by Roslyn Mould – president of Humanist Association of Ghana
Cover up, go to church every Sunday, do not have sex until you are married, learn how to cook, clean, wash and be obedient to your husband! These are the general things taught to me and emphasized by my society about all I had to be the perfect woman and ‘good wife’ to my husband someday.
Growing up in Ghana, life can be hard without the right level of education, social ties and lots of money but being a woman can really be tough anyhow for the rich or the poor. Our society shows us the differences between the sexes right from childhood. Girls do all the housework while boys go out to play with their friends after school. There are several issues that girls and women in Ghana face today and all can be stemmed from ancient traditional practices in the country, religious influences since colonial times, power play, social pressures, etc.
Domestic violence has been one major factor in our society, and although it cuts across all genders, women are the most victimised. According to the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana police service indicated that, at least 17,655 cases were reported to them in 2014 of which a greater portion was perpetuated against women. Non-maintenance topped the list with 6,158 cases while wife battery and assault followed with 5,212 cases. The unit also received 1,667 cases of threats.
The Deputy Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection at the time, Mr John Alexander Ackon described the rate of gender-based violence as alarming. He said, “The consequences of domestic violence, could be dire. Injury, death and broken homes could all result from violence in the home.”
Domestic violence could lead to loss of opportunity, isolation from family and friends, loss of income or work and homelessness. On the other hand, domestic violence could also result in emotional and psychological effects such as anxiety, depression or lowered sense of self-worth, poor health and physical injury or impairment. For women, Mr Ackon observed that the consequences of domestic violence were even greater. He said “according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), women are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, mental challenges, eating problems and sexual dysfunction as a result of violence”.
Violence against women throughout their life cycle is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between women and men. It is perpetuated by traditional and customary practices that accord women lower status in the family, workplace, community and society (United Nation (2010) The World Women 2010: Trends and Statistics).
I have observed that many of the cases involved marital rape or disagreeing with their male partners. A lot of women have been unable to leave abusive relationships because their families send them back to their partners when they escape and also because they have no way of supporting themselves or their children.
Last year, a university student was killed by her taxi driver boyfriend because she was not interested in the relationship anymore and this is one of many of such fatal cases.
Schoolgirls who are unable to afford menstrual sanitary pads are forced to stay home from school to avoid being laughed at for soiling themselves. This is one of the factors that discourages girl-child education and has led to many drop-outs. Teenage pregnancies has also led many girls to be sacked from schools whilst their male counterparts are allowed to finish school.
Sexual harassment, defilement and rape cases are ever so many in the media. The DOVVSU unit also received 1,111 cases of defilement and 290 rape cases in 2014. In an all-girls Catholic boarding school, there was abuse by some teachers on the students because they refused to have sex with them. Students
were all helpless since reporting it would not change a thing unless they changed schools and that was not an option. Another dimension to the issue of sexual harassment against women in our higher education is the case of lecturers demanding sexual favours from their female students for a pass mark or admission.
At the workplace, many women have experienced harassment from Managers with the promise of job placement, higher salaries and promotions. This could sometimes extend to their colleagues as well and as jobs are hard to come by, they rarely report it officially. However, some companies have made it a point to educate and enforce policies to curb this problem.
It is with the issue of fewer jobs for women that some women give in to prostitution which is illegal in Ghana and subject themselves to violent and unconducive environments that also expose them to STDs, arrests, stigmatization, etc. The issue of few jobs and less pay for women that makes most women dependent on their families and for those who are left with the responsibility of others, they are left vulnerable to boyfriends, husbands, colleagues and even spiritual leaders.
Traditional practices have also been a major cause of women’s rights issues. With over 40 tribes in Ghana, many of them hold on to these bad practices in the name of saving their culture from modernity. Puberty rites for the Krobos for example, is an age old practice where young girls as young as 9 years old, who have experienced their first menstruation are shown off in the town square to initiate and outdoor them as women fit for marriage and they are made to wear outfits that expose their breasts.
