By Professor Kate Skinner, Professor of African History, School of Humanities
Professor Kate Skinner tells us about a collaborative project which uses historical film to challenge misrepresentation of gender activism in Ghana. Given the under-representation of Ghanaian women in national and local politics, this research is an important intervention. Kate and her collaborators recently received an AHRC Impact Acceleration Account award, which they are using to demonstrate the positive influence of humanities research on democratic participation.
Under the 1992 constitution, Ghana has become a ‘consolidated democracy’ (meaning that there have been multiple peaceful handovers of power resulting from free and fair elections). Civil society organisations have flourished, and since 2004 a broad-based non-partisan Women’s Manifesto Coalition has set out the steps that governments should have been taking towards gender-equitable development. Yet women’s democratic participation is still severely constrained.
Fewer than 20% of Ghana’s parliamentarians are women. In local government, fewer than 10% of district assembly members are women. Three key pieces of legislation that were promised by successive governments in their periodic reports to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have been stalled. How can historical research help us to explain and close the gap between the vibrancy of non-governmental organisations of women in Ghana, and the persistent under-representation of women in elected national and local government?
Between 2018 and 2022, Prof Kate Skinner and Prof Akosua Adomako Ampofo co-led a British Academy-funded project titled An Archive of Activism: gender and public history in postcolonial Ghana, to which they recruited a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Jovia Salifu. The archival and oral history research that they carried out showed how negative and delegitimising misrepresentations of gender activism have constrained women’s participation in public life in particular ways. Gender activism has been repeatedly depicted as a recent ‘foreign import’ to Ghana, meaning that when women organise collectively to raise difficult issues, they can be dismissed as ‘westernised’, elitist, or out-of-touch with the supposed mass of ‘typical’ Ghanaian women.
When Women Speak (2022). Directed by Aseye Tamakloe. Produced by Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Kate Skinner. Funded by the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme.
In order to challenge the myth that gender activism is a recent ‘foreign import’, the project generated a documentary film, When Women Speak, which revealed the long and rich history of women’s mobilisations in Ghana. Directed by Aseye Tamakloe, and shot entirely in Ghana by a Ghanaian crew, this film was screened at multiple international film festivals. It is now available free-to-view at https://whenwomenspeakfilm.com/.
Impact of the film
Initial screenings of the film in Ghana suggested many ways in which it could be utilised, both in university and senior-secondary school settings, and by people working outside of the formal education sector. Through a collaboration with Dr Rose Mensah-Kutin – Executive Director of Abantu-for-Development, one of Ghana’s leading women’s organisations – the project team were able to further explore potential uses of the film among three particular groups:
- District assemblywomen – who contest elections at the local government level and play key roles in local development.
- Journalists – who play a key role in enhancing public understanding of gender issues.
- Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection (MoGCSP) – which has a broad policy oversight, presents draft bills for cabinet approval, and runs a range of sensitisation programmes.
In August 2023, funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Impact Acceleration Account enabled workshops to be held with representatives of these three groups. With the help of expert facilitators, we identified pertinent themes which could be excerpted from the film, and ways of integrating these excepts with discussion questions and additional materials, in short and flexible training packages. We also identified the specific settings in which these training packages might be used, and potential obstacles – for example, the relatively high cost of mobile data packages relative to average incomes, and constraints on organisations’ internal resources for continuing professional development and public sensitisation programmes.
In their evaluations of the workshop, district assemblywomen and aspiring candidates highlighted the well-documented issues of verbal abuse and unpleasant gossip that risk deterring women in election campaigns and undermining them once they are elected. Participants commented that seeing the struggles and achievements of earlier generations of Ghanaian women in the film was important for the motivation and confidence of candidates and serving assemblywomen:
- ‘It will be an everyday reminder to them [women candidates] that the road is rough but determination will take them there.’
- ‘It will build their capacity to know how far they can go if they want to become leaders.’
- ‘…it gives you courageousness to move ahead and not feel intimidated.’
Reflecting on the workshop, a journalist participant observed that training packages based on the film would be ‘a valuable addition to existing training programmes for media professionals. They can help raise awareness about gender stereotypes, promote inclusivity, and encourage more accurate and diverse representation in media.’
The Public Affairs officer of the Ghana Journalists’ Association concluded: ‘The story about women’s rights in Ghana must continue to be told. Generations down the line ought to understand where it all started, how it’s going and the way forward.’
The training packages are now in development. Watch this space!
Professor Kate Skinner is Professor of African History and Research Director for the School of Humanities. To find out more about Kate’s research, the When Women Speak film, and the training packages in development, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.