Ghana: women still sidelined as 2012 election approaches – By Clair MacDougall
Last September a striking story stole the headlines of newspapers and media outlets all across Ghana. Samia Nkrumah, the daughter of the nation’s founding father, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, became the first female chairperson of a political party in the country’s history as an independent state. The event was lauded as a giant leap forward in women’s political participation within Ghana and was rich in symbolism: the daughter of the fallen visionary who delivered independence to the small West African nation and made it a known entity to the rest of the world had become the first female chairperson of the political party her father founded.
The Convention People’s Party (CPP) was politically powerful before President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup in 1966. But in 2011 the CPP casts a thin shadow of its former glory – it holds only one seat in parliament and its relevance derives from its role in the independence movement and establishing the first republic. Samia’s victory was a significant achievement, but it does not reflect a broader shift in the attitudes towards women in politics, within the citizenry and major political parties, but rather underscored a deeper problem within Ghana’s political culture. Contrary to the celebratory newspaper headlines, the event demonstrated that the political sphere continues to be the dominion of men.
In Ghanaian politics women are perceived as trespassers, decoration, or as supporters of the actions of men who sit higher up in the political establishment (often brought out to win votes for them during campaigning.) Rather than showing us how far women had come, Samia’s victory illustrated the extent to which Ghanaian women are lagging behind their counterparts in South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda, nations that have implemented affirmative action policies to increase women’s participation in parliament.
Samia’s position has also been undermined by a deep split within the party caused by suspicions that she is preparing to run as the presidential candidate in 2016 (chairpersons usually do not run as presidential candidates). CPP stalwart and 2008 presidential candidate Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom quit the CPP because the party was not going to put forth a presidential candidate for 2012, and would instead focus on increasing its numbers in parliament. Nduom has announced he is forming his own political party, leaving the CPP fractured and Samia’s leadership and power within the party tenuous.
Samia’s predicament, coupled with the low numbers of women in Ghana’s parliament and cabinet, demonstrate the broader challenges women face in the political arena in Ghana and West Africa as a whole. The thrashing former first lady Nana Agyemang Konadu Rawling’s received during the ruling National Democratic Congress party’s primaries last year illustrated that Ghana is a long way off electing a female president, let alone considering a female presidential candidate.
Women to sit at the sidelines in 2012
Recently Ghana has been stamped and approved as an exemplary model of democracy in the west African region by many analysts whose reference points are post-conflict countries recovering from decades of civil war and authoritarian or repressive governments. Ghana’s democracy is far from perfect, but it has shown the rest of the world that West African nations are capable of democratic governance and more sophisticated forms of political organization. However, Ghana’s political system and culture has failed to develop when it comes to the inclusion of women. Currently a mere eight percent of parliamentarians are women, which translates into 19 out of 230 parliamentarians and four out of 19 cabinet ministers.
With the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) to conduct its primaries for its safe seats shortly and the opposition National Patriotic Party (NPP) only increasing its female candidates marginally up to 24, women’s rights groups say they expect little to change in this year’s elections. Some even argue that we could see fewer women elected than in previous years.
Why West Africa is lagging behind
One could easily assume that women are fast gaining in the political sphere in Ghana and West Africa. A number of women hold some of the most prominent leadership positions in the region and on the continent. Liberia is home to two female Nobel Peace Prize winners and Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is entering her second term. The former managing director of the World Bank Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala currently holds one of the most powerful political positions in Nigeria, that of the Minister of Finance, and Fatou Bensouda, of Gambia is now the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
There is no doubt these women are powerful and remarkably accomplished, however, the political power they hold within their nations and international bodies does not represent the situation for women in parliaments and local assemblies within West Africa at large. No West African nations have passed affirmative action policies and, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, West African nations rank among the lowest when it comes to women’s representation.
Some women in Ghana do hold prominent official positions. Justice Georgina Wood was appointed as the Chief Justice by the Kufour administration in 2007, Lauretta Vivian Lamptey was sworn in as the new Commissioner for the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) last July, and four women hold ministerial positions in a cabinet made up of 19 (one of them being the Minister for Women and Children). But these positions are appointments and do not reflect the wider faith of the demos in women’s leadership. The reality is that most Ghanaians do not see women as worthy and capable leaders.
West Africa still steeped in traditional gender roles
Many women’s rights activists and women’s wing representatives in the major parties say that tradition continues to be a major obstacle for women in the political sphere.
Afua Ansre the Coordinator of the United Nations Women in Ghana said that part of the reason why West Africa has not advanced in women’s representation and participation in formal politics is because the traditional gender roles remain deeply entrenched.
“West Africa is not doing well at all in comparison with other parts of Africa,” said Ansre, referring to Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, nations where women’s political representation was significantly higher. “Traditionally women are decision makers in homes and they don’t come out to talk in public. Culturally women are homemakers and the community is for males.”
In traditional Ghanaian culture, Queen mothers wield a significant amount of power within the community, but often are subordinate to chiefs and traditional male leaders. But most African and Sub-Saharan African nations are still very traditional and gender roles are deeply entrenched, yet women’s political participation is higher, largely due to the use of affirmative action policies and strategies to cultivate women politicians and help them get elected.
