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The Northern Woman: A Tool for Economic Growth, not a Beast of Burden.


The 13th Century Dominican Roman Catholic Priest, Theologian and Philosopher St. THOMAS AQUINAS described women in enviable terms such as: “A necessary object, woman who is needed to preserve the species or to provide food and drink.” The key word is necessary, indicating that women are indispensable. Without them, procreation ceases and therefore, the earth stops moving. Apart from providing food and drink, women in every society make significant and unquantifiable contributions towards building their nations and the world around men.

Nonetheless, a demographic finding from the United Nations Decade for Women (2000) also describes the situation of women in statements such as; “Women constitute half of the world’s population, perform two-thirds of the world’s work, but receive only one-third of its income and own less than one–hundredth of its property”.
The situation described above is generally true for all women worldwide, but its proportions, dimensions and effects, in the socio-cultural setting of the women of Northern Ghana, is very worrisome and thus calls for action in finding ways of removing these limitations, which are inhibiting the growth of Northern women in their lives functions.

Women in the area believe they have the potential to own their own business enterprises and also have the strong will to grow them to prove their worth in various endeavours, as they are the major source of labour of their societies.
It is the insistent contention of women that, giving equal opportunities to women through practical interventions and policies must be at the heart of initiatives aimed at addressing not only poverty rates but also reducing the numerous causative gender disparities in the distribution of wealth.
The 2000 UN Convention defines discrimination against women, as any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment and exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status on a basis of equality of men and women of human rights and fundamental human rights, freedoms and protections in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

Unfortunately, certain negative traditional practices, cultural misapplications and religious misinterpretations continue to limit women and tend to sway them in their attempt to grow in business in the Northern Region in particular as they continue to suffer from male dominance and abject poverty. As tools for economic growth, most men in the region rather see or regard women and young girls as beast of burden by shifting most of the domestic responsibilities to them while they fold their arms. Unromantic of the men, isn’t it?

Why Northern women are less economically empowered
Marriage institution bias towards progress of women: The women of Northern Region believe that the institution of marriage poses one of the stiffest limitations to the growth of their business. Some women believe that some men use supernatural powers (juju, in African parlance) or other ways to truncate their wives flourishing businesses to ensure their (husbands) hold. Thus, a married woman, who is also a successful business entrepreneur, owning landed property is a rare phenomenon in the region, according to a 2007 co-relation research by Diamond FM and BUSAC Fund. The marriage institution, the traditional system of inheritance and the traditional leadership system are the main socio-cultural vehicles over which men in the region do not only have absolute dominance but also are used as denial, exclusion and limitation tools to inhibit the growth of women in many life’s functions.
Gender discrimination creating disharmony in families: Sex stereotypes, defining male/female traditional roles which the women themselves, unaware of their rights, readily accept without question is largely responsible for their own inferior portrayal. While women single parenting and women headed homes are fast becoming the norm rather than the exception in the region, (either they are widowed, divorced or married to poor or irresponsible husbands) they are at the same time denied the right to land, inheritance, credit means, enter the professions or rise in business. About 40% of households in the region are headed by women and invariably single parenting as well, who are playing roles greater than that of men, the research revealed.
Low female education/early marriage: There are many barriers to female education such as parents’ inability to pay school fees/provide uniforms, harassment by male teachers, menstruation, pregnancy, and among others; yet educating girls proves to be the most cost-effective measure a developing country can take to improve its standard of living. Studies have shown that when females earn money, that money is more likely to be put into savings, into the community, into education, or into a family’s well being and health than when that same amount of money is earned by a male. Thus, females’ choice of spending tends to be more beneficial for the family, community, and country as a whole. No wonder one of Ghana’s pioneer educationists Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey once said: “When you educate a man, you educate one person. But when you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation”. But, the number of well educated women across the length and breadth of the region – is less than women. At the moment, it is estimated that over 65% of women in Northern Region cannot read, write or speak the English language as against 68% or more men who can read, write and speak the language [GLSS].
Also, the issue of “Child brides” continues to deny girls the right to education and it feeds into the low Gender Parity Index (GPI) at the basic school level in the region. This phenomenon exists because of poverty and as a result, parents who have their daughters in school but cannot take care of them due to financial challenges are forced to withdraw them from school to marry. Thus the women are stripped of many skills and capacities in life’s functions. The end result is a cycle of poverty that transcends from one generation to the other.
Large family sizes breeding poverty rather than fighting it: Educating females has been shown to reduce their fertility rates and to delay when they begin childbearing. In addition, more educated females seek earlier prenatal care when they are pregnant, which lowers maternal mortality. But due to low female education in the region, only 6% of women between 15 and 49 years use contraceptives, according to the 2008 Ghana Demographic and Health Survey (GDHS). Thus, the number of children between the ages of 1 and 15 constitutes about 47% of the total population of the whole region, and about 23% of young girls between ages 15 and 19 are already mothers or are currently pregnant. Currently, the average number of children per every single woman in the region is 6.8% representing about 7 children per woman as against the maximum national figure of 4 children per a woman, according to the survey. Thus, in the Northern Region where many polygamists exist, women with more children are often compelled to take up strenuous jobs in order to take care of their children since most husbands appear to be irresponsible. The phenomenon breeds domestic violence and poverty in most homes.
Way Forward
The way forward is for women to come together as one global force to fight this global phenomenon with a sustained and determined fight. This war can never be won in small fragmented groups. The situation calls for more ‘Beijing Conferences’ on regional and sub-regional basis.
The financial institutions must design soft credit facilities for women entrepreneurs while the women themselves must be encouraged to go into Susu (micro finance) savings with the financial institutions as a way of recovery.
The Traditional Authorities in the Northern Region should appreciate the part they play in this situation and be prepared to make the necessary concessions that will effect structural changes in customary land holdings, marriage contractual vows (to make the parties equals) and the Traditional skinship setup to bring on board more women as pertains in other traditions in other parts of Ghana. By this singular concession, the face of women’s enterprise and fortunes in the region will change.
Education holds the ray of hope in eradicating the gender biases from the mindset of both men and women in the region. Therefore, the government, civil society organizations, traditional authorities and all stakeholders should spare no effort in ensuring that education reaches all corners of the region to quicken the dynamics of culture.
Better education on sexual health information, increased access to contraceptives, and discouraging early marriage would help alleviate the barriers inhibiting the economic growth of women. Training teachers and students to be gender-sensitive would help. Besides, establishing Girls Clubs, as some schools do, would also be beneficial to raising the self-esteem of female students and decreasing harassment. Funding for proper bathrooms would help give female students privacy and ensure their comfort in school while going through difficult changes. Greater access to sanitary napkins for school-aged females would also help, as many females cannot afford sanitary napkins.
It is only when women, who form more than half of the population and are also responsible for domestic management and other vital socio-economic roles are empowered, that will impact holistically on the economic development of the Northern Region.

The writer is a freelance journalist but regularly writes for The Daily Dispatch Newspaper. Views or comments may be sent to him via +233 207344104.

By Joseph Ziem


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