Creating Safer Spaces For Women and Girls in Ghana

Safeguarding Women and Girls in Ghana

Anna-Maria Poku, our Safeguarding Adults Week Marketing Intern, talks about the issues surrounding safeguarding women and girls in Ghana.

The term “safeguarding” refers to measures designed to protect the health, wellbeing and human rights of individuals. These measures allow children, young people and adults at risk to live free from abuse, harm and neglect. Safeguarding girls and women means being committed to providing a safe space full of opportunities for them to thrive in a world that is otherwise not focused on such.

In many African nations, women and girls are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to caring for them and being committed to their protection. Ghana is no different. Although reading about the measures and laws in place to safeguard girls and women might tell you otherwise.

The Situation in Ghana: Theory vs. Reality

Generally, Ghana is considered as one of the countries in Africa with functioning laws in relation to the protection of girls and women.

Ghana is a signatory to The international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It also has the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs (MOWAC) which was established in 2001 and is committed to coordinating, initiating and monitoring gender responsive issues in an effort to ensure equal rights for women.

In addition to this, the government has initiated an Affirmative Action Programme and has developed a National Gender and Children’s Policy Framework. There are various other legal and social reforms in place to address issues associated with gender inequality and the dangers women and girls face. Ghana even has a Girl’s Education Unit within the Ghana Education Service that was established in 1997.

On paper, Ghana looks good. It looks like a progressive country committed to the betterment and safeguarding of women and girls in the country. While there has been progress in safeguarding women and girls and creating safer places for them, the reality is that the situation for women and girls in Ghana is as bad as it has ever been.

Particularly in rural areas, girls have restricted access to essential educational opportunities. And when they do get the opportunity to get an education, sexual violence and teen pregnancy rates are high. This can result in them dropping out of school with little to no prospects of ever returning. It’s a vicious cycle.

According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children, 53.3% of sexual violence against girls happens at school. Girls are also increasingly at risk of trafficking and exploitation, especially with regards to child marriage and working as ‘kayaye’ in urban areas.

Many women in Ghana, especially in rural areas, are victims of stereotyping and profiling as witches, leading them to be ostracised from society and banished to areas with very poor living conditions.

A Deeper Look at Reality

I lived in Accra, Ghana for the first 17 years of my life. While I spend most of the year away, I go back as often as possible. It is my home.

It is not uncommon in Ghana to see young girls, sometimes pregnant or carrying children, walking the streets of Accra, hawking goods for very little money. These are all girls who should be in school. According to Chance of Childhood, there are over 35,000 girls on the streets of Accra. Most of these girls come from the rural regions of Ghana in search of a ‘better’ life and access to education. But instead they end up trafficked into prostitution or child labour.

Child marriage in Ghana, while it has improved since the 1990s, is still prevalent. The figures are very bleak. According to Girls Not Brides Ghana, more than one in every five girls in Ghana is married before the age of 18. 5% are married before their 15th birthday, with women in the northern region marrying at the youngest age.

Witch Camps

The existence of witch camps in Ghana date back almost a century, and they are as prevalent as ever. In these camps you’ll only find women and the few children, mostly girls, who accompany them. These women are mostly older, more vulnerable women who do not fit the stereotype of the ‘typical’ Ghanaian woman that age. They are usually unmarried, single mothers or widows. They are sent away and accused of being witches if they show signs of dementia or mental illness, or if they are accused of being responsible for unfortunate, often natural, incidents within the community.

The practice of banishing women for accusations of witchcraft is rooted in misogyny and mental health stigma. While the government has attempted to shut down some of these camps, efforts often prove futile. The women are often scared of attempting to reintegrate back into the communities that sent them away. Adamu Mahama is one of such women. When interviewed this is what she said;

My life is not good now. I sit and worry. People are like this, creating stories. Most of the accusers are men because if you accuse your fellow woman then tomorrow it will be you.

Adamu is one of the many women in these villages all over Ghana who is living this reality. The few children who accompany their mothers to these villages have insufficient access to the most basic amenities, with no chance of formal education. But they would rather accompany their mothers than watch them suffer alone.

Culture as a Hindrance and the Way Forward; Why Creating Safer Places Matters

Unfortunately, the many laws and social reforms enacted do not actually positively impact the lives of the people they are made for. This is because most of these issues are rooted in aspects of Ghanaian culture that date back many years. Ghanaian culture is inherently patriarchal. Most, if not all, of these issues can be traced back to the idea that women and girls are lesser beings existing only for the benefit of men and society, rather than whole beings deserving of equal, functioning rights.

In a paper in the SAGE journals titled ‘Women’s Survival in Ghana: What Has Law Got to Do With It?’, it was put succinctly that ‘the efforts of these organizations [i.e. the government] are needed beyond the passage of law because law is not enough to substantiate a change in gender inequality’.

The situation in Ghana shows that the enactment of laws per se does not address the substantive issues that systematically undermine and constrain the ability of excluded groups to participate equally and effectively in social, political and economic life. In Ghana, even though formal laws and policies promise equal treatment for all citizens, deep-seated inequities embedded and institutionalized in family and gender systems, informal norms and practices, religious beliefs and political systems influence the way these laws and policies are implemented. This often results in unequal outcomes for certain groups.

Creating Safer Places in Ghana

Clearly, the many laws in place aimed at safeguarding women and children are not doing nearly enough. But all hope is not lost. There are various charities and organisations committed to the protection and safeguarding of girls and women at risk in Ghana.

ActionAid is one such organization that fights for and protects women’s rights and strives to provide safe spaces for them. They focus mainly on work with the accused witches; teaching them their rights and helping them find ways to support themselves. They also recognise the need to fight the superstition and stigmas surrounding witchcraft that lead to the women ending up in the camps in the first place.

Chance for Childhood is another organisation committed to this important work. They aim to provide help to girls on the streets out of education through their House of Refuge. This is a centre for young girls to get off the streets and have a chance at life by learning a trade.

Grassroots Safeguarding in Ghana

In 2017, I was a founding member of the Tema International School’s initiative, Girls United Club. Our mission was to help create safer spaces for young girls who had been victims of all types of abuse, including sexual violence, parental neglect and teenage pregnancy.

Girls United’s first project was focused on helping young pregnant girls in the Tema Metropolis of Ghana gain access to essential items they needed through pregnancy, and for their  life after pregnancy. This is just one example of the work ordinary people can do to help protect girls and women. There are numerous other small organisations and groups doing vital work, such as Hats Community Empowerment Programme (HACEP-Ghana) focused on protecting girls from child marriage. There’s also Self-Help International focused on helping girls stay in school and empowering women to be self-sufficient.

The Ghanaian government has a way to go in regards to enacting laws that actually attack these problems at the root of the issue while championing general social reform. So it is heartwarming to see that there are people and organisations committed to protecting and safeguarding girls and women however they can.

Safeguarding is everybody’s business. It is not just the responsibility of the government, or of the people already doing the work. We all have a part to play in making sure that in our homes, communities and organisations we are creating safer places not only for girls and women, but for everybody.