Am I Not A Citizen Too?…on affirmative action legislation and women’s empowerment

Affirmative Action. Women’s Empowerment. These are two cornerstones of nation building in 21st Century Ghana. Indeed, globally. And yet, we are a nation that continues to debate the merit or danger of the former and offers rhetoric about the latter.

We are at a crossroads. We need to move forward.

The Affirmative Action Bill languishes somewhere. It is not before Parliament. It has existed in multiple forms. It has been debated, dismissed, discussed and derailed. On Monday, I listened as a panel of extraordinary women explored again this Affirmative Action Bill and its implications. The panel’s focus was also women’s empowerment.

The women gathered on the panel were each extraordinary examples of exceptional work. They were Mrs. Angela Dwamena Aboagye, Executive Director The Ark Foundation; Mrs. Konadu Agyemang Rawlings, Founder National Development Party, Founder December 31st Movement and Former First Lady and Professor Ama de-Graft Aikins, Dean of International Programmes at the University of Ghana. Each offered persuasive and powerful arguments regarding the importance of both.

We are not all persuaded that Affirmative Action is necessary, and some resist the very notion of women’s empowerment. Others offer it as rhetoric that easily attracts applause, but beyond well phrased sentences and an enthusiastic articulation of love of mothers, aunties, grandmothers and other important women in their own lives, they offer little else.

It is time for new narratives. Power concedes nothing without a demand.  The nature of this demand is where we must now stand, explore and engage.

Arguments are often made that Affirmative Action is ‘preferential’ or ‘special treatment’ for women.

If we acknowledge that society discriminates in multiple ways against women – and there is ample evidence from scholars, civic organizations, global bodies like the UN and others that it does – then ending discrimination cannot possibly equate to ‘preferential’ or ‘special’ treatment.

Such language is dangerous and inaccurate. It suggests that women are asking for something extra, different – something they have not earned and do not deserve. Affirmative action is about justice. Justice is about equality. Equality is about nation building. And nation building is a national project that requires all of our participation – men and women.

We cannot keep debating the contribution of women to national development, political or organizational leadership. It is past time debating an issue that history has already answered in multiple ways. Women’s contribution to the founding of this nation and to its progress is clear. However, it is too often hidden in the pages of unwritten, untold history. In this 60th year of our independence, we still do not have a full telling of those who significantly contributed to this nation’s founding – women and men.  In other words, a whole history reveals this nation’s independence was the collective work of a people – of men and women, not of a person nor of a Big Six. These histories – oral and written – where men with pens and mics articulate and argue over all male founders but ignore the reality that all nations are built by people and not a person.

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We have been here too many times.  Cyclical arguments resolve nothing; they merely make us dizzy with inaction.

It is not that panels or symposiums or summits are not valuable – but we must shape new narrative, create and articulate fresh argument, build towards the critical mass and organized activism that turns the Affirmative Action Bill into a moving piece of legislative action that ultimately becomes the law of this land.

Resistance is inevitable. It will not dissipate. Its voice will be loud. Its voices will reach desperately for mics and pens to issue clarion calls of imminent power stealing by hungry, desperate women. The voices of progress must be smarter – not just louder.  They must permeate all areas where persuasion can be turned into action. They must reach into multiple corridors of power – soft, political, organizational, educational.

I do not suggest this is easy. Progress never has been. There are those who remind us of the uproar when the now Government, then Opposition touted its political affirmative action policy. That uproar ended in it crashing to the ground, it died – momentarily.  Failure can be instructive, not simply a defeat. How does a nation turn failure into a lesson to move differently with the goal of success the next time?

I am encouraged by the Ministry for Gender, Children and Social Protection launching a December campaign that uses the ‘HeForShe’ UN global initiative to engage boys and men to contribute to pushing this Affirmative Action Legislation. That is an exciting development – and it is being done in partnership with the UNDP.  This is fighting smarter.

What else would it take for the Affirmative Action Bill to be placed before Parliament so it can make its way into our lives as law? Why don’t the women organizers – whose skills are regularly sought for organizing – make a grand bargain that represents their best interests? If you want us to organize, pass the Bill, elevate the numbers of women in Parliament and stop paying lip-service to an already established history of women’s crucial participation and leadership in nation building.

And then there are those – many – who caution patience.

When Ghana’s Independence Movement galvanized momentum and demanded freedom now, the British colonizers cautioned patience. When Martin Luther King in America – standing on the shoulders of a movement of men and women – demanded civil rights and legislation recognizing the humanity and rights of African Americans, an American government cautioned patience.

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Patience is the weapon of those seeking protection of their privilege and denial of justice. In Ghana’s case, patience is the weapon of some men – and indeed some women – simply unconvinced of women’s significance in positions of leadership, or fighting to protect a status quo.

That is to be expected. But society should not heed their counsel for patience.

There are critics who never contribute. They can tell you all that is wrong, why it is wrong, who made it wrong – but resolution is not their work. That is not leadership.  Leadership is problem solving that benefits people, citizens.

Am I not a citizen too? I am certainly part of the 52% of Ghana.

Am I not a contributor to a nation? Do I – do we – not deserve to be beneficiaries of that which we have helped create? Must I – must we – be written out of history again and again to satisfy corrupted notions of nation’s foundations? Will you ever recognize my right to lead? Must I always be required to seek your permission?

We are in the midst of 16 Days of Activism – the United Nations initiative – that encourages the world to engage in some activity to eliminate violence against women.

These are inter-connected issues. Poverty, violence, privilege, unempowered women, male dominated political and organizational leadership – these are part of a pipeline that hinders progress. There are men for whom power in a woman’s hands equals devastating threat. If we suggest that all must be slowed down to engage such men, no progress will ever occur.

The fact of maleness does not especially equip you to excel or lead. The fact of femaleness does not especially equip you to submit or follow. Culture teaches both. So, evolving culture can teach us all new things. Unlearning is part of evolutionary culture.

Shared power is sexy.

The beauty of women in leadership is the recognition that more than one kind of leadership is necessary for progress that serves all. That has always been the case.

Leadership is something women do in multiple ways all over this country.

Affirmative action seeks to address discrimination not mete out special favours. It recognizes that playing fields are not equal; that the scales have been tipped in the favour of men and thus entire elements of national development are being ignored.

As a nation we cannot keep arguing about the worth, value, contribution of women.  Nations require men and women. They require boys and girls. They always have. We are better together. We go further. We last longer. We climb higher.  Can we acknowledge that nation building is an inter-connected exercise?

Forward ever, together – men and women.

PASS THE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BILL!

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