15 Gender Studies Work at the University of Ghana

Illustration of author Akosua K. Darkwah wearing a colorful dress, head facing slightly to the side, by Nicole Carter
Akosua K. Darkwah by Nicole Carter

By Akosua K. Darkwah, University of Ghana

On March 14 2006, a number of feminist colleagues and I at the University of Ghana participated in the formal launch of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA). This Centre was set up as one way of institutionalizing the University of Ghana’s commitment to gender equality in all aspects of life at the University. For those of us present at that ceremony, this launch marked a dream fulfilled. In the early 2000s, four events cumulatively made it possible to institutionalize Gender Studies at the University. First was a study of public universities in Ghana which focused on a range of issues including gender. The second was the adoption of a strategic plan for the University of Ghana and the amendment of the statutes of the university, both of which gave explicit support to the promotion of gender equality policies and measures in the university. Third, Vice-Chancellors of the public Universities in Ghana signed the Swedru Accord that committed them to institutionalizing gender in the public universities. Finally, Carnegie Corporation, a major funder of the University, was interested in among other things, promoting gender equality in the Ghanaian universities it supported.

Although CEGENSA was set up in 2006, feminist work at the University preceded the establishment of the Centre by almost two decades. In the 1987-88 academic year, a small group of feminist scholars at the University, formed the Development and Women’s Studies (DAWS) group. It was housed at the Institute of African Studies because one of the key members, Takyiwaa Manuh, was working at the Institute. DAWS members worked with other feminist scholars at the University of Liverpool and Birmingham, such as Lynne Brydon, to build Gender and Women’s studies in Ghana. Seminars and workshops were held where scholars were given space to share their work and receive feedback. Slowly, a body of feminist scholarship was built on the university campus. These scholars also infused their teaching with their feminist scholarship. Key publications during this period sought to provide nuanced perspectives on Ghanaian women that often challenged Western perspectives on African women. Feminist economist Abena Oduro pointed out that Ghanaian women did not only perform reproductive roles but were also key actors in the productive sector of the economy as well. Those ideas developed and discussed at gender analysis workshops held by DAWS served as the foundation of Abena Oduro’s lifelong work on women’s productive work and its links to assets and empowerment more broadly, a number of which have appeared in the journal Feminist Economics. Similarly, the feminist legal scholar/anthropologist Takyiwaa Manuh discussed the complementary political role of queenmothers in traditional Akan society in a seminal publication titled “The Asantehemaa’s court and its jurisdiction over women: a study in legal pluralism” published in the journal Research Review.

DAWS members were also part of a pan-African initiative hosted by the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town between 2000 and 2009. This initiative aimed to build feminist consciousness on the continent and ensure that feminist intellectual work on the continent was grounded in African reality. As part of this initiative, DAWS members contributed to debates over curricula at universities, participated in an African feminist project on sexuality and wrote for the pan-African journal, Feminist Africa, Africa’s first feminist scholarly and activist open access digital publication.

As a result, when CEGENSA was established in 2006, there was already a core group of interdisciplinary scholars at the University of Ghana who self-identified as feminist and were conducting research on different topics of concern to feminist scholars. Key among them were Takyiwaa Manuh, Dzodzi Tsikata, Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Audrey Gadzekpo as well as myself. Akosua Adomako Ampofo, a sociologist by training and recipient of the 2010 Sociologists for Women and Society’s Feminist Activism Award, was the founding Director of CEGENSA.

The Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy’s (CEGENSA) mandate was much broader than that of the Development and Women’s Studies Program (DAWS). The founding members of CEGENSA, myself included, many of whom had been part of DAWS, were not only committed to teaching and conducting research on gender issues, but were also keenly interested in supporting the work of civil society and the state in the promotion of gender equality. In addition, they were of the view that it was important to work towards policy reform and institutional change within the university and to support both students and faculty to promote gender equality. CEGENSA thus has a 7-point mandate: academic planning and curriculum development; the development of a resource centre; policy planning; the creation and maintenance of a sexual assault and crisis centre; mentoring junior female faculty and graduate students; and research as well as extension work, which is work with the non-academic community.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Centre since its inception is the fact that it has ensured that all second-year students enrolled at the University of Ghana take a basic course in Gender Studies. In the early years of the Centre, two curriculum development workshops were organized to, among other things, develop an introductory course as well as two elective courses: Gender and Culture and Gender and Development. A sociologist by training, I developed the Gender and Culture class and continue to update the teaching material for this class. These courses have been taught at the University of Ghana every semester since August 2011. Faculty members who teach these courses come from different departments in the College of Arts and the College of Humanities. All the faculty members who teach this course are trained in feminist pedagogy to ensure that the political goal which underpins this project is not lost on the faculty. A survey conducted on the student population has shown that this course has a positive impact on a good number of the students.

