"Gender activism has become an elitist movement, where it is appealing more to the rich than to the poor." Those were the words of Esther Tawiah, a gender activist from Gender Centre for Empowering Development, in Ghana.
Considering recent events associated with women and how “so-called gender activists” are dealing with the situation, it’s easy to see where she is coming from.
From endless workshops, conferences, round-tables, seminars, policy briefings and others attempting to address the myriads of problems still facing women, the term gender activism still seems disconnected from the general public, particularly, the rural folks.
Many of those professionals who have a wealth of knowledge about gender and development still find it difficult to communicate in ways that touch the public.
History of Gender Activism
Women activism was very vibrant in Africa, especially in the early 80s when women were advocating a lot of things, including the Maputo Protocol, which was aimed at ensuring gender equality, women’s reproductive rights, bringing an end to female genital mutilation, and protecting other rights of women.
Since pre-colonial days, Ghanaian women have contributed immensely towards national development and the deepening of democracy in the country.
Talk about the likes of Akua Asabea and other women in the CPP, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts such as Kofi Baako and Sacki Scheck in 1949, as they toured the country and addressed large rallies to spread the message of ‘Independence Now’ for Ghana.
Mention could also be made of the role of Dr Letitia Obeng, an educationist, and other women who were nurses, broadcasters, judges, and lawyers who became part and parcel of the independence struggle.
But since then, although the vibrant energy behind women’s rights movement has heightened, its target and approach seem to be misplaced.
The present situation
It’s been 20 years since the Beijing protocol was signed to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity. But what do we see now? In fact, in Ghana, women are still arguing about equal access to land and resources such as water, and now, technology. Others still argue about what they call their inherent sexual and reproductive health and rights.
It appears that the systems that are oppressing women and girls are winning the battle. And what effective approaches are gender activists taking to solve the problem?
A case in point has to do with recent comments by the Assin Central MP, Kennedy Agyapong that the Electoral Commission chair traded her body for the position.
And of course, the comments did not go down well with several gender activists who came out in their numbers to condemn the MP.
The Minister of Gender Children and Social Protection subsequently requested an apology from Agyapong on behalf of the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission.
But where were the gender activists when the host of a radio programme, Afia Schwarzeneger was verbally assaulted by the same MP. Was she sidelined by the activists because she was seen as a controversial fellow, or because as many would say, “it serves her right?”
As outspoken actress, Lydia Forson puts the situation in her own words: "Didn’t he [Kennedy Agyapong] say worse about Afia Schwarzenegger? Didn’t he all but call her a harlot? Didn’t he say she had HIV? Didn’t he sit on radio and TV to make these statements? Weren’t women in the building and around him? So what’s new here? Or wait, let me guess he did it against someone we 'like, respect or deem worthy' or someone that interest or benefits us in a way."
What about some single mothers I’ve spoken with, who often feel dejected by the Departments of Social Welfare in the country. A sister who lost her son in the process of a failed marriage tells me: “They [members of the Welfare Department] end up supporting the men whenever a case of assault or neglect of upbringing of children is brought before them.”
When the Social Welfare Department was contacted on the issue, the Director, Benjamin Otu said those claims are mere allegations.
“This is an allegation they are making and they have to substantiate the allegation. If they can come out with a case that they have sent Social Welfare and it’s like the Social Welfare Officers were not objective, then they can mention the name of the office that they went and these things happened,” he added.
So my issue is; has gender activism become only for a particular class of people?
Take another case in point. Recently, Gifty Anti, a veteran broadcaster and a gender activist, described Akua Donkor, founder and leader of the Ghana Freedom Party (GFP) as a wrong choice for a female president in Ghana.
Akua Donkor is a cocoa farmer by profession, who has had no formal education. She however receives formal invitations from President John Mahama and his government to attend state functions.
She was disqualified by the Electoral Commission in 2012 when she declared her intentions to contest in the presidential race.
Many have criticized her for her sometimes unsavoury comments in public, saying she is not the best choice for the presidency.
Notwithstanding her “not too appealing” demeanour, is that the best form of approach Ghanaians, especially women advocates could adopt in her situation? Should she be condemned or be given the little support needed to mentor or shape her into what society wants?
As gender activist, Esther Tawiah puts it: “Women are contesting everyday and they are losing because these rural women have this idea that these elitist people want us to vote for them to be in power, but that is not it.”
Esther Tawiah believes that her co- gender activist, Gifty Anti was wrong in her description of the GFP leader. She believes women rights activists must desist from being selective in their activism roles.
“We appreciate that these rural women need capacity to be able to do active democratic government. And so give them that capacity they need. So if you feel that Akua Donkor lacks that capacity as a gender activist, what you need to do is approach her, give her the capacity. If you [Gifty Anti] feel that she can’t speak English, and it is a challenge, the University of Ghana provides adult education, have you suggested it to her before? What is the possible way of getting her to do some of the things that in this global world you think she needs to empower her,” Ms. Tawiah asked.
The way forward
Let’s take a cue from what happened in Iceland where women in October 24, 1975, walked away from their responsibilities to show how important they were to the progress of the country.
From 12 noon to 12 midnight, on a day men would remember as “that long Friday,” 90% of Iceland’s women left their typewriters and steno pads, put down their paint brushes, music books, and lecture notes, took off their aprons, left the dishes in the sink, handed the children over to their dads, and left their phones unanswered.
Being the UN’s “International Women’s Year,” the women at the time, who made less than 60% of the wages men made, took that action to challenge male dominance.
Can we replicate such an action in Ghana? Imagine women shunning all their daily activities for a day to stand for their rights? Yes, it could be done.
Instead of “so-called loud feminists” taking to social media to vent out their anger and frustrations about a particular course of action, they should redirect that anger to the streets.
Their main targets should be the rural folks and middle class women, who seem to be the most affected by domestic violence issues in the country. Such women seem to be the most disadvantaged as they lack basic knowledge about what their fundamental human rights entail, and how to fight for those rights.
In Egypt, Cairo, many informal youth-based initiatives have also sought to transform the streets of Cairo into harassment-free spaces for women.
Their catchy slogans – "Don't harass: the street is yours and hers" and "Look me in the eye" – have been widely circulated by people in the street carrying messages for passersby to read.
I suggest that gender experts and policymakers learn from such initiatives, and make their work more appealing to the “proletariats” in society.
Such a move, I believe will attract greater media attention, and mount more pressure on the appropriate authorities to respond.