Wednesday, 13 November

A culture, not safe for girls

Feature Article
Elizabeth Ohene

A bit late in the day, I accept, but I am increasingly having to ask over and over again if there is a generally accepted understanding of what constitutes Ghanaian culture, what is Ghanaian and what is un-Ghanaian?

It is an important question because many people seek refuge behind this animal called Ghanaian culture to explain away many strange things in this country.

If you take out the languages, clothes, food and music, can we talk of beliefs, way of life and customs that are shared and accepted by us as a people?

Courtesy of the Upper West Regional Girls’ Education Officer at the Ghana Education Service (GES), we all now know that not a single girl has ever completed the Sawoubea Junior High School in the Wa East District in the past 25 years.

The officer went further to point out that “the highest educational level” girls in the area had reached in the 25 years since the creation of the district was to get to JHS2 before being sent off to be married.

The source of this story, the regional Girls’ Education Officer is quoted as saying “the situation was worrying”.

At which point, I stopped and took in a deep breath, worrying is not exactly the word I would choose to describe the situation, outrageous is more like the appropriate word.

Statistics

Since this story, the GES has released some more statistics that puts the Sawuobea JHS situation in some context. According to the National Director of the Girls

Education Unit, a total of 7,293 teenage pregnancies were recorded in basic and second cycle schools in the 2018/2019 academic year across the country.

The breakdown of the figures is as follows: there were 1,024 girls in upper primary school that got pregnant, in junior high school (JHS) there were 4,836 cases, while there were 1,433 cases in senior high schools (SHSs).

The official statistics did not add the age of the girls but it does not require much imagination to conclude that all of them would be children, under the age of legal sexual relations, never mind marriage.

But the good people of Sawuobea and around this country regularly tolerate and indeed, encourage this outrage.

According to the Girls’ Education officer, these were “cultural practices”.

Are we to understand therefore that it is normal Ghanaian practice, Ghanaian culture for grown men to have sex with 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-old girls?

Why are the opinion leaders, the religious leaders and the traditional leaders not expressing outrage that in the year of Our Lord 2019, there is a district in our country where not a single girl is able to finish JHS 3.

All these people who were so loud in telling us what was un-Ghanaian and should therefore not be tolerated in our schools, do they know that 12 and 13-year-old girls are regularly taken away from classrooms to be married off?

Do they find that tolerable and Ghanaian? Are they going to demand that the President of the Republic issue a fiat against underage girls being forced to marry?

Shall we find a Concerned Friends of Sawoubea Group that would ensure that the girls who have entered JHS1 make it to JHS3 and to SHS and beyond?

Those among us who would want to smirk or bluster over these stories of children being forced to have babies because these are cultural practices might care to think of the consequences for us all.

Culture?

It is probably time for us to spell out exactly what we mean by Ghanaian culture and we can all decide individually whether to sign up for or against it.

It seems to me that every time there is something awkward that we find difficult to deal with, the easiest and most cowardly option is to put it under the cloak of culture and that guarantees the issue will never be properly discussed or analysed.

Nobody wants to be accused of going against Ghanaian culture.

If it is Ghanaian culture for grown men to have sex with young girls, we should be told.

It is, after all, the reason for the alarming rate of child pregnancies in the country, and it is not surprising that we are not making much progress in our development efforts.

An educated mother gives a child a head start that no amount of state intervention can ever match.

I probably should confess that part of my outrage over the Sawoubea no girl finishing JHS story is that in the 25-year period, I was for six years a Minister of State at the Ministry of Education and I am mortified that I did not even know about the phenomenon.

There is a story that still haunts me. A very well-spoken, young girl came to see me with her WASSCE results.

She hadn’t done as well as she had expected and missed going to KNUST.

She wanted to go to Accra Polytechnic and was keen for me to put in a word on her behalf with the authorities.

I made the usual noises about not having any powers, sent her off to Accra Poly and told her I was sure she would gain admission.

The next day, the cheerful, articulate girl came back, this time, weepy, inconsolable, wearing a hijab and threatening suicide.

Her father had made a dramatic intervention; if she did not bring an admission letter to a university or polytechnic by Thursday, she was getting married on Saturday and no questions asked.

I was scandalised, but realised quite quickly I was powerless.

She did get the admission letter but I’ve always wondered how that particular story ended, and who can ever forget the look of despair in her eyes.

If it is Ghana culture for young girls to be dragooned into becoming “wives” and mothers when they should be in school and leading carefree lives, some of us will not be part of it.

Never meant for crowds

There used to be quiet attractive areas that many people aspire to live.

Airport Residential, Cantonments, Ridge, East Legon.

Then there was the Aburi Hills on the scenic drive from Accra to the Akuapem mountains which we dreamt of.

Part of their attraction was that they always appeared beyond reach and they were for a select few.

Now the developers are trying to make the dreams a reality for everybody and it seems to me that we are overdoing it and we have a full-scale disaster on our hands.

Everybody wants to live on the Aburi hills, we have destroyed the delicate balance and the hills are coming down.

Airport Residential is hardly residential now, the once serene streets are cluttered and noisy and the once-grand houses are now all flats and apartments.

The Aburi hills at least should be saved. Where are the Friends of the Hills?

Source: Elizabeth Ohene