Gender and women’s rights are development issues
Since 2002, many organisations have been calling for the election of more women to decision making positions, such as the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies and Parliament. They have encouraged women to offer themselves to be elected. They have supported female candidates in diverse ways – printing of posters, organising workshops to help the women acquire skills to market themselves, sponsoring radio discussion programmes to educate the electorate on the importance of increased women’s participation in decision making structures etc. Unfortunately the effort has not resulted in any visible increase in the number of women elected to such structures.
At the same time, these same organisations have sought to use the provision for the appointment of some members of the Assemblies to call on the appointing authorities to increase women’s representation through the appointments. The same organisations have called for an increase in the number of women appointed to other leadership positions, such as the cabinet, other ministerial and deputy ministerial positions and boards. Unfortunately, again this effort has yielded only limited results.
I have been asked many times why the interest in getting more women elected. What is wrong with the District Assemblies as at present constituted? And what is wrong with our Parliament? If there is anything wrong with the quality of decisions it takes, is it not more because of its partisan approach to discussions and voting rather than the composition by sex?
It has also been argued on many platforms, in drinking spots, over games of oware and draughts and even on media platforms that the campaign for the rights of women is a misplaced one as there is no law that discriminates against women. I won’t explore if there are legal provisions that discriminate against women. That is not my area. But women are not able to realise many of their rights for many non-legal reasons.
Two NGOs that work in partnership with IBIS (NORSAAC in Tamale and CODAC in Bolga) contracted a research on why very few women in selected districts in the 3 Northern Regions were elected into the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies in the 2010 District Assembly elections. Some of the reasons given by respondents for not voting for women were not legal. They included such unscientific reasons as men being strong and willing to work, women being violent and impatient, even though women help the community and listen only men could bring development to the communities, among others.
There were other reasons why those who did not vote for women voted the way they did. Some of the respondents alleged that when women are in positions of leadership, they become arrogant towards their constituents. Another interesting set of reasons bothered on morals; they would not vote for a woman because she was not married. And not being married is a stigma, for a woman, but not for men. Some accused the female candidates of having low morals – ‘she is not married and she is seen with one man today and yet a different man tomorrow.’
In a chat with two elected female assembly members in the Builsa District, they catalogued challenges they had to overcome and which some female candidates could not overcome – Challenges which were peculiar to only female candidates. Women who contested in the communities they were married into were discriminated against because people felt that if they were elected they would serve the interest of their parents’ community. Those who contested in the communities of their birth were discriminated against because women belonged to their husbands’ communities, not their parents’ communities. They never win.
So many women were not voted for not because they were incompetent but because of factor which would not affect the discharge of their responsibilities in the District Assemblies. For instance, it is not true that one needs physical strength to be effective in the District Assemblies. In those communities where men said they could not vote for women because men were stronger, women did backbreaking jobs on the farms and at home. They carry firewood long distances, spending the whole day in the bush in search of fuel wood and walking long distances with heavy bundles on their heads. They walk long distances to fetch water sometimes with children strapped to their backs.
There are many men in the District Assemblies who are not married or have sacked their wives in circumstances the communities cannot have approved of. There are many men in the Assemblies who are married and still keep even more than one girlfriend. Why do we apply different moral standards to men and women? At the launch of the report on performance of women in the 2010 District Assembly elections, the Honourable Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs lamented this differential morality standard for men and women. She observed that when men visit other people they are said to be consulting. When women do the same they are said to be flirting. When men sit together over beer and chat they are said to be planning.
When women do the same, even without beer, they are said to be gossiping. When we use irrelevant factors to deny women representation in structures that decide how the community is developed, how resources are allocated and used, we are denying them their right to participation. Of course, the law on election to the Assemblies does not bar women from contesting; so their rights are not denied through legal provisions but through social factors. In her song Faster and Faster to Nowhere Donna Summer sings that Cos the city is closing tighter and tighter around me, it’s a nightmare, day mare; it’s a bad mare no matter which way mare. Discriminating against women in elections on the basis of false social factors rather than legal ones is a denial of rights, all the same.
Why is the election of more women to decision making positions not only a women’s rights issue but a development issue as well? Above all, why are the twin issues of gender and women’s rights development issues? The quality of the decisions we make depend on the variety of perspectives brought into examining an issue. The more varied the perspective the more critical the digestion and diagnosis of the issue, the better the quality of the decision. In homes, it is strongly recommended that families discuss issues affecting the family. And that it is in this way that the best decisions will be taken for the family. We have encouraged participation because it improves the quality of decisions.
In setting up juries for the trial of cases that must be tried by jury, care is taken to ensure variety in the background of the jurors. From the perspective of the rights of women, it is unfair that the group that constitutes almost 52% of the population constitutes only 8% of the highest deliberation and decision making structure in the country. Men would also have been unhappy and would have complained if they constituted 52% of the population and had only 19 out of 230 seats in Parliament. From the development perspective, the whole country is losing by the fact that discussions and decisions in parliament are informed by the perspective of only one sex. Or almost.
Beyond decision making, gender and women’s rights are development issues for many reasons. I will state only one and it can be applied at different levels. Starting from the home. In a family with six children, 3 boys and 3 girls, if only the boys are sent to school, the first issue is the abuse of the rights of the girls to equal treatment, education and opportunity to develop their talent. If say, of the six children, 2 boys and 2 girls were intelligent, if all the children are given the chance to have education, the family would have had 4 of its members going far, living independent lives and supporting the weaker ones. The whole family is better off. Where only the boys are sent to school, the family has only 2 of its members going far in education and having to support the other 4. The whole family loses.
We can project this same situation unto the village level, comparing two villages over twenty years, with one village creating the opportunity for every child to have education and try to develop their talents, and the other limiting such opportunity to only boys.
Over the last twenty years, there has been increased appreciation of girls’ education. As a result more girls have enrolled in primary school and gone on to have secondary and tertiary education. We can compare the competition for admissions to such courses as Medicine, Engineering, Business Administration say these past 5 years with the competition in the 1960s, for example. The picture is that we are getting more and more candidates for those courses now than previously. We are therefore turning out more good professionals now than we did in the past. With the increase in number of Medical and Business Schools, we still have enough good candidates to fill them. Consequently, Ghana is producing even more of the professional skills needed for the country’s development.
Let us end by imagining the situation in an imaginary country with a population of six million people, three million male and three million female. Ninety percent of the male population is literate with over 60 percent having tertiary education. Only ten percent of the female population has had any education with only one percent of women having gone on to tertiary institutions. Understandably most of the women would be unemployed and barely able to contribute to household’s income. The country would struggle to meet its requirement of professional skills, with half of the population not developing its potential. Half of the population would lack that knowledge that breeds confidence and independence that education develops in us.
As this country progresses to the point where almost everybody, no matter their sex, gets educated, the quality of life in the home, in the community and the country’s total output – in quality and quantity – would greatly improve. Yes, we need to respect and take action to assure the rights of women because women are entitled to them and must have them, but in doing so, we open up families, communities and the whole country for development.
Short URL: http://thechronicle.com.gh/?p=47226