In Ghana, gender equality and economics clash

Esther Armah

Like most nations around the world, economics plays a major role in how Ghanaian women are treated in their personal relationships and at work. There are other factors at play, too — including the legacy of colonialism.

The gender conversation in the West African nation is complicated, and not everyone shares the same view. But earlier this year, a controversy over an interview CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had with a local actress and model, Moesha Boduong, made this connection clear. 

The brief interview was broadcast during an episode of the series, “Christiane Amanpour: Sex & Love Around the World.” In it, Boduong revealed she was seeing a married man because “... our economy is just such in a way that you just need someone to take care of you. You can’t make enough money ... as a woman here ... because even if you want to get an apartment, in Ghana you pay two years in advance, and I just started working. When will I find money to pay for an apartment for two years?” (Here is an excerpt of her interview.) She added that her arrangement wasn’t unusual.

The statements Boduong made between love, sex, money and power were echoed by another interviewee, an Accra-based fisherman known as Nice One, who said: “when you are rich, you can decide to choose any woman you want.” They were just two of the many voices featured in the documentary, which presented different perspectives on love and sex in Ghana. Despite the wide range of opinions, there was a common thread: No matter what the rationale, the needs and desires of rich and powerful men traditionally come first.

Yet, it was Boduong who singularly faced a backlash in Ghana for what she said on the show. Commentaries condemned her for her statements. She was even called “publicity hungry” by Ghana's Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection Hon. Otiko Afisa Djaba. The criticism was so forceful, she publicly apologized on social media, saying it wasn't her intention to offend anyone. Amanpour came out in defense of Boduong too, but she took a different tone, arguing that women should be free to talk about their relationships. 

International award-winning journalist and columnist Esther Armah spoke out against this backlash in a piece for her weekly column for The Business and Financial Times, “Moesha Boduong…Mayhem, Morality, Hypocrisy.” Armah, who is also a playwright, was born in Great Britain and has worked in the US, UK and Africa. She currently lives in Accra, Ghana. 

Armah discussed with Christabel Nsiah-Buadi what the response reveals about perceptions of gender equality in Ghana, as well as the current state of the gender rights movement in the nation. (Check out Nsiah-Buadi's series, "The Media Disruptors," about women upending the media landscape.) 

Christabel Nsiah-Buadi: First, what moved you to write your piece?

Esther Armah: The reaction to the interview broke down these very specific issues: economy, sexism, hypocrisy and this obsession with how the outside world looks to Ghana. I specifically wrote that when I say "outside, in the world," that I really do mean white people, because Moesha had already done an interview that was arguably more raw on a show, here in Ghana, with a woman called Delay, who's known for doing these kinds of raw, celebrity interviews, and there was nothing like the level of the rage and outrage that came with the CNN interview. 

I thought we needed to talk about the economics that Moesha raised around housing and pricing and affordable housing; the reality of the numbers of women for whom their bodies are currency and economy to do their jobs, but about whom no such outrage is ever shown. And about a ministry that has to be cajoled to respond to areas of social protection, sexual violence — which is actually their mandate — but that issued incredibly damning commentary on a grown woman making adult choices — which I thought was extraordinary.

Tell us more about Ghana’s economic structure and how this impacts women’s rights.

In Ghana, our economy is identified in two specific areas: the formal sector, which is really the public and the private sector, and the informal sector, which is this massive economy. It's dominated by women — 80 percent of women work in the informal sector. It is really an engine that drives our economy. These women work in retail — they're market traders, they are the reason millions of Ghanaians get to eat, put food on the table, take care of kids daily. This title, "the informal sector," is really an extension of how sexism functions in our economy because it's dominated by women. There are not the kinds of social protections that come with the formal sector.

So, for example, you may have a woman who is a trader, and she has to be able to move through borders to transport her goods from one place to another. To get through some of the borders, she has to negotiate and deal with men. Some of these men are incredibly abusive of their power. Take the example of the Kayayei; they are essentially porters who carry goods on their heads. They’re often women who come to Accra from rural areas. They don’t have a place to stay and they often end up literally sleeping outside. They sleep where they work. They are subject to horrific levels of rape. It's been an ongoing subject, but I would argue that issue has also never reached or acquired the level of outrage that Moesha received talking about her individual choices as a grown, adult woman.

Ghana is also a class-based society, so the manifestation of class, economically, for me, was really clear within this Moesha interview — and it’s important to say that her interview was a clip — what I criticized was the journalistic weakness in not recognizing that it was a clip; it was part of a much larger program. The lack of context meant that people treated it as if it was an entire interview. No checking, no research, no fact-checking, and those things are sadly way too common in elements of Ghana's media.

The other point I think is important to make is: Our media is male-dominated, so it is the things that exorcise men that will then dominate the airwaves. And this violent ... I call it the "economies of violence" that women face across different classes — they are not things that these men rush to the mic or rush to cameras to articulate their anger at these women's vulnerability, who are also just trying to make a living and make their way.

