GHANA: Women in power – trickle down?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The arrival of women at top positions in Ghana's government and security forces has highlighted the question of whether such milestones will translate into concrete benefits in women’s lives.

For many, the greatest boost not only for women but for all Ghanaians would come from empowering women economically.

For the first time women hold the posts of speaker, police inspector general and attorney general. Nearly two months after President John Evans Atta Mills came to power, promising a strong presence of women in government, Ghanaians IRIN spoke with are guardedly optimistic.

Hajara Usif, who sells tomatoes in the capital Accra, said she is pleased with the new government’s attention to women. “But it must reflect in my life too – and very soon.”

Usif and women like her might get a hand from Akua Sena Dansua, the new minister for women and children’s affairs and one of eight female ministers, who told IRIN a top priority will be women’s economic empowerment.

Usif, a widow and mother of four, told IRIN: “I am not asking government to take pity on me and take care of my children for me.” What she would like from the government is help for women eager to work, including credit schemes and literacy programmes.

Learning to read, she said, "is important for my work and I believe for the country's development."

For Baah Boateng, senior economist at the University of Ghana in Accra, any scheme that helps women would help Ghana. “Women control the Ghanaian economy. Women are absolutely vital to the success or failure of the country’s poverty reduction drive.”

He added: “Because of their contribution I will support any day any initiative that aims to improve the lot of women and give them the necessary support.”

Boateng cited statistics, confirmed by Ghana's Finance Ministry: 70 percent of farmers and 90 percent of people working in agricultural processing and marketing are women.

Steep hill

Angela Dwamena Aboagye, head of the Ghanaian women’s rights group Ark Foundation, is cautiously optimistic. Citing the recent arrival of women to top posts, she told IRIN: “It is important to view [these] as a step in a journey of thousand miles.”

She said political appointments alone will not end the challenges facing Ghanaian women. “We thought the establishment of the [Women and Children’s Affairs] ministry in 2001 was a victory but as it turned out the marginalisation [of women] remained entrenched.”

While gender parity is better in Ghana than in much of sub-Saharan Africa, women still lag behind. Forty-five percent of women are illiterate, compared to 28 percent of men, according to the USAID Women in Development project. Gross primary school enrolment is at 78 percent for girls, 85 percent for boys. The enrolment rate is relatively hight for sub-Saharan Africa, where according to UNESCO girls make up 54 percent of primary school students.

The Women and Children's Affairs Ministry estimates that 15 to 30 percent of females in Ghana still undergo female genital mutilation/cutting.


One analyst is sceptical about how far the government’s apparently pro-women stance will go.

Kwesi Amakye, political science lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, called a government policy to fill at least 40 percent of government posts with women "tokenism".

“Government after government has experimented with the issue of women but the problems remain," he told IRIN.

Some women have similar doubts but hope the women now in power will prove them wrong. “I am…pessimistic” that the government’s moves to boost women are just for show, said 34-year-old Dorris Azumah. “The current government is showing some will but [real progress will require] some lobbying from inside and that is what I expect the few women appointed to do.”

Julian Amakwah, 36, works as an accounts officer in the civil service. She told IRIN she has been passed over for promotions at work. “I believe it is because my superiors doubt I am up to the task because I am a woman with a child.”

She added: “The change we are seeing [in government] will be meaningless if the women in power fail to push the agenda for some radical reforms in the public service. But I am happy because it’s a good start.”