The Nobel Prize and The African Woman

Three women are sharing the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace. One is Yemeni human rights leader Tawakul Karman. The other two are African: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s current president and Africa’s only female democratically elected head of state, and her countrywoman Leymah Gbowee who is a peace activist and spellbinding challenger of the ultra-male, brutality-wielding world of warlords.
Only ten women before the present trio have won the Nobel Peace Prize. For her part, Gbowee is one of founders of the Ghana-based Women, Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa.org), whose motto of “Building Women, Building Peace” is right on target. Only a four-word phrase, it captures the sentiment expressed by Thorbjorn Jagland, head of the Nobel committee: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
As if augmenting Jagland’s declaration, one of the goals of WIPSEN-Africa is to “enable, enhance, and sustain African women’s right to participation and leadership in fostering human security, sustainable peace, and development.” It’s perhaps appropriate that WIPSEN-Africa is based in Ghana. One of the most politically stable emerging economies in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana continues to move forward on many social and economic fronts. For that reason, although WIPSEN-Africa is not dedicated to Ghana alone, it may find it can implement many of its Africa-wide goals with more facility in Ghana than in other African countries.
While in Ghana in June 2011, I visited the High Court in the capital Accra and witnessed a homicide case being tried. The prosecuting attorney was a bombastic man who had been around the courts system for a while and knew how to manipulate it to his advantage. The defense lawyer was an articulate woman who, with deadly precision, methodically dismantled the male lawyer’s arguments in an assertive but quiet style that contrasted sharply with his.
If we want to see more African women awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace, it’s women like that skillful lawyer for whom WIPSEN-Africa must push. Ghanaian women constitute almost 51% of the population in a country where agriculture, mining, quarrying and forestry continue to dominate the economy.
Although Ghanaian women are a potent labor force in the economic activity of the country, their work is found more in the private, informal sector, of which agriculture takes the largest share. Women have a huge presence not only in marketplaces and other trading venues all over Ghana, but on farmland.
As anyone who has visited or lived in the country will confirm, Ghanaian women have extraordinary physical strength and stamina. Although men generally clear and prepare land for crops, the women do the weeding, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and marketing of the harvest. In this way, they are responsible for an estimated 70-80% of food consumed in Ghana, contributing around 48% of the Gross Domestic Product, a laudable achievement by any measure.
The command Ghanaian women wield in agricultural activity is not mirrored in Ghana’s formalprivate and public sector, where women are found mostly in the lower echelons of economic activity. They comprise less than 4% of the professional/technical and administrative staff in the labor force. So, for example, if you go into banks in Accra or another major Ghanaian city, female tellers and financial officers will likely outnumber their male counterparts, but upstairs in the boardroom, women’s presence is lacking.
Why is that? Like Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Ghanaian women are every bit as innovative, enterprising and smart as men, so why don’t we see more of them in managerial, professional and technical positions? To conclude that it must be due to discriminatory employment practices would be to miss a much more fundamental problem. Starting in primary school, the gender gap widens at each successive level of education. In 2000, the percentages of Ghana’s girls and boys in Junior Secondary School (JSS) were 45 and 55% respectively; in Senior Secondary School girls accounted for 33% of the student population, and at the tertiary level it was only 25%.
There are many barriers to girls’ education at issue, among them conservative traditional beliefs about the role of girls and women in society, gender biases in the classroom toward boys and corresponding low self-esteem in girls, inadequate counseling services for girls, teasing and sexual harassment of girls, poor sanitary facilities, early marriage and, as I ruefully discovered in a failed attempt to sponsor a Ghanaian girl through secondary school, teenage pregnancy. All these factors, particularly the last, contribute to a troubling high dropout rate among girls.
Via a number of proposed steps, the Ghana Government has committed to a National Vision of increasing girls’ access to education and to the promotion of retention of girls through basic education and beyond. But the government is unlikely to single-handedly achieve these goals. It will take the dedicated efforts of organizations like WIPSEN-Africa to really move girls’ education forward.
There is still a mountain of work to do before we see more African women move into the professional, technical and managerial classes, let alone see them receive many more Nobel Prizes. Has the era of the African woman arrived? Perhaps not yet, but it will.

Kwei Quartey is the author of Wife of the Gods and the newly released Children of the Street.