Women's fears and men's anxieties: the impact of family planning on gender relations in northern Ghana

Stud Fam Plann. 1999 Mar;30(1):54-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4465.1999.00054.x.


The Navrongo experiment, a family planning and health project in northern Ghana, has demonstrated that an appropriately designed, community-based family planning program can produce a change in contraceptive practice that had been considered unattainable in such a setting. Simultaneously, however, evidence suggests that newly introduced family planning services and contraceptive availability can activate tension in gender relations. In this society, where payment of bridewealth signifies a woman's requirement to bear children, there are deeply ingrained expectations about women's reproductive obligations. Physical abuse and reprisals from the extended family pose substantial threats to women; men are anxious that women who practice contraception might be unfaithful. Data from focus-group discussions with men and women are examined in this report and highlight the strains on gender relations resulting from contraceptive use. The measures taken to address this problem and methods of minimizing the risk of adverse social consequences are discussed.

PIP: The perspectives of older and younger men and women and village leaders concerning the impact of family planning on gender relations were distilled from a series of 36 focus group discussions held during 1994-96 in conjunction with the launching of the Navrongo experiment in northern Ghana. The primary aim of the focus groups was to monitor the community's reaction to the introduction of family planning and health services and provide feedback to project managers. Focus group participants made clear that, although contraception can reconcile a husband's sexual desire with the wife's desire to space births, it also generates marital discord, wife beating, and opposition from members of the extended family. Violence against women was considered justified by 51% of female and 43% of male respondents if the wife used a contraceptive method without the husband's knowledge. Women feared that their husband's disapproval of family planning could lead to withholding of affection or sex or even divorce. In the traditional local society, payment of bridewealth in cows and sheep signifies the wife's obligation to bear children. Some men worry that their wives might be unfaithful if they used contraception or that contraceptive use might create conflict among multiple wives. The possibility that women may act independently is regarded as a threat to the strong patriarchal tradition. The Navrongo project has attempted to respond to community concerns by acting through existing local institutions whenever possible while still supporting women and their autonomy.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / ethnology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Attitude to Health* / ethnology
  • Coitus / psychology*
  • Family Planning Services* / methods
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Ghana
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Marriage / ethnology
  • Marriage / psychology*
  • Men / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Women / psychology*