At the 27th Summit of the African Union, Ghana was awarded the 2016 African Gender Award. This award recognizes Ghana as leader in promoting the economic and social rights of women. Reading headlines about this surprised me at first, and inspired me to finally blog about my observations of gender in this country.
I was warned that gender dynamics in Ghana would not be what I’m used to. I travelled here with the notion that Ghana was a “few steps behind” the U.S. in terms of feminism. I was nervous about gaining respect in the workplace despite my gender, and metaphorically patted my home country on the back for its progressive treatment of women.
Reality is, of course, much more complex. Life for a Ghanaian woman is certainly different from life for a woman in the States, but often, those differences surprised me.
Some of my preconceived notions did prove true. Ghanaian society is deeply conservative and women are expected, above all, to marry and bear children. At a dialogue on reproductive health held by the Ghanaian Ministry of Gender, doctors discussed how many Ghanaians believe that women alone are responsible for fertility issues, and how they face explicit social shame if they do not have children within a few years of marriage. This stigma is disappointing, and American society is definitely more progressive in this respect.
At the same dialogue, however, I noticed a Ghanaian feminist victory that is rare in the United States. The panel of experts consisted of mostly women, and the room full of stakeholders had plenty of female representation. In fact, at most programs I attended and covered in Ghana, women were present and active contributors. On the other hand, I have seen many similar events in the States chaired and attended exclusively by white men.
In my office, I hear my coworkers casually discuss polygamy. It makes sense, they say, for a man to support multiple women, or to have concubines outside his marriage. This particular form of patriarchy is not acceptable in American society. We might say that we’ve “moved past” it.
Yet, in my observations of the public and political spheres, Ghana has sometimes “moved past” us. In Ghanaian media, I have yet to see the kind of stereotypes and language that surround successful women in the United States. The Chief Justice of Ghana is the fourth most powerful person in the country, and she is a woman. The frequent analysis and critiques levied at her by the media, however, do not contain sexist language. She is never painted with highly gendered descriptors like “unstable,” “emotional,” or “shrill.” The same cannot be said for women in power in the United States — Hillary Clinton is one of many examples.
This is not to say that Ghana is a model of feminist success. Indeed, it’s far from it. Though I observed many first-class female graduates at the University of Ghana commencement and met countless strong, successful women through my internship, Ghana’s conservative and religious social context seems to place a firm ceiling on female success. Women, especially married women, are still explicitly required to manage their home in addition to any career. Though women-led businesses, markets and powerful feminist movements exist in the country (look up the 31st December Women’s Movement, for example), it is still rife with human trafficking, inappropriate sexualization, extreme homophobia and more.
So, in some ways, my wariness of life as a woman in Ghana was legitimate. This country has a long way to go before it achieves gender parity. It’s important to remember, however, that the United States does, too. The U.S. deserves praise for how far it has progressed in the last century, and I am sure that Ghana deserves its award from the African Union, but both countries (and, certainly, the world) must acknowledge a need for further progress.
Ultimately, life in Ghana has shown me that the progress of feminism does not follow a single, prescribed path. Women in a society can have representation without respect, or respect with immutable cultural limits. A society can embrace women in the workplace, yet refuse to acknowledge any long-term change in gender roles. Nothing in a fight for social justice is as simple as “forward” or “backward.” In different cultural contexts, the battles and victories are not the same. Thanks to this international experience, I’ll carry that understanding with me as I continue to study and advocate for women’s issues.