Another serious one is that of FGM- Female genital mutilation and this has been going on for centuries, most especially among the women of Northern Ghana to take away libido and sexual rights. Also, widowhood rites for widows in which they are made to undergo all sorts of rituals like drinking the bathing water of the dead body and sleeping with the corpse for days with the belief that it will help create safe passage of the dead spouse into the afterlife. Women who
refuse it are blamed for the deaths, banished from their communities and face a lifetime of stigmatisation.
Sexually, women are not encouraged or expected to explore their sexuality. Most men would call a woman ‘spoilt’ if she has knowledge of more than 1 sexual position. This has led many women to be frigid and timid. Ask a lot of women today, and they would deny or refuse to reveal how they actually feel sexually for fear of being labelled wayward or a prostitute. Public display of affection is almost nil amongst couples here.
Due to low level of education, poverty, lack of education and health facilities, witchcraft accusations are most prominent in those areas and have made women and young girls’ targets. Baby girls to old women are usually banned from their communities into ‘witch camps’ which have become their safe haven away from threats to their life because of unfortunate deaths, accidents, famine, drought, basically any threat to their families and villages. At the moment, Ghana has close to 6 camps with about 200 residents in each of them and living in appalling conditions. These accusations are made by traditional fetish priests and endorsed by chiefs but many evangelical ‘new’ churches have sprouted all over the southern part and these self-acclaimed pastors come up with accusations day in day out.
Health issues for women have caused many deaths and made life difficult. Poor access to medical care causes maternal mortality at high rates in the country. STDs mostly brought on from male partners. Most husbands divorce their wives after they are diagnosed with illnesses such as breast cancer and so advocates have been campaigning against that. According to President of Breast Care International Dr. Mrs. Beatrice Wiafe Addai, research has shown that women recover fast from the ailment when they are supported by their spouse and so husbands have been urged not to abandon their partners suffering from breast cancer. Also, infertility has caused a lot of divorces and since most times, the men do not want to get tested, the women are blamed whenever there are no children in the marriage.
Recently, The Minister of Health Mr Alex Sergbefia, described the 1,500 annual deaths of Ghanaian women from cervical cancer as alarming and unacceptable. He said every year, 3,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in Ghana representing 35 per cent of all female cancers.
Bad religious practices also target women a lot since the major faiths like Islam and Christianity do not promote female well-being. Child-marriages, polygamous marriages and forced conversions among the muslims are to name a few.
Marriage, to most men, is like acquiring property since the traditional marriage focuses on buying a list of items for the woman and her family in exchange for her hand in marriage. This makes them feel that the woman belongs to them as property and therefore, she has no rights to her opinion, sexuality or anything else for that matter and a lot of women are subjected to be the cooks, cleaners, and child-raisers. It cuts across all classes as many women have had to leave their careers, education and livelihood to cater for their husbands and children.
Looking at all these issues, most women have had to fall on the comfort of religion and therefore makes them gullible and easy to take advantage of by spiritual leaders.
Recently, the Atheist Alliance International conducted a survey among non-male humanists and came up with tips to help boost participation among women in secular groups. My association has 8 women out of 50 members and 4 of our five-member committee are women. I believe that our male counterparts with their belief and understanding of equality elected us as persons rather than by gender basis and this gives me hope that our humanist society takes feminism seriously and encourages equality among the genders.
Ghana has come a long way in the last 3 decades in terms of equality and there are many more opportunities for women of today. My generation has come to witness a record number of women entrepreneurs of all ages and a lot more women in parliament than ever before. Companies are now proud to have women in each department and even on their boards.
As a modern woman, I enjoy my freedom of wearing what I want, going where I want to, working where I want to and dating whomever I please. This may sometimes annoy some men who are longing for the old days because they fear that they will be emasculated with this new trend but there is hope that they may come to understand how feminism is for the benefit of all genders.
As a humanist, I am unlearning the unnecessary parts of my culture and adapting universally accepted ways of living as a PERSON. Be yourself, be good to others, have sex responsibly, stay healthy and love your husband!
Chair for the African working group (IHEYO) & President of Humanist Association of Ghana (HAG)