterage with the foster parent a
woman and the girl not in school. Educated mothers were finding solutions to their
dilemmas of working away from home. The education of other people’s daughters was
the price. Dagomba women got girls from 7-12 years of age (mean 8.6 years). They
were expected to stay and help them until they married, at which time they would get
pots and pans to set up in their new home. They tended to obtain such helpers from their
own mother’s more distant and poorer relatives, who would expect some skill training .
The need for their child minding services was the major consideration. Their own
brothers’ daughters would expect to be sent to school and that would defeat the object.
This type of domestic service has been found in households all over the country and
has varied considerably in hours of work expected and type of training and amount of
remuneration expected, as well as degrees of freedom allowed. Whatever way it is
described it is clearly child labour, when school age children are involved. It is an old
tradition that dies hard but which cannot survive if all children are enrolled in full time
Chapter 5 also describes traditions among the Nzima involving shared parenting and
fostering. It has long been an institution providing care for orphans. Now that many
mothers and fathers in the area have migrated over the border to Abidjan and elsewhere
looking for work and incomes, many grandparents, especially grandmothers are left to
care for the children left behind. Grandparents often have few resources. Frimpong Nnurroh
gives an impression of maternal grandmothers, increasingly burdened by care of migrants’
children and fathers reneging on their paternal duties.
What do the problem oriented ethnographies of the next six chapters document? They
describe the situations, activities and relationships of mothers and grandmothers in villages
and towns in the north, south, east and west of the country, from different culture areas,
speaking different languages. They and their families have all been affected by population
dislocations and labour migrations of one kind or another – rural to rural, rural to urban,
national and international. Their kin are scattered. Spouses are often separated and far
away. The work loads of women have escalated. They are trying against all odds to
combine hard work in farms and markets with caring for babies and toddlers. But the
customary kin support enjoyed in previous generations is lacking. Sometimes
grandmothers are the ones left behind looking after the children, while the mothers and
fathers travel abroad for work of one kind or another. Some mothers are already dead,
killed by AIDS. Some fathers have absconded and found new partners and had more
children elsewhere. Some kin are embroiled in disputes about who has responsibility for
what in the family.
A pervasive impression painted is that traditional systems of kinship and marriage,
involving successful reproduction have largely broken down, - often with dire consequences
for mothers and little children. Babies are described lying in the sun in open markets
as their mothers try to eke out a living. Others are tied in cloths on the backs of
women trying to sell heavy containers of water on the streets of urban centres. Some
urban dwellers could have asked relatives to come and help them but they have no
space – living in tiny rooms in squatters’ camps or unfinished buildings or small cubicles
in crowded multiple compounds. Some working mothers have left their toddlers to the
tender mercy of unrelated, overworked neighbours. Others have put them in crowded,
unsanitary creches for long working days.
Chapters 6 and 7 indicate how kin support for child care has been dwindling in the North
West area among the Dagaaba/Dagara people. Moreover the gendered division of
agricultural labor has been changing in the absence of fit migrant men, with disastrous
consequences for mothers left behind. Edward Nanbigne’s chapter is entitled “Helping them
grow their teeth,” Care and Conflict among the Dagaaba of Northern Ghana. He
demonstrates how care is increasingly contested and subject to conflict and often stretched
to the limit, with responsibilities for babies and toddlers more and more devolving onto
lone mothers, who often have to take on men’s jobs on farms. As he notes, nursing
mothers were traditionally prohibited from doing any strenuous work that would be bad
for their health and that of their babies. But now increasingly the brunt of the burden of
farm work in Dagao is shifting to the women, who were traditionally not allowed to farm
certain crops such as millet and yam. Increasingly Dagaare mothers are having to do the
back breaking job of tilling the land and weeding, as well as their own traditional
agricultural labour of sowing and harvesting and domestic work and child care. The able
bodied fathers have migrated to better farming areas in the Brong Ahafo region. The
result is that children become malnourished, because they do not get much attention.
As Nanbigne stresses this is because mothers now have less time to care for their
children, (breast feeding on demand). So infants are introduced to solid food at a very
early age. Meanwhile young girls go to school, so that the traditional system of fostering,
whereby they formerly helped to care for their father’s sister’s baby, has collapsed.
Whereas in the past the grandmother just kept an eye on the situation now, though
elderly and in need of care herself, she may be left in sole charge. Nanbigne writes of
the tragedy that as mothers now spend more time on the farm or gathering vegetables in
the fields, there is less time for child care and even where there is food available, the
time to feed the child regularly is usually not available to the mother.