The need for affirmative action
Women’s rights groups and leaders of women’s wings in both major political parties argue that an affirmative action policy is the only way forward if women are to have a real influence in the political sphere. Rwanda’s Affirmative Action Policy demands 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women and saw 56 percent of seats won by women in the 2008 elections, making Rwanda the nation with the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world. This success has inspired women’s rights campaigners in Ghana. The Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs has been conducting public consultations across the country in recent months and is looking at developing Ghana’s own affirmative action policy to ensure that more women have a greater chance of being elected in 2016.
Affirmative action is controversial in most parts of the world because it challenges the notion of a merit-based system. Within the framework of representative democracy it is seen to pose limits and restrictions on the ability of the demos to elect their own leaders. But in a game where women are not given support within their own parties, nor offered sufficient financing and the means to campaign and make themselves visible, they are losers before the match starts. When the playing field is tilted in favour of a dominant group, namely men, measures need to be taken until the field levels and both parties can compete on equal footing. In a culture where many people still cannot understand why female leaders might be desirable or necessary, or even imagine them in leadership roles, society and the government must be compelled through law to make this a reality. The notion of representative democracy is underpinned by an idea that politicians represent our needs desires and aspirations. With women, or any group absent from the picture, the democracy becomes hollow and simply a reflection of the will of the dominant group.
Affirmative action delayed
Despite the poor efforts by Ghana’s political establishment over the decades to encourage women’s participation, the notion of affirmative action is not new to Ghana. President Kwame Nkrumah saw there were no women amongst the 103 members of parliament, and appointed 10 women into parliament. After the 1966 coup, women’s presence in parliament diminished. Out of the 140 members of the parliament during the second republic (1969-72), only two were women. The Third Republic (1979-81) had only five women for the same number of parliamentarians – a mere increase of three. The frequent changes of government and the domination of the military, and male dominance that is usually reinforced through most forms of military rule, could explain why women’s participation had been so low.
During former President Jerry John Rawlings’ rule between 1982-2001, which encompasses both military and democratic rule, women’s political participation was also low. The 31st December Women’s Movement, spearheaded by the former first lady Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, attracted numerous supporters, but it did not lead to more women being elected when democratization took place in 1992. Professor Mansah Prah, a feminist sociologist at the University of Cape Coast refers to the Rawlings era as “The grand “˜Feminist’ Illusion.” She argues that no significant material, economic or political gains were made for women during that era:
“The women’s front in Ghana, under the long political tenure of Rawlings, was characterised by a grand illusion of activity purported to be in the interests of the broad masses of women and spearheaded by the First Lady and Life President of the DWM [December Women’s Movement].”
In recent years the NDC has pledged in its manifesto to commit to 40 percent quota of female parliamentarians and party office bearers. Both parties have also halved the registration fee for female aspirants running in the primaries. But many women’s groups say this is lip service and not good enough.
An uneven playing field
Female political candidates in Ghana face a number of challenges their men counterparts don’t. They must often seek permission from their husbands, lack access to funds to support their campaign and can also have their reputations dragged through the mud and their honour insulted in the quest for parliamentary and local assembly seats. MPs and district assemblymen in various regions and areas throughout the country have been known to taunt women and suggest they are prostitutes during campaigning.
Dorcas Coker-Appiah, the Director of the Gender Studies and Human Rights Documentation Center, says there are massive obstacles that lead many aspirants to simply give up.
“Women often have to ask for permission from their husbands before they enter politics and for many men it is unacceptable,” she said. “Economic disparities are also a problem because women can’t support their own campaigns and find it difficult to attract sponsors. During campaigns, candidates are often expected to provide gifts and money.”
But Coker-Appiah says that more women candidates will not necessarily translate into more seats.
“The fact that we might see more women candidates after the primaries does not mean we will see a higher level of women’s participation in parliament,” she said. “We will only see more women’s representation if the NDC and the NPP have women standing for elections in safe seats.”
While Appiah thinks that increasing women’s participation in parliament is important, she argues that due to the hierarchical structure and decision making processes of Ghana’s two major parties, higher women’s representation in parliament will not necessarily translate into real influence over and involvement in policy making.
“Because of the way in which parties are structured in Ghana, a quota or high level of women’s participation in the legislature doesn’t mean a great deal,” she said. “Women need to be in high level positions within parties for anything to change.”
Momentum for 2016
The 2012 elections are likely to be non-event for female parliamentary aspirants in Ghana. But women’s rights activists are hopeful the affirmative action bill will gain momentum and more women can be groomed to become political leaders and move up from the district assemblies to become parliamentary candidates for the 2016 elections. There will surely be some resistance in many communities, from traditional leaders and citizens, and from male politicians who are unwilling to loosen their hold on power to allow women to participate. But affirmative action is necessary if Ghana is to move forward politically and deepen its democracy. Otherwise it could be another decade of the same old men rising up the ranks or shuffling between the same seats.
Clair MacDougall is a journalist who covers West Africa. She has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Age, Ms. Magazine, The Caravan, the Indian Express, Unleashed (ABC), and Crikey among others. She blogs about West Africa at North of Nowhere. More of her work can be found here.