What is the worth of women, how is the development of any particular society a direct product of how it treats its women? In gathering my thoughts for this topic, I found my mind drifting to one haranguing experience I had, long time ago, whilst working as an expatriate teacher in the Republic of Niger, back in the 1980s.
The scene is set in one sweltering late afternoon. There was some waft of comforting wind drifting through the afternoon breeze. The sun, a golden ball in the sky, was fast disappearing into the horizon, and everybody was looking forward to dinner and some well deserved rest. My neighbours were busy chatting away in the Hausa language, attracting no particular interest from me. Momentarily, we became aware of some gong-gongs and shrieking voices in the distance. There were women ululating above the cacophony of tinkling sounds, whistles, and jingles. The more we listened, the more it appeared the sounds were getting stronger and heading directly towards us. Braying donkeys would kick the soil and occasionally register their disapproval by trying to top the sounds with their own shrieks. Woe and behold it did not take long before we knew the gathering riot of voices and the beating of cooking pans were in fact coming to our compound.
The horror and fear of not knowing what was happening gripped me. Before I knew it some old women – some needing serious dental works and few males, in colourful flouting boubous, dashed into the compound to practically snatch one female student, Aminatou Abubakar, bundled her unto the back of one of the women and poured talcum powder all over her. The man leading the charge was her own father, Alhaji Abubakar. Aminatou, one of the best and brightest students in my class, together with her twin brother, had just been given away to marriage. That meant the end of her schooling, whilst her twin continued, in a society that clearly preferred boys education over girls. Being very agitated and angry, I confronted the father on why he would do such a thing? His reaction was framed in a question: “What is the worth of a woman? She can now read and write. That should be enough!!” he intoned. Aminatou, aged 17 at the time, was whisked away to marry a man, the age of her father, about 55. In fact the bridegroom was the best friend of the father – both being butchers at the local market, and according to what I heard, Aminatou had been betrothed to the friend since she was a toddler. I must say, that whereas there are no untoward discernible domestic policies on the books designed to discriminate against women, the reality is, there is this banal systemic hindrances and encumbrances, steeped deep in traditional and cultural practices, as well as religious beliefs, that together work to thwart every effort and policy initiatives the authorities design to bring relief to women in these societies.
There is a Ghanaian adage out there that says: If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation. How so true but also how so tragic we have not adhered to this revelation and has often rendered our women to the bottom half of the totem pole. In every African country out there, women outnumber men in the population but they are abysmally under represented at the commanding heights of the economy and power. This essay is an attempt to look at some of the contributory factors and offer some policy solutions to rectify the anomaly. We would focus on: Patrilineal and Matrilineal inheritances; Girl-child education; Social norms and assigned roles for women; Religious practices, witchcraft, and the neglect of the aged; Access to credit and financing in the informal sector, etc.
Patrilineal and Matrilineal Inheritance
Both in Ghana and in many African countries one can find one form or the other of unilateral inheritance practices, you either belong to a Patrilineal or Matrilineal heritage, but almost never to both inheritances at the same time at the local level. For women who belong to patrilineal heritage and inheritances, it turns out that your brothers get to inherit the father, whereas you the female is expected to marry into your future husband's family. Titles and deeds do not pass to you and your descendants from your father side; they go to your brothers and their sons. They carry the family name, and along with that any familial titles such as ascending to any chiefly thrones and lands. Titles do not even pass over to your male issues who in this case are the grandsons of your father. For this reason if a woman is unlucky to have married into a rich family, you and your descendants become entrapped in a vicious circle of poverty which is very hard to break.
For women caught in matrilineal societies, the deal is you and your children cannot inherit your husband, not his lands or properties. Those properties belong to his brothers, nephews and nieces. On the death of your husband, his siblings would come and drive you away from your marital home and take over his properties. If your husband was not wealthy and wise to have bequeathed to you something whilst he was alive and made it known to his family and dies intestates, you are out of luck. You are expected to seek your inheritance from your own blood family from your mother side. Clearly, with booming population, it is apparent that the share of every woman and her kids gets smaller every year with every addition to the extended family.
For the above reasons, many African women go into marriage with clear worrisome burden and trepidations. Should you be unlucky and have only girls, in Patrilineal societies, your husband's brothers would come for everything leaving almost next to nothing for you and your daughters. In either lineage, women are clearly in a disadvantage, and this is even further compounded by polygamy which means you would have to share the little that accrues to you, from your husband, with other women and their children.
