My experience at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra around 6:30 one evening revealed to me the painful realities of being a woman in this part of the globe.
It was not just the many unwanted ‘sweethearts’, ‘darling’, ‘me size’, ‘ahuofe’ shouted at me; this time I was held by the hand and grabbed by the waist by one of these vile young men. When I protested, he insisted I rather be appreciative of his actions.
I have avoided walking through Rawlings Park because I am similarly accosted by the men who sell clothes, all in the name of marketing. As a result, my heart, my thoughts, my world are constantly clouded with the feeling of being objectified as a woman – because I am a woman.
When objectification is encouraged for a very long time, the result is usually a girl or woman being raped. If not rape, the threat of an ultimatum: give in and get that favour or position, hold onto your self-worth and lose it. Hence, in our current world, it seems merit and self-worth cannot exist concurrently.
Majority of women and girls globally have experienced some form of sexual harassment at certain points in their life. It is not peculiar to Ghana or Africa; it occurs everywhere in the world. However, in my country, whenever the subject is put up for discussion, you do not always get the expected reactions.
Unless it is defilement or rape, sexual harassment does not incite us, as it should. In fact, most women in Ghana, even the victims, seem not to feel offended by it. It is somehow tolerated and has become normalized!
Recently, UNICEF granted me and a colleague the opportunity to embark on a training program for girls in five regions in Ghana ahead of the celebration of the international day of the girl. The purpose was to empower girls with blogging skills and help them tell their own stories.
It was a week-long celebration with girls telling stories of how they have moved from dreaming to now achieving, and changing the narrative.
Coincidentally, within the same week, the BBC published a documentary on sexual harassment involving some reputable universities in West Africa. It came at the time where Ghana was also hit with the conversation on Comprehensive Sexuality Education; one which some colleagues termed the ‘CSE crisis’. Politicians politicized it and Ghanaians screamed against it. For me, it was such an interesting time and I followed the conversation keenly.
The last day of the training was in Ho, in the Volta region. That day was different; it transcended the training sessions to a form of therapy. For the girls, this finally afforded them a platform to talk about their experiences and share their stories with the world. During the presentations, I watched these girls weep as they recounted heart-wrenching stories of how they were sexually assaulted.
“It was my birthday and a loud music was entertaining me, so I danced my heart out. In the afternoon I went into my room to rest but I was awoken by my uncle. He slept beside me and asked, “do you know you are a beautiful girl?” I didn’t answer but rather I asked why he was in my room. He told me my beauty led him there. I felt his hands around me and I was terrified. I asked him to leave my room but that angered him. He pushed me down and pulled off my clothes, I couldn’t even breathe. My uncle raped me so bad that I was bleeding and in great pain. He took me to the washroom, bathed me and told me not to tell anyone, not even his wife. I couldn’t tell anyone because I was scared and I felt ashamed. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any girl because this act of abuse can end a girl’s dream and destroy her future. I call on parents, teachers and communities to pay attention to their children, siblings and nieces to put a stop to such inhumane acts in our societies. Listen to them, ask them questions and create a safe environment for them to grow with confidence.”
-written by one of the girls of how she was raped by her uncle
I had covered some stories on rape myself, I had read and watched documentaries on sexual abuse involving girls as little as 3 years old, but I had never come up-close with these survivors before. These were girls below 18 years old who were raped by their uncles and cousins-by trusted family. These were girls who got pregnant and dropped out of school as a result of sexual abuse, yet, none of them have ever spoken up until now. These girls would continue living their lives like nothing ever happened. They may gain admission into the university, and later work on a job. But none of us can promise that what happened would never happen to them or to any other girl again. Our homes are not safe, neither are our schools or work places or the countries we will travel to; nowhere is safe.
At the height of the conversation about ‘Sex for Grades’, we heard that men are also victims of sexual harassment.
The argument was that lecturers are also seduced by female students. But how difficult is it for a lecturer to take a student to the disciplinary committee on an offence of sexual harassment and how difficult is it for a student to report a case of sexual harassment by her lecturer without evidence?
Who is likely to be shamed when the issue is revealed? Who is likely to get a response? Who is likely to be punished? Who is likely to suffer the consequence? In the end, who is in the position of power – the lecturer or the student?
I am not comparing. I want to know why we have never been able to have a conversation about sexual harassment by men, without turning the conversion into a gender issue on the basis of ‘it is also her fault’. The endless accusations of ‘she wanted it’, ‘her dressing asked for it’ has marred the discourse and justified the acts.
