16 Days: Leadership & Masculinity

Esther A. Armah


16 Days of Activism. The UN named and claimed sixteen days from November 25th to December 10th as a call to action in eliminating violence towards women and fighting for human rights.

In Africa, a call to focus on educating girls, ending child marriage and harmful cultural practices is being made.

When it comes to gender, here in Ghana we tend to engage it as a ‘woman’s issue’ – sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘this woman thing’.

That’s not true.

Gender – the actual definition – is about the factors that make a boy and make a girl. It is about how the world teaches you your gender.

In this landscape, we are rightly focused on girls, women and power; and the importance of educating girls as a way to transform communities, societies and economies as well as beneficially change this nation building project.

There is an area that also requires focus. Masculinity, leadership and power.

In our society we are culturalized around what power, masculinity and leadership looks like. Power is male, leadership is male and masculinity is about authority, control, and often aggression.

Here in Ghana, on any given day, switch on the radio and there will be a complaint about our leadership – its failures, its incompetence and its shortcomings.

Our leadership model in Ghana leans on traditions that do not necessarily serve the direction we say our economy must go in order to flourish and not limp.

We are a young Continent. Here in Ghana, it is the youth and women who dominate in numbers. The latter is 52% of the population.

We are witness to programs, grants, calls, work, vision that seeks to expand the education of girls and end harmful practices that keep girls away from education.

The right to go to school, not get married as a child, not be abused, harassed, denigrated as women is part of the journey. Growing the skillsets of women so they can pursue journeys, paths, purpose, passion and profession is also part of it. As is expanding political participation and representation so more of our political landscape reflects our geographical landscape.

This is necessary, powerful and important work.

As we do this work, part of evolving culture must include reimagining power, masculinity and leadership.

And part of it is the emotional intelligence work.

For some, equality and equity are treated like a loss of power and manhood, a damaging shift of culture and dangerous loss of tradition. That approach impedes progress of a nation. It is also a reminder that engaging shifting power structures and the elevation of women as great for family, community, society, nation and progress requires engaging men on in-depth discussions around masculinity.

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Why? One example.

Right now, we have an Affirmative Action Bill languishing somewhere in Parliament. I remember listening to morning radio where the Head of the Gender Select Committee in Ghana articulated concerns that men have regarding passage of this Bill. He said if the Bill passed, they were worried that ‘women would take over’. That emotionality was impacting the movement of the Bill. Some may ridicule this expression of fear that impedes the passage of such an important piece of legislation. Certainly, it is a matter of concern that the Head of The Gender Select Committee expresses such sentiments as he holds such power.

But, can this also be a reminder that part of the work of evolving culture requires reimagining masculinity and men’s relationship to power?

I call it emotional justice.

As girls and women grow, as women leaders continue to emerge, as more work is done to ensure girls’ stay in school and get more education – what does that mean for you and to you as a man? How do you see leadership as the battle to build equality and equity continues? What does it mean to engage and follow women leaders in organizations, in politics, in business? As a man, do you experience this as a loss, as a danger, as a cancerous cultural evolution to be stopped or can you engage it as a beautiful necessity  and an inevitability for a nation to fully flourish and become the best of itself?

These are not rhetorical questions, easily answered with fine speeches. They require that we grapple and wrestle with these notions of masculinity that preserve our practice of what I call OGA-NOMICS.

This is about individual and institutional shifts. It is equally about structure and systems.

It is about empowerment and power. Empowerment works for individual women and men to build and boost their individual skills, gifts and fulfill their abilities – that matters. Power is about structure and systems, it is about policy and political systems and institutions  – that matters too.

We raise girls to ask, question and challenge themselves about being a ‘good girl’ versus being a ‘bad girl’. There are a range of issues about such categorizations. What do we ask of boys? How do we challenge them about what it is to be a ‘good man’? Boys are taught to aspire to be a ‘Big Man’ – and practice Big Man-ism; to be the OGA, and what I described earlier, to practice OGAnomics.

In this culturally changing world, what different questions can – and should – we be directing at boys and men who are being taught what being a man means, looks and sounds like?

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The African proverb could be our guide: you can go fast alone. We can go further together.

Imagine how much further we can go with fully participatory brilliant men and women, boys and girls – who recognize a mutual need to build; who understand that strength in a woman does not negate strength within a man; who engage with impactful, effective leaders when they are women; who resist the instinct to degrade or negate women in power and who are willing to do the work of cultural evolution.

It is not that this is easy. It is that it is necessary.

Change can feel like loss, it can feel like death. We must grapple with that. Cultural change requires an intimate reckoning. We are reckoning with our individual, familial and cultural ideas of strength, power and possibility.   Cultural evolution must include reimagining power.

The Ghana we want cannot become all it should be without the best and brightest of us all. It cannot be sustained if thousands are under-developed, under-served and under-represented.

Ghana has not always fully acknowledged the role of women in its growth, progress and prosperity. That does not mean that women have not been there, participated, rallied and led. It means that erasure and diminishment of women is part of how men are taught authority and leadership. They are taught that success is their singular endeavor, and not the result of collective action by multiple leaders that include women.

16 Days is about the elimination of violence against women. Part of my work is to engage us in reimagining leadership, masculinity and power as a crucial part of a nation-building project.

You are a man. You were taught what that means. How willing might you be to reimagine that manhood for the Ghana we say we love and want to build?

The beauty is that we can do this, we can change and we can reimagine these notions of power, masculinity and leadership.

The challenge is: are we willing?


‘LEADERSHIP, MEDIA & MASCULINITY’ is the 2nd episode in #theLwordGHANA, a live discussion series on reimagining LEADERSHIP in Ghana. It will feature BERNARD AVLE and ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS. It is moderated by ESTHER ARMAH and created by her company, EAA MEDIA PRODUCTIONS. Join us for this crucial discussion: Wednesday 12th December, 6pm at British Council, Accra. This 2nd live episode is for men only. The first was for women only. The 3rd episode will bring men and women together. ADMISSION is FREE.

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