The terms of the bride price that your husband paid, if you are in a matrilineal society, means you and your children belong to your mother's lineage, not your husband's; your husband's nephews and nieces, and brothers and sisters can expect to take over everything on the day he dies. Likewise if you are a woman in a Patrilineal society, the terms of the bride price dictates that you the wife and children belong to your husband's family, but here is the catch; when he dies, his brothers come in to take everything, including even you the woman, if they so desire, and add you to their wives. You do not take direct possession of your husband's lands and properties such as houses. In fact your sons have privileges over you, and if you do not have sons, you are out of luck. How in the world could women in these societies accumulate wealth and pass it on to their children? The Akans of Ghana have a saying: If a woman even buys a gun, it still behoves on a man to shoulder and keep it. What that means is a woman is not expected to rise above a man. They would make sure to keep you, the woman, under a man's thumb. Clearly there is systemic sexism arraigned against women.
Most Africans live on less than $2.00 a day. There is a constant struggle against prioritizing the family budget and education. Since the boys are the ones supposed to carry the family name and take care of their parents in old age, it is not unusual to see parents frowning upon and discouraging female education. It is even assumed a highly educated woman cannot find a suitable husband, since the men become intimidated by them. So what happens is the family's money is skewed towards ensuring the boys get education whilst the girls are trained and taught how to cook, clean the house, and take care of babies. As we saw in the introduction, the women are given away to marriage in their teens and prime, as soon as they have acquired some modicum of education, which indicates they can read letters and follow simple instructions. A woman's worth is measured in her fertility, how many children she has, and how good she can cook, clean, and work on the farms. Herein lies some of the reasons why Africa is caught up in stagnant growth and retrogression. Clearly it is hard to see how these countries can make headways in terms of economic development and catch up with the advanced countries when half of the population is tied down by anachronistic cultural practices and beliefs. One cannot make any meaningful economic and social development if the women are left behind. It is impossible.
Social norms and assigned roles for women
Women make more than 50% of the population in most African societies but a whopping over 80% are caught up in subsistence agriculture; they do most of the nursing, nurturing and harvesting of the farms, whilst the men consign themselves to things like hunting, clearing of bush, and the felling of trees. And yet when the produce comes in, it is the men who take over the possession of the income generated and go on to marry more women. Polygamy clearly debases and dilutes the incomes that should accrue to the average woman in a polygamous relationship. The men decide and dictate what to grow, when to clear the bush, what to sell, what to keep and what to buy even for the wives. There is very little a woman can do when your husband decides to bring in another woman. This is not limited to the so-called uneducated folks, even presidents, like Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, are doing it. Most African presidents have wives they show and present at official functions, and wives and concubines whose roles are not clearly defined, except to say, to give them bragging rights and more babies, especially sons. The probability of your husband taking another wife, if you are not giving him a son is 1, in Africa. In Ghana, the Attorney-General, Mrs Betty Mould Iddrisu, is the third wife of her husband. She has got to share the husband with two other women. Whichever way you look at it, it is very incomprehensible to the westerner but one could argue; there are very few successful men around, and in a society where women clearly outnumber men, certain social vices endemic in western societies, such as widespread prostitution and the proliferation of single-moms and women head of households are greatly reduced if women are allowed to enter into polygamous relationships. The presence of the father figure goes a long way to contain otherwise many children who would become wayward as a result of the absence of men in the homes. How does this phenomenon retards progress in Africa, is in the quality. Too many children by too many women spreads the wealth and quality time of the men engaged in polygamy, thin, and it is very likely the husbands are not able to concentrate on in-depth grooming and raising of their kids.