I agree that sexual harassment against men in our society is far more normalized than sexual harassment by men, but when it is used as justification for sexual harassment against a woman, then it is misguided.
Sexual harassment against a woman is not caused by how she is dressed or any fault of hers in any way. I don’t believe so, otherwise why are babies raped? And do you take something that belongs to someone else simply because you were attracted by it or wanted it? Is stealing not a punishable offense? I am not implying women should dress anyhow and expect to be addressed differently, but when it comes to sexual harassment, the issue is not the woman or how she is dressed. The problem is the perpetrator and how he is wired, let’s question that.
The problem is not that girls seduce boys or that girls dress inappropriately; it is that we have, as a society, encouraged the act of sexual harassment for so long that we no more understand its severity. We have normalized it so much that it doesn’t seem wrong anymore.
The University of Professional Studies (UPSA) has a strict dress code and every student adheres to it, but that is not a solution to sexual harassment. It is a solution to a problem of inappropriate dressing on the campus.
A student of the university (name withheld) tells me that her best friend stayed an extra year in school because she was failed by a lecturer who wanted a sexual relationship with her. She says that despite dressing professionally and decently, walking through campus is very challenging as she is forced to accommodate unwelcome comments about her body and beauty.
“I have devised strategies and safety mechanisms to protect myself against sexual harassment and I think every woman should do same, because the system does not protect women and girls”, she told me.
What about the approach of the Ghanaian media to stirring such conversations? A journalist from one of the reputable media organizations in Ghana tells me, “the only time we criticize the media is when it is political. we leave the criticism of our media to the politicians and that is wrong.”
When the issue of sexual harassment became a big discussion recently, the media tried to give us a comprehensive view of the issue but they failed. They interviewed a number of people but laid very little emphasis on the problem of sexual harassment in our society. We finally got the opportunity to have the conversation about a serious societal phenomenon and we shifted focus. It was as though the documentary was an assignment submitted for assessment. I mean, not to suggest that the issues raised were not relevant but the timing was not right.
It has been long since we had that all-important conversation, but as usual, aside the interviews and a few discussions, what else have we heard? It is over!
The BBC documentary, if for nothing at all, had opened the window and I expected that the media, being ‘the voice of the voiceless,’ would seize the opportunity to throw more light on the issue with additional features, documentaries and relevant discussions to help keep the conversation going.
I agree with Kenya’s Rose Wangui when she said that media plays a very big role in terms of changing people’s perceptions. She says, “When we take on doing the stories, we are helping society to understand the implications, and at the same time changing people’s perceptions and creating awareness.”
At the end of the day, we were not able to say that the conduct of the lecturers involved was disgusting and shameful, as a society, and that is the problem.
It is our silence and our inability to say, “this is wrong, let’s punish him”, that is worsening the problem. That is the reason sexual harassment is still pervasive in our society. That is why girls as young as 7 years are sexually abused, and yet we say our children are too young for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
Ghana was the first county to ratify the United Nation’s Convention on the right of the Child (CRC). The CRC has inspired governments to change laws and policies and make investments so that more children finally have access to healthcare, education and nutrition they need to survive and develop, and ensure that there are stronger safeguards in place to protect children from violence and exploitation. Article 19 of the convention mandates government to protect children from sexual abuse. The United Nations also mandates its member states to implement the Comprehensive Sexuality Education in accordance with the culture of their respective countries.
But some have said that the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is part of a grand western agenda intended to subtly force homosexuality down our throats, and can you blame them?
However, let’s not delude ourselves, homosexual relations existed in our community prior to the arrival of the Europeans and Christianity and it still does. I am a Christian and my Bible frowns on homosexuality but I think we should give CSE a chance.
Check the statistics; girls are sexually abused; gender-based violence exists in our society in every form; the rate of teenage pregnancy is high, many girls resort to unsafe abortion; STIs, including HIV/AIDS, are on the high among young people. Girls still stay out of school because of the lack of information materials and the stereotypes associated with a physiological process like menstruation; boys are sodomised and sexual harassment has eaten so deep into our society. So yes, CSE is very relevant in our schools.
In 2017, the Ghana AIDS Commission conducted a study amongst men who have sex with men (MSM) in Ghana. The findings indicated that MSM recruited into the study across regions were predominantly young people (61.5% aged between18-24 and 30.6% aged between 25-34), and 40.34% of MSM in the study sexually identified as gay while 42.6% of MSM sexually identified as bisexual. Concerning STIs, the prevalence of HIV amongst MSM was 18.1% while 67.0% of MSM sampled tested positive for herpes simplex virus (HSV2), and MSM who engaged in receptive anal sex had an HIV prevalence of 30.2%.
