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11/22/2010

Forget pity, it's time to empower Ghanaian widows

Pi 

Kwesi-Gyan Apenteng insists that widows in Ghana need to be empoered, not pitied. Photo by Sarah-Jane Steele.

By Sarah-Jane Steele

It’s hard not to feel pity when you meet a widow who has been taken through her rites. It’s an ancient custom here in Ghana -- one where a woman is taken through her village after her husband’s death.

The local soothsayer asks the woman if she had a hand in her husband’s death. Sometimes during the questioning widows will be physically scarred so the ghost of her husband will not recognize her. Sometimes, they’ll sit on a reed mat naked for days, exposed to bugs and the intense Ghanaian heat. Sometimes, they’re encouraged into arranged second marriages.

As a result, pity is the common sentiment from media and NGOs seeking financial aid for widows, many of whom leave their villages to live on widow compounds. There is, however, a new way of treating widows emerging among some local NGOs, one that changed even my pitying perspective. It’s a view that insists that widows are empowered to change policy regarding widow rights, not the helpless victims were used to seeing.

One of the first stories I filed in Ghana was about widows' rights in the country. I visited a widow commune in Bolgatanga in Ghana’s north run by Betty Ayagiba, executive director of the Widow and Orphans Movement (WOM), a local NGO that supports over 8,000 women who have lost their husbands. There, I heard stories of women who, because they lost their husbands, lost their homes, property, and their dignity. 

It was hard not to take the 14-hour bus ride home from Bolgatanga without feeling pity. I filed a story on widows, and thought about quitting my job as a journalist to become a volunteer for WOM.

That’s until I met Kwesi-Gyan Apenteng, who shook the pity out of me.

“These women are to be respected,” Apenteng says, with reverence in his voice. “They’ll regale to you what happened to them but they’re committed to using their experience to educate other women on their rights. It’s very empowering.”

Apenteng insists media and aid groups should stop treating widows in Ghana as helpless. 

“What’s happened to these women for centuries is abysmal, but with the right people on board, it will stop,” he says vehemently.

Apenteng is the smiling, hopeful program coordinator of the Cultural Initiative Support Program in Accra. He is the former editor of The Mirror newspaper in Accra and has a penchant for journalism that promotes change, not sorrow without legislative action. He’s kept up with the work of journalists here and abroad and he’s noticed a constant: widows are routinely portrayed as powerless.

It’s one of the reasons he started policy work. He saw Ayagiba on Obaa Mbo, Ghana’s version of the Oprah Winfrey Show, and with what little he had left in the CISP budget, he championed her cause. Within weeks of seeing the show, Apenteng organized a three-day conference in Bolgatanga to push for the protection of widow rights.

The conference informed widows about the gender provisions in the constitution, which state that the violation of human rights as well as harsh or inhumane treatment of widows is unacceptable. Widows are kept down through lack of education, Apenteng says, and few know they have a constitutional right to contest ceremonies and a right to protection from the state. The CISP conference sought to change that.

Apenteng told attendees that if more seats are granted to women in parliament, women in rural areas could have better political representation. Apenteng enthusiastically encourages widows to become politically engaged. He feels this is one of the ways rural gender issues can be brought before parliament and gain status on the national political agenda. He also challenges the state to become a conduit in this process. 

Post-conference, the CISP reported that seven communities in Ghana’s Upper Eastern Region have signed a resolution saying they will stop the widowhood rites in their communities. It appears his message was well received.

Apenteng maintains Ghana is a progressive country capable of change—you just need the right people on your side. “We know who’s influential in this country, so we gathered chiefs, law makers, advocacy agents and, of course, the widows, to ensure we effectively call on government, instead of accepting cultural practice as a norm,” he says.

“Let’s accept there are reasons communities do things the way they do, but, over time things change, and we are responsible for bringing that change about,” he adds. “Some of our customs are just unacceptably archaic so let’s move on.”

In Canada, widows receive a monthly survival allowance from the Survivor Benefit scheme if they cannot provide for themselves. Apenteng says this support is not be provided to widows here, but educating them on what little they could—and should—be entitled to is a step in the right direction.

As I prepare to head home from the interview with a little less pity on my pallet, Apenteng adds, “what we have done is brought people together that might be able to move us forward. We dropped a very, very tiny pebble, but it had to be dropped.”

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