The subsequent chapter by Cuthbert Baataar tells a somewhat similar tale, in which he
highlights the family conflicts and breakdowns of relationships. The chapter is entitled
Dwindling Kin Support for Childcare among the Dagara. He describes what he terms
“Cataclysmic changes in family relations....” which put the already fragile and inadequate
childcare arrangements and the support network on a course towards virtual
collapse.....There is, he stresses, a new wave of misunderstanding and discord between
families and in conjugal unions, of which the effect is often divorce, abandonment and
neglect of wives and children and increased tension and unhappiness. Meanwhile there
is an increase in the numbers of children born to single mothers and a decrease in co-
resident fathers. He observes that in view of the conflicts and changes ongoing there is
a diminished quality of parenting and increased unpleasantness among relatives.
Furthermore instead of intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, respect, guidance and
mutual assistance there is now independence, individualism and even bitterness and
disrespect and unhelpfulness. Elders are even angry and alienated and they are viewed by
young ones as having become careless or lazy in family affairs. Alcohol is consumed by
old, young, female and male. Customs supporting reproduction and child care have broken
down. Whereas formerly grandmothers would stop having children so they could
concentrate on care of their grandchildren, now some are still giving birth and also need
help at the same time as their own adult daughters and grandchildren. This situation
leads to conflicts over scarce domestic resources, including care.
In addition Baataar notes that there has been a breakdown of sexual control and
reproduction. Traditional moral codes (linked to the earth spirit and the ancestors) are
being thrown overboard in the name of Christianity. In the past premarital sex was
sanctioned in the community. Songs were sung publicly to disgrace people and irresponsible
parents were also publicly ridiculed. Now because of early sexual encounters and a
breakdown of traditional marriage rules and practices there is a generation of immature,
often unwed parents, ill prepared for the challenges of infant rearing. In addition the
splitting of old residential compounds and separate living means that mothers and
children lack the context of sociable and supportive kin. Like the previous chapter he
notes that mothers are overworked and too busy to breast feed frequently and there are
no cases of bottle feeding with cow’s milk or infant formula.
Is it any wonder that levels of infant under nutrition are very high in the region?
Chapter 8 The Resilience of Krobo Grandmothers in the Care of AIDS Orphans by Deborah
Atobrah shows how, when fathers are absent or as in this case unknown for one reason or
another, and mothers are dead, it is maternal grandmothers who are mainly left to cope,
sometimes quite alone and often in very straightened circumstances. In some cases the
deceased mother’s sister takes charge and occasionally the paternal grandmother. The
case she describes is one in which migrant mothers, seeking income abroad, have died
from AIDS. Her study was undertaken in Manya Krobo district in the Eastern Region.
She sets her description of the present within the context of traditional Krobo provision
for orphans. What she describes and calls attention to is a crisis situation of deprivation,
unmet need and human suffering. But she ultimately stresses in her title what she views
as the courageous resilience of the grandmothers.
The subsequent chapters 9, 10 and 11 describe how poor, hard working mothers, far from
kin, and frequently without the support of the fathers of their infants, are trying to cope in
difficult circumstances. They carry and sell water. They buy and sell fish in markets.
They do all kinds of income earning in Accra. Support for child care is minimal and
frequently sub standard. They struggle against all odds and do the best they can often
with great fortitude and courage.
Chapter 9 by Adam Bawa on Child Care among Water Sellers in Tamale takes us back to
the Northern Region and an urban setting. The water selling mothers described in this
chapter are mainly bereft of the potential support of kin and husbands because of various
crises and dislocations in their lives. But a further negative aspect of child bearing and
rearing, which this chapter highlights, is the disappearance of important traditions that
formerly supported new mothers and their babies.
Formerly among the Dagomba a new mother would return to her own mother to be
cared for up to 2 /3 years after birth. This extended “maternity leave” was designed to
provide support and care for the new mother and baby (especially if there were no other
women and older girls in her household). At the same time it preserved the period of
post partum sexual abstinence, thus serving to space births. However this beneficial
practice is dwindling as is the period of seclusion and lying in after birth
Again the custom forbidding grandmothers to continue child bearing after their daughters
began to bring forth has also fallen into disuse. In addition in the past polygynous
marriage was ideally an institution whereby arduous domestic chores and child care
were shared among co-resident women. The senior most woman ( wife or sister of the
male head) organized the tasks. But in more mobile, diverse and challenging times,
there is evidence of jealousy, conflict and a break down of rules which formerly ensured
cowife cooperation and support of young mothers. In the meantime men may fail to marry
but yet have multiple partners, who vie with each other to reproduce, instead of obeying
customary birth spacing rules. As Adam notes all these changes have potentially negative
consequences for mothers and child survival and development
The story told by Peter Atakuma Agboza is similar in some ways. His chapter 10 is
entitled Infants and Toddlers in Dzemeni Market. His narrative is about people whose
livelihoods have been distorted and families dislocated by a big, famous development
project - the building of the Akosombo dam and the flooding of the Volta Lake. These
events led to social disorganization and population displacement for local communities. He
studied a number of mothers trading in fish in Dzemeni market to provide a living for
themselves and their dependent children. Traditional kin support is almost extinct.