According to the Commission, the overall size estimate of MSM in Ghana is 54,759 with plausibility bounds of 18,126 – 79,313, representing 0.72% (0.24% to 1.04%) of the adult male population aged 18 years and above in Ghana.
Both men and women, as well as children, are at risk of HIV transmission and infection, as men in Ghana hide their sexuality to engage in same-sex relations, while still remaining in marriages or having female partners to avoid being subjected to stigmatization or violence.
Recently, a 13-year-old boy was sodomised in Chorkor in Accra. The perpetrator who had been abusing the boy for weeks warned him not to disclose his ordeal to anyone or else he would die.
Madam Theresa Lamptey also narrated an incident of how her 7-year-old grandson was sodomised in school by three class 5 pupils. She said the anus of the class one boy has been ripped and he hasn’t been able to walk since.
There are several such reports on the media landscape. It is happening!
Comprehensive Sexuality Education is not a document designed to teach homosexuality; it is an intense and structured document that encompasses social values, norms, skills and information on sexual and reproductive health and rights proposed to empower our children with education and to safeguard them against harmful societal acts as well as empower them with critical thinking skills, self-esteem and confidence to make informed decisions, take care of themselves and pursue their dreams in a safe and protective environment.
The objective of the proposed CSRHE as outlined in the guideline for the CSE in Ghana is to ensure that young people: (a)acquire accurate and reliable information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, (b)develop skills such as critical thinking, communication and negotiation, self-development and decision-making; sense of self, confidence, assertiveness, ability to take responsibility, ability to ask questions and seek help, and empathy; (c)nurture positive attitudes and values, including open-mindedness, respect for self and others, positives self-worth/esteem, comfort, non-judgmental attitude, sense of responsibility, and positive attitude towards their sexual and reproductive health.
Equipping our children with information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights does not mean, in any way, that we are teaching them to practice sex. What should the 7-year-old do when a man tells him he likes him? What does it mean if a man pulls down his pants and penetrates him through his anus? Is it a crime? Does that man have any rights to his body? Who should he report to?
He has to know all these, otherwise, it will happen and he will hide it. We have painted homosexuality as nothing but ‘satanic’ and decided to never talk about it, and because of that a boy has been sodomised but he is ashamed to speak out. And, after all, his society only speaks of rape by a man against a woman.
What is this fear? Why is the fear that our community might be taken over by the LGBT+ community influencing our sense of reasoning?
The 1992 constitution, unless it is amended defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and clearly, we haven’t legalized homosexuality, have we? Any attempt to integrate homosexuality into our society without constitutional reforms will breed chaos.
It is not possible, but what is possible is for our children to be made aware of these things so that they can be able to make informed decisions with our protection. We should strengthen our laws and institutions and prosecute gays and lesbians in our community if that is what we are talking about. But as long as they live among us, our children deserve education.
For decades, we have relied only on our laws to protect children against issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and not only do they continue to exist but they have intensified. Now is the time to empower our children with information and education to protect themselves, make the best of decisions and become responsible adults.
They can protect themselves by reporting, by speaking up, by talking to their parents, by being more aware of their sexual and reproductive health rights. If we empower them, our laws then get a chance to protect them, parents get a chance to protect them, and our community gets a chance to protect them. Because if a crime is not prevented or reported, then the law is useless.
The other issue is the fact that we live in a global community. We do not live in isolation, no. Whether we like it or not homosexuality is catching up with us, and if we do not prepare, it will run us over.
Young people are attending conferences outside the country every time of the year. Apart from the exchange programs in our schools, we are also travelling to other countries to pursue our masters, and what have you. We are travelling to the UK and the US and they are joining us here too.
Whether it is trade or education, we are connected. We need to prepare our young people for the evolving society and diversity in the world today. If we don’t, they will be confronted by it and they will be on the other side. Allow the schools to do their work and do yours as a parent and as a church.
The few engagements I have had with young people on issues relating to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights show clearly that young people have the very information we claim they are too young to have.
Young people today are exposed to a lot more than before, thanks to the internet, social media and their peer groups. The problem is that they do not always get the right information, so we do them a lot more harm if we continue to deny them access to the right information.
Teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion, poor menstrual hygiene management, gender-based violence, and STIs are serious problems faced by young people today. If we cannot make young peoples’ health a priority, then what is in store for the future of our country?
We say the problem is that they are too young or too innocent to be introduced to Comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Education (CSRHE). But the CSE is like a cycle, so even though 4-year-olds are included, SRHR education does not begin at their level but in the Junior High School.