Religious practices, witchcraft, and the neglect of the aged
The African is incurably religious. Superstition and the role of Supreme Being permeate every thought and action on the African continent. They say, “Everything by God”, and they mean it. This overwhelming beholding to a supreme being frankly has often blinded us from adopting the inquisitive mind and challenging and adopting scientific approaches to things, lest we ran afoul of God's sanctions. Yes there are very well educated and academic giants come out of the African continent, that is not the issue, what I am referring to is the quantity and quality vis-à-vis the population at large. In many societies, nobody is presumed to have died a natural death; it has got to be some witch who is behind most deaths. And who do we tend to blame? Women! Almost every misfortune is blamed on women witches, who are often childless old women, who end up at the receiving end of assaults, neglect and accusations. Women trapped in these accusations are often banished or ostracised from the society; they are prevented from many things that the rest of the society takes for granted. The end result is neglect, crippling poverty, and ill-health. Again how we fail to realize superstition and unrealistic assumptions about the Supreme Being is holding us back in terms of scientific discoveries and research is hard to fathom. The African society is very paternalistic. Our religious beliefs dictate that women cannot rise to become the head of most churches. Inside the church and mosque they are assigned lesser roles as compared to men, and in most charismatic churches, the highest level they can reach is deaconess. This uncharitable assumptions about women extrapolate into the larger society where they are not allowed even to head most organisations. Worst still is the presence of women in politics and government. In Ghana, president Mills paid lip service of going to appoint women to 40% of political appointments only to turn around to appoint less than 10% when he won the election that brought him to power in 2008. For a country where women constitute about 52% of the population, there was not even a single woman appointed to his Economic Advisory Council, a think-tank that advises him on economic matters. How in the world can you have an in-depth analysis of issues that impinges on women and gender inequalities when you don't have a woman at the table? The story repeats itself across the African continent. We cannot close the discussion on this subsection without talking about the religious bondage some girls are subjected to in Ghana, called Trokosi. Under this traditional religion practice, girls are assigned to certain shrines and fetishes for the sins of their parents. Girls under this bondage are to all purposes and intention, indentured slaves, who for the rest of their lives are never allowed to go to school, and are often abused sexually, by the fetish priests. All their lives they are to submit to the sexual advances of the priest and are never paid for their labour and services.
Access to credit and financing in the informal sector
The informal sector, such as market trading, farming, beauty parlours and tailoring shops etc., employ huge numbers of women. In Ghanaian markets, it is as if 70% of the traders are women, yet it is ironic that women access to banking and financing is very minimal, given that most loans and lines of credit are situate on collaterals which our women folk lack. For this reason, most market women resort to some sort of self-micro financing called “susu”, whereby they put away a little bit of their earnings, everyday, to a person who comes around to collect a small layaway savings until a point in time when the money would gross up to make a meaningful impact in their trading activities, and they would redeem it. This kind of self-micro financing pays no interest and is subject to abuses; at times the “susu” collector would bolt away with the monies thus collected from the market women.
What is government policy towards the informal sector as compared to the formal sector? In Ghana and many African countries it can be argued that the informal sector employs far more people than the formal sector, over 85% of the population are employed in the informal sector but then there are no social safety nets for the people in this category, especially women. Whereas people in the formal sector can look forward to pensions in their retirements, in Ghana the cocoa farmer and other cash crop producers who are the main engines that drive the economy have nothing of that sort. No pension, no safety nets in their old age, yet 65% of their earnings are expropriated every year by the government to drive the formal sector. Shouldn't the government see itself that it owes a duty to protect and serve the people caught up in the informal sector, especially women who are often the victim of archaic inheritance practices?
The foregoing makes it abundantly clear that unless the government and traditional authorities sit up and come up with far reaching policies and solutions, bothering on social engineering, that would empower especially women and give adequate and equal attention to gender equality issues, our dream of catching up with the advanced countries would remain just that – dreams and mirages. The laws of inheritance on the books need a thorough shake up to bring them into the 21st century aspirations and realities. That spouses should have uninhibited rights to inherit each other, and the children of such marriages, without any reservation as to being boys or girls, should have complete rights to take freely everything that accrues to their parents on both sides. In a multi-ethnic society where there are many tribes, each with its own tribal customs and traditions, this vision would work only if all the tribes in the country are subjected to one nationwide inheritance laws, leaving no room for anybody to fall through the cracks.
Government should initiate policies such as elevating the age of sexual consent to 18 or even 21 to provide cover and protection for young girls who are often pressurised into sex and go into early marriage with older men, even before they have gotten out of high school. The punishment for breaking such a law should be so severe as to deter men from harassing and pressurising girls into sex. It is hardly the situation that a female university student would get herself into having babies and marriages before graduation, once the light bulb goes up in their minds that education is key to their success in the future.
Education should be made compulsory and free, from Grade 1 through to Grade 12, and parents should be made to face sanctions if they fail to send their kids, especially girls, to school, whilst it is basically free. Pro-poor initiatives such as providing at least one free meal for students in school, and allowing card bearing students to board state omnibuses freely, nationwide, would go a very long way to increase school enrolment and reduce or almost eliminate child labour. That should not end there, but the government must focus on building at least one good library, stuffed with computers and wired to the internet, to abridge the digital divide, in each district. Couple with that, government must ensure the computers are linked to textbooks and lecture videos online to help especially the rural youth who are often placed at a disadvantage, as their communities are not able to attract top rate teachers. Online, they would have the same access as their city place cousins, to access information and educational videos.