The Centre also hosts a resource unit which provides professors, students, and the wider public a wide range of materials on gender theory and analysis, a good amount of which is focused on African realities and written by African scholars. The unit also serves as a depository for diverse materials produced by faculty, students and civil society organisations in the country. The holdings of the unit, which numbers in the thousands, can be accessed online as well. To make the film collection more easily accessible to students, in some semesters, the Centre has held a regular film and discussion series. A popular film for discussion has been Ousmane Sembene’s (2000) “Faat Kine” which tells the story of the success of a Senegalese single woman with two children and a couple of ex-husbands. Another has been Adama Drabo’s (1997) “Taafe Fanga” which is a gender bending farce set in Mali.

As the university has grown, some of its statutes lost relevance, necessitating a review which subsequently led to reform of the old and development of new policies which addressed the concerns. CEGENSA members actively contributed to the review of the university’s policies, practices and governance structures to ensure that they promoted gender equity and equality. The first policy the Centre worked on was the sexual harassment policy. Developed over a two-year period, it was adopted by the University Council in 2011 and an amended version adopted in 2017. Since its inauguration, the Committee has addressed a number of cases which have led to various punishments including outright dismissal for faculty members who have been found to have violated the policy.

Linked to its policy work has been the creation of a sexual assault crisis and counseling unit. This unit responds to the needs of those who have been sexually assaulted by providing professional counseling and where necessary, legal aid. Sexual assault hotlines have also been set up in collaboration with the Counselling and Placement Centre. Counsellors are available at all times to speak with survivors of sexual harassment. In addition, the Director of the Centre works closely with the public health unit of the university hospital and the Head of Security Services to provide support to survivors of sexual assault.

Since its inception in 2006, the mentoring committee of the Centre has undertaken a series of programs designed to help junior women faculty and postgraduate students overcome some of the challenges that make it more difficult for them to rise through the ranks at the university. These have included public speaking and time management seminars as well as weekend writing retreats for junior faculty after which they are paired with senior faculty as accountability partners to ensure that the papers written at these retreats are eventually published.

CEGENSA has undertaken a number of large-scale research projects with international partners since 2006. Between 2006 and 2012, CEGENSA served as the West African research hub (coordinating work done in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana) in partnership with colleagues in Latin America, North Africa, and Asia to research the pathways of women’s empowerment. This Research Project Consortium (RPC) was funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) UK. The project culminated in the publication of a number of articles and books as well as contributions to a 2013 UN Women’s publication. Between 2008 and 2011, with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, the Centre carried out a study that sought to understand the ways in which employment agencies were formalizing/informalizing work in the domestic and banking sectors respectively. Between 2009 and 2012, the Centre received funding from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) to undertake a study of the nature and extent of sexual harassment in selected tertiary institutions in the country. Between 2012 and 2013, the Centre received funding from the Partnership for African Social Governance Research (PASGR) to study non-state social protection services available to vulnerable populations in the Central Region of Ghana. In 2014, the Centre received 2 three year grants; one funded by IDRC explored the impact of large scale land acquisitions on women while the other funded by DFID investigated the measures beyond a domestic violence bill that would reduce the incidence of domestic violence in Ghana. Between 2016 and 2019, the Centre was also involved in exploring the gendered implications of sustainable agricultural intensification.

Finally, many of the faculty members who are interested in Gender Studies are activists as well and contribute their expertise to the development of gender sensitive policies at the national level. In fact, a representative from the Centre has sat on the steering committee of the nationwide Network for Women’s Rights since its inception. Serving on the steering committee of this organisation institutionalizes the relationship between women academics and activists in Ghana and is yet another achievement of which CEGENSA is very proud. In its fourteenth year of establishment, CEGENSA is the go-to space for students and academics interested in Gender Studies at the University of Ghana. Our work has already been the subject of inquiry by a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Ghana (Owusua Amoako, 2020). In the years ahead, the Centre will continue to work to maintain its relevance both at the institutional and national level.

Works cited:

Drabo, Adama. 1997. Taafe Fanga. Atriascop Paris.

Kabeer, Naila with Ragui Assaad, Akosua Darkwah, Simeen Mahmud, Hania Sholkamy, Sakiba Tasneem, and Dzodzi Tsikata, and with statistical support by Munshi Sulaiman. 2013.  Paid Work, Women’s Empowerment and Inclusive Growth: Transforming the structures of constraint. New York, NY: UN Women  Headquarters.

Owusua Amoako, Priscilla. 2020. A history of CEGENSA’s Contribution to Gender Studies in the University of Ghana. Unpublished Mphil Dissertation, Department of History, University of Ghana.

Sembene, Ousmane and Wongue Mbengue. 2000. Faat Kine. New Yorker Films

University of Ghana. 2017.  Sexual Harassment and Misconduct Policy. [Accessed: 4/22/20]

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