Gender Issues

 Posted by Matthew Cutler at 11:55 pm  Ghana
Jan 302013

“OK, Eunice,” I said, “if you can do anything in the world, what would you want to be in the future?” She smiled and said without any hesitation: “I want to be the First Lady of Ghana.” Noble answer, but I wanted to press her on that– “why not president?” Eunice pursed her lips and cocked her head, made a clicking sound with her tongue that marked disapproval: “no, girls can’t be president!”  Why not? “It will never happen. Men will always be president. That is the way it is in Ghana.”

That response made me think about the clear and evident gender roles that exist in Ghana. While there are some subtle differences between tribes, by and large– men are the dominant presence and women are second tier. That doesn’t mean that the women are slaves to their husbands; rather they are caretakers and husbands are the ones who bring in the most of the family income. Like many societies, women’s roles are defined by the household chores; they are in charge of children rearing, cooking, cleaning, etc. While I have seen more than a fair share of men helping in those areas [bathing children in the morning, working with their wives for the 2 person production of fufu– the one who pounds the product and the one who constantly stirs it], it is clear that the home is the women’s domain. Children are very active in assisting and very often with a great deal of deference and respect to parents and elders. No surprises here– but living in such close quarters: rarely have I heard domestic squabbles or have seen anything less then partnership [albeit probably not 50-50] between couples. Certainly from what I have heard on the news and heard from people I chatted about this, gender roles are clear and women are not equal to men: there are educational biases, differences in pay scales, sexual harassment in the workplace,  and the biggest issue I heard– domestic violence.

In the tribal system, roles may differ. In the Akaan tradition, women are more merchants than men– leaving heavy labor to them. In the Ga tradition [which is the dominant one in PramPram], women assist their fishermen husbands by cleaning the fish and preparing it for market– deep frying it, cutting them into sections, selling it to others. The same can be said for the 11 other tribal systems. But there are abuses and customs that are quite alarming. Like in the northern town of Bawku which is a large town of about 60,00o people near the Togo/Burkina Faso border, some 30% of teenage girls have their genitals ritually mutilated. There are constant stories of domestic abuse, forced prostitution and enslavement.

Yesterday, there were hearings held for President Mahama’s new ministerial appoints. One was for the replacement of Juliana Azumah-Mensah, who is stepping down as the Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs. [Quick aside– 9 of the 32 Ministers in the government are currently women]. During the hearings, it was evident the pressing concern about many of the issues. One issue that was a top priority– as Ghana’s emerging economy grows, which is growing at a current percentage of over 6% a year,  people are emigrating from the poorer north to the bigger cities. Poverty is more intense and so are the chances of child/female abuses– slavery [yes, slavery is not unheard of!] can occur when women and children are abducted to work in factories or in the sex industry either in Ghana or around the world! The emigration issues also mean an increase of sexually transmitted disease– sometimes husbands leave the village in search of jobs and contract the HIV virus thru encounters and pass them along to their wives. Poverty intensifies the chances of violent domestic abuse as well raises the possibilities that children in large families can be sold off to provide income for the rest. The challenge, the hearings revealed, is not in legislation– it is easy for members of Parliament to pass the laws in accordance with international standards to ensure the well being of women and children. The challenge is enforcement as well as education; these require money and that is in limited supply by the government. Ministers have to fight to get proper allocations. There are significant turf issues– like the Ministry of Women cannot make arrests or fine people– that is the attorney general’s realm. There are tensions between NGOs whose work is seen as noble but often unrealistic and government bureaucrats who often have little incentive to go beyond their job description to create substantive change. All this leaves an outsider shaking his head.

Is there hope? Yes, there is– Pastor Manu reminds me that Ghana is a young nation, independent since 1957. Systemic change takes time; it cannot happen over night. Cultural change is even hard to occur. It is a mantra he is used to repeating. So in the meantime, one keeps advocating and pressing. Media campaigns exist about domestic abuse, about women’s rights within a marriage, about concerns about human trafficking and about education biases. Pulpits are being used and sermons are preached– advocating for better treatment for women and children in their homes by husbands/fathers. There is a constant pushing for more funding and better checks-and-balances to create a better/safer environment for the most vulnerable in Ghanaian society…

Gender equality? No– it doesn’t exist…But there is hope because people care…What is that line from Carl Sandburg poem? “Miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep”.. Yup, that says it all—


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