Women's Leadership in the Latin American Diaspora, Africa, January 2003
I want to thank the union and the Social Justice Fund, for the opportunity to represent the CAW at a conference sponsored by MATCH International1 on Citizenship & Identity - Women's Leadership in the Latin American Diaspora. The conference took place in Accra, the capital of Ghana which is a country of 19 million people situated on the West Coast of Africa. It was my first trip to the African continent.
The conference took place the last two weeks of January. Canadian delegates included Rosemary Brown, President of MATCH International and a member of the CAW Social Justice Fund Board, Madonna Larbi, Executive Director of MATCH International, Maria Otarola, Match International Program Officer for South America and Suzanne Harvor founding member of Match International. All other delegates in attendance were from Peru, Honduras and Ghana. The major sponsor of the conference was CIDA.
The conference itself included speakers on such topics as The Role of Women in Politics in Ghana; Contributions of Ghanaian Women to the National Independence Movement (Ghana was the first African country to achieve independence in 1957); Gender and Democracy and Human Development in the Afroperuvian Community. In addition we spent 5 days on field trips visiting MATCH partners, a women's co-operative, government officials and a batik factory.
The group was hosted by women from the Gender Centre in Accra. The Gender Centre is a MATCH partner working on issues of women's equality. In 2001 the Centre published a national report on Violence Against Women & Children in Ghana; the first study of its' kind in the country. The report is now being used by the Government and outside agencies to "break the silence and challenge the myths of violence against women in Ghana". The results of the study prompted the Government in partnership with foreign donors to open the first long term shelter in Ghana for abused women and their children. ARK was officially opened in the Spring of 2002 and is located approximately 20 minutes outside of the capital, Accra. The work of the Gender Centre is well known throughout the country and several organizations we visited told us that the Centre's report on violence legitimized a lot of the work they were doing making it easier for them to raise funds.
Joana Foster, the MATCH Board Member for Africa also heads up a non profit organization known as The African Women's Development Fund (AWDF). The fund which was started just 2 years ago with a small loan for office rent and a computer from MATCH offers technical assistance and funds to women's organizations operating throughout Africa. To date AWDF has managed to raise more than $800,000 US dollars from donors within Africa and is currently funding 90 separate projects in 29 African countries (video available).
During the trip we also had an opportunity to visit a batik factory and talk to the worker's about their wages, benefits and working conditions as well as opportunities that exist for unionization. Wages in the factory for 35 hours work per week average 40,000 cedis or $20 Canadian dollars per month. Unionization is low with 80% of the countries workforce employed in the informal sector and more than 70% of the population residing in rural areas.
We also spoke to the President of the former Glass Jar Association now the Centre for Advanced Food Processing. This was a group of 8 women who joined forces in 1997 to produce and bottle jam following a glass jar workshop presentation by a Dutch NGO. The group which is now comprised of more than 150 women produce, package and market 3 major products (jam, rice & peas and beans) and have recently set up a 'share offering' so that more women can get involved in the growing 'fast food industry' in Africa. Purchase of the shares at $12.75 US each are available to women who want to cook and distribute their food products through the co-operative.
We spent time with Nana Amba Eyiaba I, the Queen Mother of Elmina which is a fishing community on the South Coast of Ghana. As Queen Mother of Elmina, her role is to counsel women and children and bring information to people on government policies and initiatives. She is responsible for maintaining the culture and identity of the village while managing social change. She spent several hours with us discussing initiatives for improving conditions for the 10,000 citizens of her village. She is concerned about and working on issues of safe drinking water, public awareness of HIV/AIDS, the expansion of school enrolment for all children age 5 and over, and legal aid for women faced with land dispute and inheritance issues. The position of Queen Mother is passed through the maternal line of a family and is one of the most important and respected positions in the village. While these women serve their communities in a full time and life long capacity, they are not compensated for this work. Nana Amba Eyiabe earns her living as a school inspector.
We also met with women from FAWE (Federation of African Women Educators) who are dedicated to equal rights for girls within the education system in Africa. Their main thrust at the moment is to raise the age when girls can legally quit school from the current 16years to 18.
We toured a training facility run by WISE (Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment). These young women do training on resume writing and skills upgrading for unemployed youth with their focus on survivors of domestic violence. A recent initiative of this group is the placement of councillors in police stations who will assist women who go to report domestic violence. WISE has developed a network of more than 200 councillors, trainers, doctors, nurses and lawyers that are sensitized to the issue of domestic violence and who will assist women affected by violence on a voluntary basis. WISE receives a majority of its funding from CIDA as well as the African Women's Development Fund.
