Good morning distinguished ladies and gentlemen it is a pleasure to speak to you this morning on a topic that is dear to my heart.
Women in the world over and in Africa in particular have so much to offer. Young women of today have so many opportunities which were not available just a few decades ago. In many communities today things have changed for the better. Girls have access to the same opportunities as men in terms of education ,jobs and other vital life choices. That not withstanding, the society in which we live still poses many challenges to women. This is true all over the world and in Ghana especially in rural areas. Women still have to tackle the majority of domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children. In cases where there are limited funds, the education of male children is still given priority over the education of female children. Women are often the victims of domestic and other forms of violence. Also our culture plays a large part in putting women at a disadvantage.
For instance, early marriage and child labour are both deeply steeped in tradition with 14% of girls aged 15-19 in Ghana already having children. According to the International Centre for Research on women, early marriage and child labour are also driven by poverty, with 41.2% of girls from poor families married before the age of 14 as against 11.5% of girls from richer families. For poor families, high bride prices are seen as a survival strategy with many poor families pushing their young girls into marriage. Many young girls migrate from the North to the Southern part of Ghana to take up menial jobs such as head porters or ‘kayayei’ or domestic helpers with the perception that they would be able to earn sufficient money to assist their families back at home. Sadly, this is usually not the case and most of these girls end up in a vicious cycle of poverty and early pregnancy. It has been proven that girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. Educating adolescent girls is therefore a critical factor in reducing child marriage.
So the girl child gets educated to the highest level they can go and what happens? We are still discriminated against. In the UK, you can have a female medical doing the same job and having the same qualifications but the woman is paid less. Why? Is I.Q now gender sensitive?
In Ghana, we have equal pay for equal work but what is sad is that, after paying the same school fees as that for our sons, whilst looking for a job, they are told they have to sleep with men before they are given jobs.
As for violence against women, research proves that, worldwide, 10- 69% of women are physically assaulted at some point in their lives. Data from the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey indicates that in Ghana, 33-37% of women in Ghana have faced some type of domestic violence. In schools in Ghana, research shows that 14%of girls have been victims of sexual abuse and 52%, victims of gender based violence. These estimates may actually be worse than the actual situation since violence against women is not widely reported. Additionally women, particularly those with a lower level of education, have been socialised to believe that there is nothing wrong with being abused. Some actually think if your husband beats you, it is a sign of love.
Regarding the major challenge women face in my view is one’s own sense of self worth which needs urgent improvement. Take a look around, how many women are in leadership positions? As women, we should not let ourselves be defined by the restrictions that are placed on us but we should find ways to break the stereotypes and be the movers of the changes we want to see in the way women in our society are treated.
We women are just not hungry. A situation which is portrayed so because we wear so many hats, we carry the babies (just the fact that we have the womb, we have to perform that role). After the baby is born, nothing prevents us from getting help. We nurture, go to hospital, work, do homework, attend speech day and PTA meetings. Our plates are so full, we just wish to be in middle management not in top management where more responsibility and time we don’t have will be required of us. Yet if women don’t aspire to leadership positions, how can we influence policies and decisions about us. We then leave it to the men who mean well but can’t know our issues like we do to take decisions for us.
Even for better educated women, there is rampant gender discrimination in the workplace. Even though many companies do have policies that seek to place women on an equal footing with men, the reality is that, social norms still leave women at a disadvantage. For instance, women are the primary caregivers for the family and are more likely to take time off work to see to domestic issues than their male colleagues. Additionally, women have the responsibility for the majority of domestic chores and therefore have less time to improve upon themselves and complete work related tasks. They are therefore likely to rise less rapidly than their male colleagues.
Even for better educated women, there is rampant gender discrimination in the workplace. Even though many companies do have policies that seek to place women on an equal footing with men, the reality is that, social norms still leave women at a disadvantage.
Enough about challenges. Is there any way out? As women, we should not let ourselves be defined by the restrictions that are placed on us but we should find ways to break the stereotypes and be the movers of the changes we want to see in the way women in our society are treated.
How do we do this? Education is the first step to breaking out of the many challenges and limitations we face as women. With a good education, women are more assertive, more aware of what their rights are and better equipped to tackle the challenges they face as women.An educated woman can do so much for her family and her country. She can improve the quality of life of her family and thereby the countries economy.With education, women are less likely to be the victims of violence and to be married early. Educated women are more likely to have a positive impact on society and to educate their own children.
Women make valuable contributions to the household, workplace, marketplace and community and should be accorded the due respect they deserve. This can however only be achieved if women respect themselves and other women and stand up for what they believe in and what is right. After all, what is the point of a few women being empowered when millions are not? That is why I support this foundation and their vision.
For generations, women have been told that they are incapable of doing many things. We can encourage the women we come into contact with, help boost their confidence and have a transforming impact on their way of life. Women need to be their own best friends and hold each others hands so that together, we can change the way society views and treats women and by so doing, we can change the very core of our society.
How can we do this? There are so many ways that the more privileged women in society can hold the hands of their less privileged sisters in society. We can support our sisters to acquire the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty and be able to earn a decent living for themselves and for their families. We can encourage girls to stay in school and delay marriage and childbirth thereby making them more assertive and more in control of their destinies. More can be done to prevent the mass migration of girls to the South by encouraging girls in the Northern part of the country to stay in school and also to establish vocational training institutes and providing them with the tools they need to ply their trade. The parents of these girls also need to be educated to value their daughters more and not push them into early marriage. We should not allow society’s pressure on marriage and having children push us into the “reduce to clear” syndrome. Choose the right marriage partner or stay single.
We women are the ones who nurture the men. Let us train our male children to become considerate and responsible in the society, helping out at home and becoming champions of the women. Don’t always keep the boys out of the kitchen and household chores. With …….a real man respects and supports women and this vicious cycle will end.
This foundation and program is very important in solving the challenges of the 21st Century woman. It has brought together women from different walks of life who can help make a change in each other’s lives. You and I are not alone but we have each other to be able to tackle lives challenges as women in the 21st Century. I encourage each and everyone of us here to take up this issue and think about how we can bring along all women and girls we come into contact with, regardless of their social standing and education on this journey.
The world today needs fearless independent women who are not afraid to break out of the mould and do things in a new way. That is the only way we can do things for ourselves, for our daughters and generations of girls yet to be born. It definitely wont be easy but together, and with a united front we can lead the change that would start the process of eliminating the challenges that we face as women in the 21st Century and be the change that our society needs. Together we can make a difference.
That is why I did a crazy thing by co-founding Ghana’s first all girls private boarding school at Akuse, when I didn’t have any money in order to nurture our girls to be whatever they want to be in a fast changing and increasing complex world. The girls need to understand their rights and responsibilities and play their central role in National Development.
To conclude, I have a message for you . I quote the former President of Liberia, my namesake, the size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.
So shine on, it is so easy to mind your own business and not do anything. But if others had done that, women will not be where we are now.
I thank you for your attention.