Throughout the 6 weeks I have spent in Kumasi so far, one thing that continuously stands out to me is the prevalence of traditional gender roles. Many Ghanaians I have spoken with have expressed conservative social views, particularly on the role of women to raise children, serve their husbands, and complete domestic duties. I was surprised to hear one of our professors express such views during a class lecture on feminism, since I am accustomed to having liberal and progressive professors at Davidson.
Traditional gender roles play an active role in governing all aspects of Ghanaian society, particularly in the types of work people engage in. Every taxi or Uber driver I have encountered has been male, and it is uncommon to see female drivers on the road at all. At the hospital, every doctor I have worked with (with the exception of one female doctor in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) has been male, and every nurse has been female. Also, women who sell items on the street often have a baby strapped to their back, while I have never seen a man carrying a baby while simultaneously working. At the hospital, I observed about 100 women in the immunization clinic with their babies. In that same time, I saw less than five men. These observations demonstrate the norm that women are responsible for caring for children, even if they are working, and men are not. Like all countries, work in Ghana is gendered and overall, women engage in more undervalued and underpaid work than men. Additionally, I learned that some men in Ghana will marry multiple wives. When I asked a man why this is the case, he explained that the gender ratio in Ghana is 70% women and 30% men, so it makes sense that some men will need to marry multiple wives. (Read more about the 50/50 gender ratio here: https://countrymeters.info/en/Ghana)
Observing these gender norms has caused me to consider the difficult balance between maintaining local culture and promoting universal rights. The conservative viewpoint may argue that complete gender equality is in direct contrast with traditional Ghanaian values and customs. For example, chieftaincy places power in the hands of male members of the community. Additionally, traditional female standards of beauty, such as a large butt and breasts, emphasize the obligatory role of women as mothers. In Ghanaian society and around the world, womanhood is oftentimes interchangeable with motherhood. To not be a mother is to be less of a woman. These traditional views and customs are a cornerstone of old and current Ghanaian culture.
From an outside perspective, these traditional viewpoints may appear oppressive towards women. I have been quick to judge certain aspects of Ghanaian culture that in my opinion, limit the capabilities and opportunities of women. For example, I learned in class that women cannot own land, rather they must obtain access to land through a man. “Women (are) secondary owners of land since they only enjoy temporary use rights over land and cannot own these lands…Women easily access land in Ghana through marriage. This is however dependent on whether the land is owned by her spouse. One customary law obliges a woman to help her husband on the farm” (“Culture, rural women and land rights in Ghana”). From a Western perspective, the right to own property is fundamental and necessary to personhood. Because women in Ghana cannot own land, they are not recognized as full citizens from my perspective.
However, I also recognize that while promoting equal gender rights is ‘correct’ according to Western values, it would also cause the rupture of traditional values and culture in Ghana. My question, then, is should local cultural standards outweigh externally derived norms, even when those norms may be oppressive to a specific group? My gut reaction is no: universal rights such as gender equality are more important than upholding cultural standards. Upon greater evaluation however, universalism has the dangerous consequence of pushing a Western agenda and extending colonial influence in countries such as Ghana. There is a fine line between promoting universal (i.e. Western) values and Western overreach.
From evaluating my response to this question, I have come to realize how easy it is to criticize a society that I am not a member of myself. Gender inequality is prominent in the United States as well, it only appears in different forms than it does in Ghana. For example, the United States is currently facing a wave of abortion bans that aim to police and criminalize women specifically. Additionally, there are several similarities between gender inequality in the US and Ghana. For example, the gender pay gap exists in both countries. According to the Pew Research Center, women in the United States earned 85% of what men earned in 2018. In Ghana, the gender pay gap also exists and is prominent “in most sectors of the economy of Ghana, especially the informal sector (“Gender Pay Gap in Ghana”). Additionally, females in both the US and Ghana are underrepresented in government. The US Congress is comprised of 23.7% women, the highest percentage in US history (“Quick Take: Women in Government”). Ghana’s parliament is comprised of approximately 10% women (“Women’s presence in Ghana’s parliament is still low”).
Overall, I think to find the balance between maintaining local cultural standards and promoting universal beliefs, it is important to not immediately criticize another culture before evaluating one’s own culture. The two may be more similar than you think.
US gender wage gap: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/22/gender-pay-gap-facts/
Ghana gender wage gap: https://mywage.org/ghana/salary/gender-pay-gap/copy_of_gender-pay-gap-in-ghana
Women in US government: https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-government/
Women in Ghana’s parliament: https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Women-s-presence-in-Ghana-s-parliament-still-low-708078