“Behind every great man there’s a great woman”: surely one of the most irritating clichés routinely used to devalue the contribution of women in this global sexist patriarchy of ours. That it still has traction nationally and at an individual level was brought home to me last night while listening to a panel of Ghanaian women speaking of their experiences in improving the status of women in the republic. I was at Womankind Worldwide’s Ghanaian women driving success event and the clear message was that, although the status of women has been greatly improved since a constitutional democracy was established in 1992, there is still much work to do to establish women’s issues and rights as equally important.
One might think, having your country’s economy listed as The World’s Fastest Growing Economy by the IMF and a predicted inflow of capital now that commercialised oil production has started [via] as well as being declared a Middle Income Economy [via], that the future for the republic is bright. However, financial indicators paint only one picture, and a very monochrome one at that: the reality is that many people remain poor and this has its own less visible costs.
Margaret Brew-Ward (Gender Centre) pointed out that discrimination against women and girls is a major issue, and old attitudes still prevail, particularly (but not exclusively) in the north of the country. A combination of modern laws and traditional practices too often means that the concerns of women and girls are often overlooked in such key areas as:
- Widow inheritance: Under customary law it is assumed that the welfare of widows and their children will be taken care of by the deceased’s kin. This often results in widows being forced into marriage to another member of their ex-husband’s family. Additionally, any children are often effectively relegated to the role of servants in the ‘new’ family.
- The education of girls: The education of the poor, especially rural girls and girls living with relatives in the urban areas, is a priority with initiatives to support the education of girls through to secondary level.
- The spread of HIV/AIDS has posed a major challenge to the Republic of Ghana in ensuring the welfare of the next generation. As part of the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the threat it poses for young people, programmes are under way to educate Ghanaians, particularly young people, about the risks of HIV/AIDS and ways to protect themselves against becoming infected and spreading the virus.
Also, much work is being done in education around first pregnancies: Although Ghana is a multiethnic country, there are common features in the traditional roles, status, responsibilities and socialisation processes for adolescents. ‘Adolescence’ is often understood to begin for women with menarche or initiation and ends with marriage or childbearing. For males, the period was marked by initiation or marriage. The practical outcome of this is that many women first find themselves pregnant in their early to mid teenage years.
- Gender-based violence/domestic violence against women is still far too commonplace and a project known as COMBAT is helping to change attitudes and greatly reduce the practice in Ashanti. Under this initiative, community-based anti-violence teams are set up with the aim of training local people in the laws about GBV/DV and conflict resolution so that COMBAT teams are able to step in as required to facilitate in negotiations between husbands and wives, escalating it to the police and courts if necessary
Bernice Sam (WiLDAF National Programme Coordinator) added that the status of women and women’s issues were being addressed locally and nationally. Policies evolve at a local level following discussion and involvement in social issues, and quotas and subsidies enable women to access governmental roles. As a result, the phrase women in politics now has wide acceptance, resulting in women’s voices being heard more clearly and more often. But although women’s issues are unarguably beginning to be foregrounded and taken seriously, a paradigm shift in attitudes is still required for progress to really begin. That can only happen over time, but with the tireless work of women like Margaret and Bernice, and appropriate support from organisations like Womankind, it’s to be hoped that the smaller positive changes will continue until sufficient momentum has been gained to enable women to take their rightful place throughout Ghana’s social, cultural and political life.
Photo of Bernice Sam of WILDAf, Womankind Chair Julie Ashdown, Margaret Brew Ward (Gender Centre) by kind permission of Womankind