While state institutions have taken the route of prohibition, one other way to dissuade people from bleaching is through education. Films, with their wide appeal and reach, are a great way of inform and educate the masses about issues of concern.
Comfort Arthur is a British-born Ghanaian animator and illustrator who just made a film about bleaching. She confesses to trying to bleach her skin when she was 23 years old because she didn’t love her skin.
“I have two sisters and its a family of six. My two sisters are light in colour and when we used to go out, as a child especially when we used to come to Ghana, people would use to notice my two sisters over me and go like ‘oh you're beautiful’ and growing up that messed me up mentally.
"I began to feel that my skin wasn't nice and that being dark was not good. And so eventually when I was 23, I tried bleaching products."
She eventually stopped using the products and her skin since then been restored to its natural caramel.
'I hate my colour'
But the idea for the film came to Comfort earlier this year when she went to a salon with two cousins.
"I was getting my hair done, and my two cousins, the same thing happened. One is dark in complexion and the other is lighter. As soon as the hairdresser saw the younger one (the fairer one) she was like 'oh my God, [you are] so beautiful.'"
“And I stopped and looked at the elder cousin, (the dark skinned one) and you could see it on her face. She looked so uncomfortable and really sad. So when they were going home, she called me aside and said ‘Sister Comfort, I want to bleach my skin. I hate my colour.’ So that was when I decided], I need to write about this."
The short, powerful, poetic, animation, Black Barbie, was the result of these two experiences.
“It is about my experience as a child growing up and not liking my skin and eventually trying to bleach my skin. It also talks about an identity crisis and low self-esteem and [the film] in the end tries to encourage the viewers to love their skin”, Comfort says.
The film tells Comfort’s story; about rejecting a black Barbie doll her mother gave her as a girl because it was not beautiful and eventually standing in front of an Asian shopkeeper in the UK at age 23 to buy a bleaching product.
Black Barbie has received critical acclaim in Ghana and around the world. The film has won Best Animation at the 2016 Ghana Movie Awards and Best Spoken Word film at the Real Time Film Festival (Lagos). It has also been screened at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival and the Africa International Film Festival (Lagos).
Ban on bleaching
According the only official statistics available from 2005, the Ghana Health Service estimates that at least 30 percent of men and 45 percent of women in Ghana have at one point bleached their skin. In Nigeria (77 percent), Togo (59 percent) and South Africa (35 percent) of women “are reported to use skin lightening products on a regular basis” according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Many skin lightening soaps and creams contain mercury which the WHO says can cause kidney damage.
“Mercury in skin lightening products may also cause skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.”
In August 2016, a ban on bleaching products announced by Food and Drugs Authority in Ghana took effect. While this was too little too late, the news has been welcomed by many in society.
Despite the ban, the business of skin lightening remains unshaken as the advertisement and sale of products remain unabated.
READ ALSO: FDA to ban skin bleaching creams
The coming home story
Despite a master's degree in Animation from the Royal College of Art, Arthur, 31, struggled to get a job in Britain. She had to settle for a job in a supermarket as a cashier. However when a position opened at Sparrow Productions, one of Ghana’s leading film companies, Comfort packed bag and baggage and moved to her mother's homeland.
In Ghana, she says she faced an identity crisis. Because she was not deemed British enough and in Ghana her Ghanaian-ness was questioned because of her British upbringing.
According to Arthur, she is working on a book titled ', which is a compilation of anecdotes of her experience resettling in Ghana in the early days.
She has also previously worked on an animation, about the Chibok girls, titled Imagine, which earned her an award at the Golden Movie Awards (Ghana) and was screened at many film festivals including the Black Star International Film Festival.
Comfort Arthur hope to change the narrative of Ghanaian cinema, away from the cheesy love and relationship stories, to more positive and societal focused films.