Husbands mainly visit briefly at best and sail away looking for better fish and find new
families. He describes the effects of the mothers’ harsh livelihoods on their small children.
It is virtually impossible for them to attend adequately to the needs of their babies and
toddlers. They travel long distances. They sit in the sun to sell their wares in markets
with no cover or shade or sanitation. New mothers are forced to take 3 month old infants
to dry in the scorching sun in the market. They have no time to go to the nearby clinic
with their children. He describes the infant and toddler vulnerability and daily suffering
and frequent stoicism. Children are depicted emaciated with extended bellies and light
fluffy hair. Itinerant mothers are always travelling and working and have little time to
ensure proper feeding, so their infants are under nourished. In order to cope mothers’
survival strategies involve drastic cuts in time for infant and toddler care. The energies
of children as young as 5 years are used to care for babies. Even 4 year olds carry
baby brothers and sisters on their backs (wrapped in a cloth) for hours in the day to enable
their mothers to concentrate on trading and making meagre profits to purchase necessities
for all their children and survive. Small babies are dried in the sun and given water and
food early. Force feeding is common to compel children to eat and fill their bellies with
starch. Children are commonly involved in accidents. Mothers have to decide whether to
concentrate on the survival of all their children, through earning enough to feed them all
or to concentrate on the needs of an infant or toddler. Peter Agbodza concludes that
mothers carried out adjustments that ensured the survival of all; to concentrate attention
on just one child, the youngest, could lead to the death of all the rest.
In chapters 11 and 13 Cases of Crisis: Child Care among Ewe Migrants in Accra and
Maternal Education, Child Care and Wellbeing among Accra Migrants Delali Badasu looks
at how Ewe migrants from rural areas to the city of Accra have been forced to abandon
many of their traditional practices because of the space and other constraints in the
town. The Ewe migrants, like all the other populations mentioned, come from a cultural
background of strong kin ties, solidarity and interdependence. But close kin
(grandmothers) cannot even come and coreside to look after a new mother and baby, when
the home consists of one chamber only. Yet in traditional Ewe society care of children
is the duty of the lineage group and experienced female relatives normally provided all
the needed ante natal and post natal services free of charge. Moreover the grandmother
also traditionally had to stop child bearing, so that she could concentrate on the
grandchild. A week’s confinement and pampering with good food used to make the new
mother regain her strength and mothers then used to stay with their parents until they
stopped breast feeding or the child walked. Two to three years was the minimum birth
Now various urban constraints and conditions are causing crises for new mothers and
babies, even for educated mothers. Poor sanitation, over crowding, pollution and traffic jams
in the city are a daily bane to all, as are inadequate public health, social services and the
lack of affordable crèches. Mothers also complain of the incompetence of house maids.
Even educated mothers have under nourished and frequently sick infants/toddlers (more
than 30% (N=50) were stunted and underweight). Creches used for 3 month olds are
inadequate. Mothers lack time for feeding children so it is not surprising that Badasu
observed signs of anorexia and low birth weights are not uncommon, as mothers tend to
work till the last day before delivery. Time constraints to good child care among urban
mothers are aggravated by inadequate social infrastructure ( transport, housing etc).
Significantly Badasu provides clear observations of the fact that infants can still suffer
deprivation of adequate care and be under nourished in with educated, better off mothers.
Finally chapter 12 by Benjamin Kobina Kwansa “Do Men also sell garden-eggs?” Paternal
Child Care among Teachers in Accra is about educated, urban, parental adaptations to child
care demands, in the face of minimal kin or community support, in the urban households
of teachers, who are mainly migrants to Accra. Key findings here are the varied and
dynamic gendered divisions of tasks between parents. Kwansa concentrates in particular
on the fathers, showing how ideally their care of their child starts before birth and
continues through the child’s development, changing in type as the child grows. There
is considerable variation in fathers’ levels of participation. Additional help in the house
comes from relatives’ children fostered and strangers’ children brought in to help in the
house from age 8 years onwards. The amount of time teachers spent with their children
and sharing of domestic tasks varied significantly according to the wife’s employment,
demonstrating that there were some couples in which wives’ occupational statuses and
earning power was equivalent to or higher than their husbands and that the latter were
the fathers who spent most time on child care and domesticity.