You’re involved in a variety of gender and human rights campaigns. In terms of the public discourse in Ghana, where you do you think things stand currently? And do you see progress?

It's such an important question. So, first, let me connect two very important dots: Moesha is being condemned for essentially using her body as currency to get something. One of the arguments in my piece was that you could actually say that what Moesha learned is being taught to 13-year-old girls in school by adult, male, married teachers who sexually abuse, sexually harass and extort sex for grades and school fees from those students. There are multiple pieces of research going back to 2009 that identify teachers as one of the highest number of perpetrators of sexual abuse, of sexual harassment of teenage girls, and the age of vulnerability is 13.

The other point that I made in my piece is: Nobody cares as much about those 13-year-old girls as they do about a grown, adult woman making a particular choice because the gender discourse is disconnected from the ways in which people live and how this societal lack of care manifests in people's behavior. Hence the creation of Stop Sex Abuse in Schools, a yearlong, nationwide campaign by the Coalition Against Sexual Abuse, CASA. The idea of the campaign is really very simple: To tell teachers, the majority of whom are male, who are sexually abusing and sexually harassing their students, predominantly female, that time's up. We said #TimesUpGH, because I wanted to acknowledge there are regional, specific differences that matter; that in a place like Ghana, there are particular points of vulnerability.

#TimesUp was very much about the workforce in America and women in Hollywood — women at work. In Ghana, the primary area of vulnerability is girls at school. It’s a particular, rampant abuse of power that’s going unchecked, and you have too many pieces of legislation, of research, that identify teachers as abusers. We have created, in our classrooms, playgrounds for predatory pedophile teachers, and their sexual abuse is going unchecked because of a lack of policy, because of the way in which our male-dominated society simply does not care about girls, and that is manifest by the failure to take substantive action even when the sexual abuse is proven.

The other point is that it's the expectation that girls alone should be the ones to stop a grown man teacher from sexually abusing or sexually harassing her. So, the way in which gender rights functions puts all the responsibility on the girl or the woman to seek any kind of justice. There is a failure to put proper responsibility in the hands of men. When you put the responsibility in the hands of men and women, you are saying that this is a societal issue, for which there has to be multiple agency responses for this to be resolved. But if you leave it in the hands of the victim, where we have a culture that silences girls, that stigmatizes girls, that shames them, you guarantee that the behavior goes unchecked and unanswered, and that's the crisis that we have.

So, for me, to witness a nation up in arms and outraged about the actions of Moesha, an adult woman, and then be silent about the sexual abuse of girls, makes me ask, what do we mean when we say human rights? Whose humanity are we acknowledging, and how does that acknowledgment manifest in nation-building, in policy practice, and in how we, as a society, respond? I respond by engaging in creative journalism, emotional justice, creative media, campaigns, campaigning journalism to highlight specific issues. I'm also part of the Alliance for Women in Media Africa because part of what we recognize in Ghana is that media has a slightly different role to play than it does in the United States. Here, in Ghana, it really is a developmental tool. It is really a nation-building tool. It has so much power to shape and frame narratives, and the failure to fully understand and reckon with that is making us reckless with it, and that is a problem.

You’ve lived and worked in Europe, the US and Africa. What connections can you make, if any, when it comes to the fight for gender equality within the diaspora and — secondly — where does your work around emotional justice sit in all of that? They are two big questions, but they are connected.

The connection between Ghanaian women, African American women, black women across the diaspora, is that it is on the backs of black women that nations are being built, even as those women are being neglected, disrespected, and on the receiving end of cycles of violence, from which they are expected to emerge fully intact without any real help, or work, or support.

Go all the way back to Ghanaian independence — it was market women that financed the independence movement. You can't build a movement without money. If you did not have entrepreneurial, innovative, creative businesswomen, you would have no independence movement. Yet so rarely is their role fully acknowledged, realized and celebrated in terms of that context. It’s similar to the fights that scholars and journalists and activists have in the United States of ensuring that the women of the civil rights movement are given full voice and full reflection for the role that they played. It’s similar to watching the sad death of Winnie Mandela in South Africa and the ways in which there's an attempt to bury the full power and the strength of what she was able to do in terms of being a leader of a movement, and not reducing, belittling, humiliating and disrespecting her even in death.

So, we really have this circle of connection where our arms are linked across a panorama of mocha, chocolate, caramel in terms of the struggles, the sacrifice, the story, but also the ways in which we, then, support and build each other because we really do, what we have is each other, what we have is us.

How that manifests in my emotional justice work is using all elements of communication to highlight the significant ways in which women contribute to this project that is nation-building, and then making sure that I connect Ghanaian women to women across the diaspora, so we see how we are linked and that we fully recognize each other as sisters in a struggle for which lives have been lost but nations are being built because of those two realities.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.  

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