Micro-financing is the key to women empowerment and the way forward to elevate one-half of the population from poverty and bridge gender inequality. It is a fact, women, when given access to small loans pay back their loans and come back for more, even quickly than men. They are proven better managers of money than their men folk as they are in tune with household budget financing, stretching the dollar to the fullest possible limit, whereas men tend to squander their money on alcohol and more women. In the rural areas, small loans, to the tune of $50, $100 or even $500, can make extraordinary impact to enable women to expand on their trading and farming businesses and lift huge number of people from poverty. In the place of collateral, government and banks can take a leaf from the Indian experience where a cluster of women, often in groups of fives or less are given loans, bondable on the group. The women act as their own enforcers to ensure no one defaults on the loans, and they are able to pay their loans on time and even show appetite and room for more growth and expansion. All anachronistic tribal practices that prohibits women from acquiring, say land, in Patrilineal societies should be abolished henceforth and help unlock the huge potential of women that would have positive multiplier effect on the economy and help lift the whole society to greater economic heights and development. The government should initiate plans to bring adult education to the older folks. If a people have education it would have positive and quality impact on family planning, healthy lifestyle and giant economic strives for the country.
Governments must advance plans that would ensure the farmers and people in the informal sector, the greatest employer in all these economies, are brought into some sort of social security and pension schemes that would ensure our farmers can have some form of cash flow in their old age. What does it say to neglect people in the informal sector, making about 85% of the working population when they have nothing to retire on? It is even more alarming and puzzling that this policy slips has not already engendered huge social unrests. Perhaps the problem has not come to a pivotal point as most farmers tend to depend upon the remittances of their children resident overseas, in their old age. How long the governments can continue to shirk their duties remain to be seen.
As has already been said before, women constitute 52% of the population, but when you come to governance, in parliament and in the executive, they make less than 10% of the membership. Even far lesser percentage is found as heads of corporations and boards, a far cry from the 40% candidate Mills promised during the electoral campaigns of 2008. There is a serious need to institute affirmative policies, such as preserving at least 30% of parliamentary and district assembly seats and cabinet positions for women. It should not end there government should ensure that at least 30% of all government contracts go to female owned or headed businesses and companies. Women should be given at least three months maternity leave with pay, without the fear of losing their jobs or seniority to attend to their new born babies. Ghana and Africa are in serious need of female role models to encourage teenage girls to stay in school and graduate. Making incisive interventions to place women in leadership positions would go a long way to encourage girls to stay in school and rise up to the challenge to claim their rightful place in our communities.
Finally, the attention must be drawn to the ravaging and debilitating consequences that corruption unleashes on the disadvantaged in society, especially women. Corruption is simply the abuse of ones office or position for financial gain or some advantage. In Ghana and Africa, the very fact that women are hugely under represented at the commanding heights of the economy and power and decision centres, means they are often exploited, both sexually and monetarily in order for them to get any of their needs met. Too often, young women entering the civil service or the work force are often plied to give sexual favours in exchange for jobs. Border guards notoriously pressurize commercial women traders who ply the Ecowas (Economic Community of West Africa) sub-region for sex in order to facilitate their papers to and from their destinations. In the era of Aids and HIV, this monstrosity and sexual proclivities, are destroying a whole region that does not have adequate health facilities and services to begin with. Governments must come with policies and monitoring surveillance that would curtail this unholy exploitation of women. The institution of video cameras at border guard offices and crossing points and the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman to receive complaints from the public would go a long way to curtail corruption and give incentives to whistle blowers to expose the greedy and corrupt public officials that are taking undue advantage of the public and women in particular. Corruption alone, per any particular year, costs the central government billions of dollars, often exceeding the total foreign direct investments in these economies. In and by itself, it serves to discourage a lot of foreign investors who are badly needed to come in to bring in capital, technology and know-hows to create jobs for the teaming number of graduates who enter the job market every year. We shoot ourselves at the foot and in the mouth if this canker is left unchecked and controlled, as it would add to the cost of doing business and everybody gets to pay for the thieving and nefarious activities of the corrupt elements in our midst. Corruption causes moral decay, and works against the very fabric and foundation of the society, the same way termites eat away the foundation of buildings, if left unchecked.
By Eric Kwasi Bottah (Oyokoba)