I guess, rather shamefully and somewhat naively, that I came out here with the intention of reading, writing, working and reflecting, mostly inwardly, on the world around me and my positioning in it. I thought briefly about the difficulties I faced but being from the UK, and having never visited a developing country, my worries and woes were more preoccupied with thoughts like ‘what will the toilet be like’ or ‘will I enjoy the food?’ Bizarrely, being a female in an overtly patriarchal and often sexist society wasn’t something that I gave much thought too, how could I? I’ve grown up in a country where women are (for the most part) equal to men, and have access to the same basic human rights and quality of life as our male counterparts.
Often when I approach writing something, it’s because of two or three factors that have aligned to cause what feels like a compulsive need to get something down on paper (or screen, as the case may be) and that is indeed the case today. My gender isn’t something I’ve ever really been conscious of to such a level that I’m actually actively thinking about it on a daily basis. Being a female in the UK can of course have its moments, and I’m not suggesting that things are great all the time for women, however for the most part, we’re extremely lucky to have the situation that we do, or at least that’s what I’m learning to realise.
Once a week, we take part in ‘Group Reflections’ – the banal title is not reflective of the content, I assure you. In this exercise the UK citizens and Ghanaian’s debate a subject that is deemed to be culturally different in our respective countries. Last weeks’ topic was religion, and whilst Ghana is, rather impressively, a religiously harmonious land, the subject matter soon turned to divorce, marriage and ultimately the role of the female in Ghanaian society. It became apparent quickly that women are massively under-represented here; from politics to religion, women are for the most part seen as a submissive sub gender that are here to serve the actions of the male. Many of the women I have met here are feisty, witty, charismatic females. Females that in the UK would be deemed to be women that ‘wear the trousers’ however here, these women are given little option but to wait for marriage then bare children and wait for the cycle to repeat itself. There are no accurate statistics here on the extent of Domestic Violence in the marriage and martial rape is deemed normal (when this as questioned in our group discussion, it was made clear that often, women are unaware of the concept of rape, that their sexuality is simply a vehicle for the husbands pleasure.) Divorce is deeply frowned upon and I’ve been told my girls in my group, girls only one or two years younger than myself, that should they marry into an abusive relationship their fathers and mothers would, upon their declaration of the end of the marriage, return them to their respective husbands to avoid shame on the family.
Of course, we in the West are well aware of the disproportionate gender bias in countries like this, you’re may well be reading this and feeling unengaged, bored even, at the sight of the phrase ‘gender inequality’ and I wouldn’t blame you. As previously stated, before I came here I couldn’t really fathom the extent to which this would become my reality. Perhaps what’s most shocking is how quickly you become passive to it. I am no longer alarmed when I’m approached by a man when buying my lunch, I am no longer surprised when I’m made to feel intimidated and scared in a bar or restaurant when the staff ask me about my ‘husband’ (or lack there of) and I am no longer offended when my male counterparts ignore my opinion or find my comments amusing when we speak about our projects.
As mentioned in my previous post, we’re told daily to be mindful of the ‘cultural differences’ in our approach to life in the West and in the Ghanaians way of thinking, however so much of me must question where ‘cultural difference’ ends and blatent sexism begins. Only last night, I found myself asking a policeman for help in getting a taxi, and after 30 seconds realised my mistake, even the policeman asked where my husband was, who I was with and would I marry him. We’re told to brush these comments off, and for the most part we do, of course. However life in a society such as this can really ultimately take its toll. I know, deep down, that this is only temporary, that soon enough I’ll be home where the issues facing me as a female are no more than tampon tax and the gender pay gap – issues that are of course, entirely legitimate, however seem entirely dwarfed by the situation here, which in itself shows how indifferent I’ve become of the position of equal rights both here and at home.
What is perhaps the most harrowing aspect of this, is the reality that these women, these women I am working and living with in equal partnership, are being made to exist in a society in which this reality is not just okay, not just acceptable, but expected and it’s with them that any fault or blame should lie. I don’t allude to have any answers, nor could I, as it’s a situation I’m so unfamiliar and foreign to that I couldn’t possibly begin to offer any plausible solution for the devastating effect that sexism has on these women’s lives. It’s easy when you come here, to think that you should hold back, be restrained and try not to act the hero or be that Westerner that thinks they can cure all the issues of the world with a laptop and some fancy buzzwords, however to allow ‘cultural difference’ such as these to become something passive, neglected and irrelevant would be a tragedy on all parts. I hope, that the work we do will allow these women to become empowered, to earn their own way and to see beyond the constraints of a society which deems them to be nothing more than a vehicle for reproduction, housework, submissiveness and ultimately, male dominance however there’s a long road ahead before these traits can be removed from the social conciousness of both men and women in this stunning country.