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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Can Women Claim the 21st Century?

The issue of women empowerment has been given much media attention in recent times. On March 25, Dr Kofi Amoah and the management of Citizen Kofi with support from the Media Foundation for West Africa World Bank Ghana Office, organized series of dialogues on how the Ghanaian media portray women. Two days before that on March 23, Myjoyfmonline published a rather flowery speech by Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, the renowned Ghanaian journalist, at the Legon Center for International Affairs (LECIA) on the theme, “Women Empowerment: Empowering the 21st Century woman to transform her community”. He concluded his speech in part by a powerful statement, “I believe this century will not be China’s… It will not be Africa’s century either. This is the Woman’s Century”.
The Woman’s Century? Well, after reading his speech, I paused for a moment to ask myself some hard questions: Was Kwaku Sekyi-Addo simply being overambitious about the prospect of women claiming the 21st Century? Was he aware of how the ingrained forces of culture and religion have combined to shape the Ghanaian psyche toward women and women in leadership positions?
To respond to these questions, I descended the luxurious ivory tower of intellectual rhetoric to face the facts and the practicalities of the real Ghanaian world. So what does Women Empowerment entails, and how do ordinary Ghanaians treat and view women and women leaders? I will attempt to address these questions using personal experiences gathered from different parts of Ghana.
During a field trip to Northern Ghana as an intern at United Nations Development Program/Small Grants Program (UNDP/SGP) in 2009, I was astonished to learn that women could not inherit properties from their own parents. They were prohibited from openly expressing their thoughts in community circles in the presence of men. In fact, the women could not even shake hands with me or the rest of the team. These practices were perpetuated not based on anything other than an unearned natural attribute -- sex. I discovered that the women were systematically ‘programmed’ by their respective societies through early socialization to be dependent on men. They had no independent self-worth other than that derived from their husbands’. Once such dependency situation was established through systematic economic disempowerment, it became much easier for the men to exert their control, and in most cases, abused women with confidence and impunity. Although the chasm of ‘institutionalized’ inequality among the sexes may be wider in some parts of Northern Ghana, the reality is that sex-based discrimination is a general problem in Ghana as a whole.
In a separate development again in 2009, I was part of a campaign team determined to break the status quo and put a woman in the presidency of one traditional hall in University of Ghana. During that campaign spree, I came to understand fully the psychology of many college students regarding women and leadership: People did not care about our candidate’s leadership credibility and potentials. Their chief concern was the fact that she was a female. Period. They thought it inappropriate for a woman to seek to become the president of a mixed hall. They hurriedly cited scriptural quotations to back their dogmatic stance and to show-off how high they stand on the moral Richter scale. To them, it was a de jure divine arrangement for a woman to follow instead of lead. These students therefore deemed the perpetuation and consolidation of such a system of injustice, an act of obedience to God or Allah. Ironically, not males alone, but some females also held similar views.
I was not swayed nor amused by the knee-jerk tendency of these students to dig into their favorite pages in the scriptures to justify their entrenched position. This was partly because I was aware that not too long ago in the history of humankind, the same scriptures were used to justify Apartheid, racism, and ‘holy’ wars against people of different race, nationality, and religious backgrounds. I also knew that somewhere in the middle age, a scientist known as Galileo Galilei was intensely pursued by the Church and eventually forced to renounce his belief that it was the sun and not the earth that was in the center of the universe. Galileo was lucky – the Church only excommunicated him. Many scientists and independent thinkers at the time were burned at the stake for heresy. Why? Because the Church, inspired by the letters of the scriptures, was convinced that it was the divine ordering of things for the earth to be placed in the center of the entire universe. Scriptures such as Ecclesiastes 1:5 which states, "And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place”, was taken literally. Today, we all know the Church was wrong. However, are we learning from the past?
College education was meant to increase our capacity for critical thinking, which will also mean challenging the status quo if necessary. I personally do not believe it was just and fair for that University of Ghana woman to be denied the opportunity to attain her leadership goals and aspirations based on her sex. I also do not buy the idea that any particular sex is superior or inferior to the other. Just as none would like to be the victim of a gender-based discrimination, none should strive to be the privileged either. Should not people be judged based on the content of their character and not the biological constitution of their genitalia?
In the context of these mental blocks on the way to women empowerment in Ghana, does Kwaku Sakyi-Addo’s optimism about women claiming the 21st Century realistic? I respond in the affirmative, however, with a clarion call on all institutions in the country to proactively work to ensure that women are fairly represented at all levels of society.  Religious institutions and their leadership need to take the lead by challenging the way their members view and treat women. University institutions and relevant stakeholders should give more research attention to issues of women empowerment. Relevant policymakers should strengthen the existing affirmative measures aimed at attracting and supporting women political leaders. The fact that the media is giving more attention to concerns of women lately is a promising sign that Ghanaians are slowly moving in the right direction.
In line with the United Nations (UN) definition of Women Empowerment, we should all work in concert to challenge outdated systems of religion-inspired patriarchy, which creates conditions where women a) do not have access to opportunities and resources b) are denied the right to influence the direction of social change c) are denied the right to determine their own choices as they deem fit and, d) are stripped of their independent self-worth.
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