The 4-year-olds are taught topics (personal hygiene, for example) that prepare their minds for the next stage of the CSE education. Every stage of the cycle is important for the child, as he is expected to complete the JHS and SHS level well-equipped with information and knowledge to make informed decisions. These topics are to be integrated into already existing subjects such as integrated science, social studies, and religious and moral education.
Today, girls begin to menstruate as young as 8 years old, so I do not see the grounds on which an 8-year-old should not be introduced to what it means to be a female.
“I went to school like any other day on the 14th of June 2014. In the course of teaching, our teacher asked a question and he asked me to answer it. When I stood up to answer, my friends behind started laughing. One of them told me to sit down so I sat throughout the class until it was over before I was told that I had stained my skirt. I turned my skirt around to hide the stain so I could go with my friends to buy food. On our way back we met a group of teachers; one of them who saw that my skirt was stained shouted at me and said, “why didn’t you wear a sanitary pad?” I felt ashamed and could not answer. The rest of the teachers turned to look at me and, I began to cry. My teacher then requested that I go home to change my clothes and come back to school. I quickly run home and narrated what happened to my mother. She told me that it’s normal for girls my age to experience what I am going through. She fixed a pad in my pant and taught me how to fix it too. She also taught me how to manage my hygiene and later asked me to go back to school but I refused. I went to school the next day but I was quiet and sad. My teacher realized and called me to explain the process to me again as my mother did. I became happy again and joined my friends to play and learn. Now, I believe that I will never be embarrassed about menstruation again because I have the right information and I can manage my menstrual hygiene.”
-Written by a student of Damongo Senior High School in the North East Region.
When a girl does not have any information about menstruation and it happens for the first time, she is scared, confused and embarrassed especially when her classmates are as ignorant as she is. Why should we wait until she menstruates before we teach her about menstruation?
I cannot believe that CSE has been politicized. The sad thing is that as long as it remains so, it will never be approved.
“…I brought the free SHS to strengthen our education and so I will not allow any immoral materials to enter our schools. I am a Christian, and as long as I sit as president of Ghana, I will not allow anything like that in our schools, so I urge you all to be calm because I won’t let that happen.”
These were the words of the president, Nana Akufo-Addo in the middle of the CSE controversy.
The flag-bearer of the NDC, John Mahama, has also said, “…I can assure you that we will spell out not only in the curriculum but in our manifesto what we think about it. Our manifesto will also come clearly about these issues that are trending… The CSE education, as we can see in all the guidelines and brochures is not appropriate and should not be a part of the curriculum. So, if the government has made any move, they should not reject but withdraw and abolish it completely.”
None of these political leaders or parties will agree to approve the CSE because if they do, Ghanaians will vote against them.
Our religious leaders and politicians have succeeded in making us believe that ‘the devil’ is coming to Ghana and the Ghana Education Service and the United Nations has given him VISA. These people are opinion leaders, so as long as they have said it, and are against it, then we are too.
But this is not the way to go. The president of the National Association of Graduate Teachers has said that education is for the people, so if the people have a problem with any aspect of delivery, then we must pause and engage them.
I agree, and that is why I expect all stakeholders to read the document and understand its content so that we can have an informed conversation. The majority of Ghanaians have not read the document and do not have an understanding of it.
I have heard religious leaders say, “if this is true, then we will fight it with everything we have”. They use the conditional clause because they clearly don’t understand what CSE is or how it will be rolled out in Ghana. So, if the ministry of education and the Ghana Education Service have the wellbeing of the Ghanaian child at heart, I expect them to continue engaging stakeholders.
It is a proposed document so they should ensure that all concerns are addressed and any miscommunication and misunderstandings are properly dealt with.
Stakeholder participation is very essential to rolling out programs, so it is not out of place to have stakeholders voicing out their concerns.
If the name is the problem, have it changed and if the concern is with an aspect of it, address it. If the organization funding the policy is their worry, then have them agree to pay for it themselves, but we can’t sweep it under the carpet.
“Why is it that I was almost raped yet apart from my friends, I have never told anyone else or even reported the case?” says a graduate from the Ghana Institute of Journalism with an expression of surprise at herself.
We have been questioning why girls and women who have been sexually harassed haven’t spoken up, why they are hiding, and why the #METOO movement is such a big deal elsewhere yet in Ghana, nobody is speaking up.
And again, we know that boys are also subjected to violence, but how many of such stories have we heard?
Let us, together, empower our children with information and education and strengthen the justice system, if we really want to eliminate such harmful acts from our society and prepare young people to compete with the rest of the world.