Thursday, March 06, 2008

Women's Issues: Four generations of Ghanaian women reflect on gender issue initiatives

Efforts to improve the lot of women in Ghana have yielded positive results. Gender issues now take center stage in policy decisions in countries around the world. Voice of America English to Africa Service’s Joana Mantey reports on the impact of these initiatives on the lives of four generations of Ghanaian women.

Fifty-five-year-old retired teacher Comfort Enchil was a student when 1975 was declared International Women’s Year by the United Nations. As she looks back on that event, she also remembers the work of some non-profit organizations in championing efforts towards the emancipation of women in Ghana. Enchil is happy that such efforts have borne fruit and that today, Ghanaian women have more freedom than ever before.

Comfort Enchil grew up in a village in Ghana’s Ashanti Region. The house she lived in was both her home and a “kontire” – or an occasional meeting place where village elders made laws and took other decisions affecting the community.

She says “Decision making was for men; women were left behind. After the decision making the women would be informed. When it came to issues concerning men, women [were not informed of the outcome] at all.”

Enchil says the women occupied themselves with household chores and raising children. Working on the farm was not much different. Here too, women did most of the jobs.

She says “After the day’s toils, the women would carry food loads on their heads while carrying babies on their backs [as they journey home]. The only thing the men may be carrying may be machetes or guns on his shoulders. As soon as they got to the house the women put the load down [and set to work] preparing the evening meals. So when I was growing up I told myself I was not going to marry.”

Another reason Enchil wanted to stay single was because she feared being forced to take part in an “arranged” marriage by her family. She said according to tradition, a young woman like herself might become the second or third wife of an older man.

“As for the second or third wife you end up being a slave if you allow yourself to be that. You will be toiling all the time. Now things have changed tremendously. Now some of the men even help their wives with house chores.”

Another Ghanaian woman, Ajoa Sey is 35 years old. She is grateful that the progress chalked up by Ghanaian feminists has affected her life.

“Women’s empowerment has helped me a lot. I am able to stand for my rights. Even in my relationship with my husband, when he does something wrong I am able to point it out to him. Even when it comes to sexual relations, I am able to stand for my rights. I know I am not to be sexually abused.”

Adjoa says today, many women play key roles in the country’s political and economic development. She says progress outweighs the complaints of some who say they struggle with increased stress and the breakdown of the extended family.

Seventy-five year old Theresa Quarshie also acknowledges the progress made by women. When she was growing up girls were rarely sent to school; they stayed at home and helped their mothers. Today all of Quarshie’s four female children have been well educated and are working in different sectors of the economy. Her grandchildren are also in school. Theresa’s main worry is how youth are managing the freedom that women now have. She disapproves of young women who break cultural taboos with clothing that shows too much of their bodies. “When the elders say something, they don’t want to listen. They are not respectful. [Also] portraying all these sexual scenes on TV, all these kisses for them to be seeing, it’s an abomination to the culture.”

Great granddaughter Abena is 14 years old and is not worried about Quarshie’s concerns. Unlike Quarshie who finds it difficult to talk openly about sexual issues, Abena is taught about sex as part of her school lessons, “As we grow, the girls’ bodies develop and that of the boys’ also develop. The opposite sex are attracted and this can result in teenage pregnancies, STDs and even the deadly HIV/AIDS. As teenagers we should learn to say no so we can concentrate on our education and become successful people in the future.”

Abena finds it hard to believe that women were once relegated to the background. She said she is always given a chance to make her views known.

“I know for a fact that girls, too, can do better in class than the boys. Now we have women leaders like Sirleaf-Johnson of Liberia. She has been a role model to other women. [Now they too] know that they can become presidents of their country.” Abena says at school her teachers give equal treatment to both male and female students – one of many changes in the lives of Ghanaian women over the past decades.

By: Joana Mantey Accra, Ghana, 05 March 2008
Published with the permission of
Voice of America