The dignity and human rights of older people in Ghana: Exploring the loopholes in the legislative system

Author: Felix Nana Kofi Ofori, PhD, REACT Humanitarian Network, Oxford, UK.

In the Ghanaian society, elderly people are cherished and respected as sources of wisdom, integrity, knowledge and service. However, there are pockets of harmful community practices that demonise older people as witches responsible for misfortunes in the communities. These are perennially subjected to undignified and inhumane abuses, especially in some communities in the northern parts of Ghana.

Examples of such abuses include denying them food, beating them up and chaining them to trees under very harsh conditions. These practices reflect gaps in the legislation and undermine Ghana’s image internationally. This article explores some of the underlying factors of older people’s abuses, existing gaps in legislative instruments, and the role of government.

Factors responsible for Old People’s Abuses

Besides cultural beliefs, several factors are attributable to the violation of older people’s human rights and dignity. For example, a commentator professes that “with decline in reliance on the extended family for social and financial support, older people, especially elderly women have not only become vulnerable to poverty but also designated as witches, inviting evil and misfortune upon the lives of young people, socio-economically”.1 Other related factors include:

  • Traditional practices that degrade older people as agents of evil
  • Archaic ideas that regard women as subordinates to men
  • Some cultural beliefs that demonise older people as worthless and a burden 

Notwithstanding these factors which violate the human rights of older people, a chasm exists in the legislative instruments deepening their predicament. 

Existing Gaps in Legislative Instruments

Gaps exist in both legislative instruments and political decisions, strengthening the hands of violators of older people’s rights in Ghana; especially, in the northern regions where older people are brazenly abused.

First, a normative gap exists in both international human rights law and domestic constitutional provisions because the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and related conventions2 do not specifically define the rights or sanctions to be adopted against violators of older people’s dignity and human rights.

Similarly, the 1992 Constitution of Ghana3 provides no exclusive provision aimed at safeguarding the human rights and dignity of older people. In the absence of any clearly enunciated provisions or rights, older people’s rights are suppressed with their abusers emboldened.

Secondly, implementation gaps also contribute to older people’s undignified treatment. Although the rights and obligations relating to the protection of older people exist in law, successive governments have lacked the political will to start or maintain the requisite procedures to ensure that older people’s human rights are respected.

Closely associated with political indifference is the determination among politicians and public servants, who divert resources to pursue their selfish interests or hide under alleged lack of resources to perpetuate older people’s misery.4

Thirdly, leadership and monitoring deficiencies have threatened the rights of elderly people in Ghana. The absence of an independent body or mechanism mandated to investigate crimes against older people or ensure that Ghana complies with its signed commitments under international human rights law has deprived older people of their State’s accountability and protection.5

Lastly, the lack of reliable information and statistics on these issues has allowed the sustained violation of older people’s human rights in some communities in Ghana. Due to this gap, substantive decisions on the human rights of older people are suppressed or distorted through disaggregated data and statistics. This not only hides the real predicaments of older people but also prevents experts from performing their duties to protect older people against abuses.6

There is little doubt in respect of the above, that governance is critical to protecting the dignity of the elderly in Ghana, as in other jurisdictions.

The Role of Government/ Leadership 

It is an uncontested premise that government/political leadership is essential to the attainment of human rights and dignity. Thus, Ghana’s political leadership has an obligation to promote social justice to all citizens in the country without discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age or creed.7

This has implications for Ghanaians, especially older people whose human rights, dignity and livelihoods are violated and suppressed through illegal and exploitative measures. Equally, failing these obligations undermine the moral and governing authority of the government whose primary duty is to ensure and preserve the dignity of older people through the instrumentality of proactive strategies.


This article has explored the causes of maltreating older people, especially elderly women, gaps in legislative provisions and the role of leadership. The view is that proactive measures combined with compassionate policies will help preserve the dignity of older people. 


  1. Adinkrah M. Witchcraft, Witches and Violence in Ghana. 2015; New York: Berghahn.
  2. UNDESA, Current Status of the Social Situation, Wellbeing, Participation in Development and rights of Older People Worldwide, 2011, p.3.
  3. The Constitution of the Republic of Ghana. 1992; Ghana: Government of Ghana.
  4. 4. McInerney-Lackford S, Sano H. Human rights Indicators in Development: An Introduction, Washington, D.C., World Bank, 2010.
  5. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (E/2012/51), April 2012, Pursuant to the General Assembly resolution 48/141.
  6. Submissions to the Secretary-General report, GA res. 65/182, available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/OlderPersons/Pages/Submissions.aspx
  7. Micheletti M, Stolle D. Mobilizing Consumers to take responsibility for global social justice. The annals of the American academy of political and social science. 2007 May; 611(1):157-75.

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