We met at a legal aid clinic with volunteers from FIDA (Federacion Internacionale de Abogadas) which was formed in 1975 and is comprised of a group of women lawyers who volunteer their services offering free legal representation to women on issues such as marriage, child welfare, inheritance, domestic violence and land ownership. These women lawyers also volunteer their time doing radio and TV programs aimed at reaching women about their rights under the law. Their pamphlets and material are translated into 5 major Ghanaian languages. Their main source of funding is the World Council of Churches.
Women in Ghana face barriers similar to those faced by Canadian women. Banks reluctant to lend women money, employers who prefer to hire men, lack of affordable childcare, violence against women and a health care and education systems in decline. The work of groups like MATCH International working with Ghanaian women has made a tangible difference to the almost 10 million women in this country (population 19 million - 51% women).
The Trade Union Congress has its' headquarters in Accra. Secretary-General of the TUC Mr. Kwasi Adu-Amankwah held a press conference during our visit in response to the Government's announcement of full cost recovery through automatic price adjustments for petrol. This decision was demanded by the World Bank and IMF as part of their restructuring program for Ghana and resulted in a 100% petrol price increase overnight. Prices rose to more than $4.00 (USD) per litre. The Trade Union Congress called on the government to adopt a plan for achieving realistic incomes for Ghanaian workers and a public transportation policy that would allow people and food supplies to travel across the country at affordable rates.
All women's groups note progress is being made. In 2001 the Federal Government formed a separate Ministry with a mandate for women's equality; the Department of Women's Affairs. We met with 3 of the Minister's assistants (2 were men) and discussed the newly formed women's development fund, a safe motherhood program they are promoting with the Ministry of Health, mobile libraries with the ultimate goal of establishing children's centres and other initiatives aimed at targeting broader social issues. In a recent survey a majority of citizens responded that they believed there would be less corruption with more women in politics (currently 2 women elected in a parliament of 200). Respondents acknowledged that male politicians spend money on items such as houses and cars for themselves and their key staff whereas they believed women would direct that money to programs not hesitating to take the bus to work.
It is important to note that while MATCH received much credit for their financial support from women's groups and research on international agreements, they clearly acknowledged that without the ongoing support of donors like the CAW-Canada they would not be able to fund such initiatives.Six of the conference delegates were from South America. All six were of African decent. It is estimated that 1/3 of the South American population is in fact of African decent. Brazil has the 2nd largest black population after Nigeria. As a direct result of the slave trade, by 1850, it is estimated that 1/3 of Africans lived outside of Africa. The South American women reported they learned much from their African sisters. "We learned how to better combat racism and sexism and that self esteem and self identity are the most important tools for overcoming discrimination and poverty. The social exclusion of women and most especially women with African heritage has led to economic disparity and women were reminded that they must exert their rights of citizenship on behalf of their community. There must be sound policies in place both within the country as well as within the international community to eliminate poverty of marginalized groups."
We also discussed the issue of war. Groups of women in South America have organized WOW (Women Opposing War). U.S. recruiting officers are offering men in rural communities in Peru U.S. citizenship if they will serve in Iraq, just as U.S. recruiting officers are offering young Canadian men, most especially men living on native reserves $30,000 US for 3 years of service in the army if they serve in Iraq. We strategized about how best to join forces in our efforts for peace.
It was amazing that MATCH International organized this conference. It is so important that women have an opportunity to visit their roots, to share their stories, to strategize about their futures. Women left with knowledge but more importantly they left empowered.
Respectfully submitted by,
Director - Education Department
Note: Plans to visit MATCH partners in Lome, Togo; a 3 hour drive from Accra were cancelled at the last minute as a result of logistical problems and the unstable political situation in the region. Togo and Ghana are assisting thousands of refugees as they flee from the Ivory Coast.
1MATCH International is an organization that was founded in 1973 by 3 Canadian women who while attending a conference in Mexico determined that women in all parts of the world needed to work together, in solidarity, if women's lives were to improve. The name MATCH, which is not an acronym, was chosen as the founders were determined to have all efforts at fundraising "matched" through government agencies such as CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). MATCH works in Africa, Asia, Caribbean (Jamaica), Chile and South America, currently supporting 25 separate women's groups. This from more than 600 requests received each year.