Female empowerment has assumed a new dimension, following President Akufo-Addo’s introduction of ‘dynamism’ into the female empowerment and development lexicon.
When pushed to the wall at a gender forum in Canada two weeks ago, President Akufo-Addo suggested that gender advocates need to inject some dynamism into their work – to encourage women to put themselves up for elections, if Ghana is to get more women into decision-making positions.
Arguably, the president’s suggestion was taken out of context by the opposition; who unleashed scathing criticism on the first gentleman of the land. Some critics demanded an apology from the president for daring to suggest that there is need for dynamism to promote female empowerment and participation in the governance process.
The government’s communications machinery has done a good job by providing a frontal and incisive response to the opposition’s attack on the president. The Minister of Information, Mr. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, has been widely reported in the news and social media as presenting well-researched data of past governments’ records in promoting female empowerment – contrasting them with the record of the current president’s performance on female empowerment.
A study by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in partnership with the Institute of Local Government Studies is quite revealing. Titled ‘A Gender Analysis of Political Appointments in Ghana since Independence’, the study outlines the data of female representation in various elections and their outcomes. In 2012 only 133 women contested against 1,332 men, of which only 35 won.
Similarly, in the 2016 election for example, only 137 females contested parliamentary positions out of the 1258 candidates for the 275 seats. Of the 137 female contestants, only 37 won seats.
The analysis suggests that, on average, women’s representation in Ghana’s Parliament has hovered at around 12% across various administrations since Independence. Perhaps, on the strength of the above statistics, President Akufo-Addo’s suggestion that there is need for more dynamism in getting more women to put themselves up for office is forthright, and would not have attracted the backlash it received but for political expediency.
Government has provided enough evidence to prove that under the Akufo-Addo administration, the gender equation has been addressed and significantly improved.
He appointed the first female Chief of Staff, and ensured that the positions of Chief Justice and Cabinet Secretary were filled by competent women. Also, 36 of his Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs), as well as several top executives of State-Owned Enterprises are now women. The record shows that President Akufo-Addo has appointed the highest number of women as ministers in the 4th Republic. Below is the data provided by the Ministry of Information.
|J. J. Rawlings||J. A. Kufuor||J. E. A. Mills||John Mahama||Nana Akufo-Addo|
|First term = 15%||2 terms = 11.43%||First Term = 18.35%||First Term = 17.86%||First Term = 19.24%|
|2nd term = 13%|
According to the Minister of Information, President Akufo-Addo has appointed more women than any other president in Ghana’s history. It is on record that at least three key cabinet positions of the current government are held by women: The Attorney General, and Foreign Affairs and Local Government Ministries. One strong point government has been trumpeting is that the president’s actions can be demonstrated where it matters most – empowering the girl-child through education to be able to compete on equal terms, at least, by preparing them for the future, according to the Information Minister.
So, the suggestion by President Akufo-Addo that unless women put themselves up as candidates it will be difficult to have a majority of them as ministers is nothing but the truth – especially viewed against the background of a Constitutional provision for 50% of ministers to be appointed from the Legislature. Perhaps, there should be advocacy for that provision of the Constitution to be amended, so any president can balance the appointments to favour women more.
In the field of development economics, women’s empowerment is defined as the process through which women acquire the ability to make strategic life-choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them. Many development experts are of the view that empowerment of women is not all about representation in Parliament or public office. The most critical strategy for empowerment is the potential for women to claim their entitlements and utilise their endowments. In this country where two-thirds of women never complete any tertiary education, or a professional or vocational course, the real empowerment should be access to microcredit.
Microfinance has been a popular poverty alleviation strategy among development agencies since the mid-1980s, and has been considered an effective vehicle for empowering women in particular. The rationale for providing women with affordable loans is that: (1) women are disproportionately represented among the poorest in society and need more help than men; (2) women are discriminated in formal labour markets and are usually obliged to seek income on the margins of economy in the informal sector; (3) women-headed households are on the increase as a result of economic recession and changing labour needs’ and (4) women-headed households are usually more vulnerable in times of crisis, as they have fewer resources to draw on. Therefore, any discourse on affirmative action for women should focus on making microcredit available at interest-free or low-interest rates to enable more women to invest and take full control of their future.
Empowerment is a process of moving from being unpowered to being empowered. Theorising of empowerment stresses two main perspectives on this process: namely through building women’s individual capacities; and through collective behaviour and adherence to cultural norms which emphasise collective growth. Microfinance interventions are based on the assumption that participation in the intervention has empowering effects and stimulates individual growth.
However, these interventions are often implemented in more traditional collectivistic cultures. It has been proven, in Asia and Latin America, that the surest route out of poverty is for more vulnerable people – especially women – to be engaged in self-employment or paid work; rather than depending on the largesse of politicians for handouts once every four years. Microcredit can promote both social and private business ends – by raising incomes, supporting women’s empowerment, and incorporating social development components into the schemes. Ordinarily, the positive side of micro-credit is enabling low-income people to have money for investing into productive activity. This has worked in many cases (which has been documented by the World micro-credit Summits that have taken place over many years).
On the negative side, critics of micro-credit say it is subject to the same phenomenon as sub-prime mortgages: borrowers are persuaded to take out too many loans by predatory lenders and subsequently fall into debt, unable to repay their loans. In this case, debt can have life-ending consequences. In Ghana, for instance, the lending rates of some if not all the microfinance companies are suffocating the very poor they are supposed to help alleviate poverty.
Some lending rates are as high as fifty percent, and in many instances women who take loans from these microfinance companies in some way falter in repayment – causing them to forfeit whatever assets they used as collateral. Over the years, microfinance companies have succeeded in impoverishing more women than empowering them. Some banks and microfinance institutions in Ghana are too rigid in categorising women’s businesses as too risky and unprofitable to deserve support. Research however shows that women are more trustworthy in loan repayments than men.
The need to target women stems from the fact that women have too often been marginalised in previous policies aimed at supporting self-employment in Ghana. Given that female businesses are largely small-scale and concentrated in the retail and service sectors, they do not fit into the traditional lending portfolios of sound business ventures.
The role of women, especially women’s empowerment and reproductive and sexual health, present a new approach to the development debate. The United Nations Fund for Population Activity (UNFPA) has reccognised that well-educated and empowered women can make better fertility choices and protect children. Well-educated and empowered women will not allow their girls to be forced into early marriages. In the 1990s, the UNFPA made women the focus of its policy, and noted: “In many societies, a woman is still trapped within a web of traditional values which assign a very high value to child-bearing; for her, status depends on her success as a mother”.
Arguably, this observation by UNFPA is still the norm in many parts of Ghana and a justification for forcing girls into early marriages. Many parents still eye the bride-price as a source of investment for the family, without the slightest consideration of the plight of the girls. The marginalisation of women and girls under the pretext of culture should be the overriding focus for advocates of female empowerment.
Stakeholders need to consolidate around the right of women to participate in development interventions of which they are the primary beneficiaries. As stated earlier, access to microcredit is critical to changing the status of women. After all, how many women – no matter how well-qualified – can enter politics, let alone rise to top political positions. The World Bank recognises that participation of the poor is a human right, and also an inherent component of pro-poor development strategies and empowerment. This is our biggest challenge, and no one should hide the ‘semantics’ of ‘lack of dynamism’ in female empowerment advocacy to divert attention from the debilitating challenges confronting women.
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(***The writer is a Development and Communications management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: Mobile: 0243327586/0202642504)