Though time was felt to be in short supply so was money and no teacher contemplated
asking his wife to stay at home and look after the children. Kwansa’s conclusion is that in
most homes where both spouses contributed to the household expenditure, there seemed
to be a form of egalitarian decision making and the more equal the financial contributions
the greater likelihood of male participation in child care and domestic tasks. Fathers
were also more likely to participate when other forms of help were scarce. Grandmothers
were the most frequent sources of support. These modern men were also taking cues on
fatherhood from the media which or course by now reflects ideas and values from across
What all the chapters indicate is that changes are happening in gender roles and relations,
in family systems and in child care. In addition what many of these essays show in
various ways is that there is a tremendous child care crisis in Ghana, - just as there is
in many other countries in the current globalizing world. Traditional kin supports have
collapsed or are dwindling or in process of disintegration. Parental work schedules are
frequently inflexible, harsh and demanding. Work places are often far from home and
where the child is. Travel to and from work can be grueling. The demand by parents
for child care is massive. Dubious creches spring up like mushrooms. But are they
monitored? Are they adequate? Do they fulfil the needs of parents and children?
Everywhere there is evidence of the pressures and predominance of the market forces,
encouraging labour migration and through the insecurity and low level of wages,
pressurizing all family members to be employed and then to have to pay for services
such as child care which used to be given on a reciprocal basis in families.
The separation of production and reproduction; the inflexibility of work schedules; the
inadequacy of maternity leaves; the poor quality of much substitute care - are all taking
their toll to some extent. In summary it has been argued that mother care has been
disrupted in Ghana and elsewhere in the region and that babies’ traditional entitlements and
infants’ capabilities have been eroded and suppressed (Oppong C. 1999; 2001).
These essays provide much food for thought for anyone concerned with social issues
and human development and economic development in Ghana. They make us think about
the adequacy or effectiveness of rural development and agricultural policies and programs;
about nutrition and its many sided nature; about urban planning and transport and low
cost housing needs. Meanwhile it is clear that at the moment, as in many other populations
around the world, the brunt of challenges surrounding child care and development are
being born mostly by working mothers, who are at the forefront of the feminized labour
forces, on which economies increasingly depend.
A question needs to be posed in many fora and thoroughly discussed and addressed.
Has there been too much rhetoric about women’s empowerment and need for increased
labor force participation and too little thought or effort given to the issue of who cares
for the baby if the mother (father and older siblings, grandmother and other kin) are not
available to care and what effect might this be having on the human development of the
Fortunately in Ghana a number of public policies and programs have already been put
in place, which have for example improved the previously very low rates of breast
feeding and have sought to lower risks of infant under nutrition. This small volume will
have been a success if it helps to raise the problems described in more classroom debates
and seminar discussions, and in more policy meetings and if it helps to put issues relating
to maternity protection and infant development more squarely at the centre of social
development concerns. It should hopefully also spur more social scientists to carry out
problem oriented ethnographies in different populations and communities in the country,
documenting more of the myriad of changes happening in families in Ghana in today’s
Etzioni A. 1993 The Spirit of Community: Rights Responsibilities and the Communitarian
Agenda New York Crown Publishers Inc.
McGadney-Douglass B. F., R.L. Douglass, N. A. Apt, P. Antwi ( 2005 ) Ghanaian Mothers
Helping Adult Daughters: the survival of Malnourished Grandchildren Journal of the
Association for Research on Mothering vol 7 no 2pp 112-124.
Oppong C. Houghton B. & C.Okali 1975 "Womanpower: Retrograde steps in Ghana", in
African Studies Review, December, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, pp. 71-84.
Oppong C with W. Bleek 1982 "Economic models and having children: Some evidence from
Kwahu, Ghana", in Africa, Vol. 52, No. 3.
Oppong C. 1999 Infants’ Entitlements and babies Capabilities: Explaining Infant Hunger.
Institute of African Studies Research Review vol. 15. No 2. Legon.
Oppong C. 2001 Globalization and the Disruption of Mother care in Sub Saharan Africa
Research Review vol. 17 no 1. Lwgon.
Oppong C. 2008 Marriage among a Matrilineal Elite. Cambridge University Press.
Stompka P. 2001 The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma WZB Papers Berlin
Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin fur Sozialforschung.
Therborn G. 2000 Globalizations: Dimensions, Historical Waves, Regional Effects, Normative
Governance International Sociology June. Vol 15 (2) pp 151-179.
A warning was sounded about these processes beginning in the mid seventies (See Oppong et al. 1975)
It should be noted that deficits in parenting have been highlighted elsewhere since the early nineties eg
Etzioni (1993) on the USA.
See McGadney-Douglass B. F., R.L. Douglass, N. A. Apt & P. Antwi (2005).