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The meaning of gender equality in Ghana: women's perceptions of the issues of gender equality: implications for social work education and practice in Ghana.

Abstract: Women in Ghana still face discrimination and inequality in the Ghanaian society. This situation is still occurring decades after the first women's international conference and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as the Ghanaian Constitutional provisions of women's rights and equality, This qualitative study examines the issues of gender equality, in terms of household work, sexual and reproductive rights and political decision-making and participation, from the perspectives of 68 women in Ghana.

The study captured the voice of Ghanaian women with different educational, socio-economic and occupational backgrounds in both urban and rural communities through focus group discussions. The study indicates that Ghanaian women, in theory, have the constitutional right to enjoy equal rights and opportunities with their male counterparts, however, in practice they lag behind in almost all public spheres of life. They lagged behind in political participation and decision-making, and also in expressing and enjoying their sexual and reproductive rights. Gender inequality has been attributed to institutional and structural barriers, in addition to women's multiple roles, cultural and customary barriers and negative attitudes and perception about women in general.

This study discusses the implications of the findings for an increased involvement of social work advocacy in terms of education, empowerment and policy formulation.


Since the first international women's conference in Mexico in 1975 and other subsequent conferences related to women and gender issues, the world has experienced profound political, economic and social changes that had implications for women everywhere. Many governments, including that of Ghana have endorsed various United Nations conventions and declarations to promote gender equality and to mainstream gender perspectives in all spheres of society. In addition, the 1992 constitution of Ghana provides constitutional protection for all persons before the law. Section 17 prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status. Sub-section 3 of section 27 provides that women shall be guaranteed equal rights without any impediments from any person (Constitution of Ghana, 1992).

Despite these international conventions and constitutional changes, relatively little has changed in terms of Ghanaian women's life experiences. They still continue to experience gender-based discrimination, powerlessness and relative poverty and social and political exclusion from active participation in the national development of their country. Globally, women in Ghana, just like other women in both developed and developing nations, have always been numerically important in the human population, however, they continue to be to occupy inferior positions in their various societies and are faced with social, economic, violence and sexual exploitations.

This paper reports on a qualitative study, which examines the meaning of gender equality from women's own experiences and perceptions of the concept and how they live it daily. The structural discrimination and oppression they face as females is rarely discussed beyond issues of access to resources and income generating activities. The study examined the views of a sample of Ghanaian women as they describe their own life experiences with regards to their daily work activities, participation in political decision-making, and their sexual and reproductive rights as women. The purpose of this study was to find out whether women in Ghana really enjoy gender equality as enshrined in the national constitution of the country


This study took place in two regional capital cities and two rural settings in Ghana. The following factors were taken into account in selecting the study area; the size of the population, the sizes of the migrant population, the diversity of cultural, educational, economic, religious and ethnic patterns and the heterogeneity of the people and the groups. The inclusion of both urban and rural communities was meant to create fairness, divergence and variations of responses that reflect rural and urban populations.

Ghana, the study country is a former British Colony, located in West Africa. According to the 2000 national census, Ghana has a total population of 18,800,000 million people 51 percent of which are females and 49 percent of males. Sixty-seven percent of the people live in the rural communities of the country and the remaining 33 percent live in the urban areas, mainly in the capital city and in the remaining other nine regional capitals of the country. The major local dialects are Akan, Ewe, Ga, Nzema, Dagbane and Hausa. Life expectancy at birth is estimated to be 56 years for the total population, with that of males being 55.4 and 56.9 years for the females (General Information on Ghana, 2005).

Economically, Ghana has diverse and rich natural resources but agriculture is the main economic activity representing 45.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The economy is open to world markets and the primary products for export are cocoa, gold, diamonds, manganese ore, bauxite, timber products and non-traditional processed agricultural products. According to 2002 estimates, the per capita income for the country was $290 (General Information on Ghana, 2005).

Situation of women in Ghana

Historically, women suffered oppression and domination by the patriarchal society in Ghana. Women were taught to accept their position through the socialisation process, including their initiation rites. They were taught to be obedient wives and to respect their elders. They were told that a man could marry more than one woman (Manu 1984; Oppong 1973; Nukunya 1969). The inferior position of women in traditional Ghanaian society was reinforced by a number of traditional practices such as polygamy, early marriage, and illiteracy and food taboos. Many of these practices are still found today in some places in the country.

According to Ministry of Health (2003), since 2000 maternal mortality has increased from 205 to 230 per 100,000 live births. Ghana Demographic and Health Survey, (Ghana Statistical Service, 2003) has indicated a decline in fertility rates from 5.5 in 1993 to 4.6 in 1998 and to 4.4 in 2003. In addition, the use of contraceptive for spacing childbirth among married women has also seen some increase from 10 percent in 1993 to 13 percent in 1998 and to 19 percent in 2003. According to Lievesley & Motivans (2000), there are still an estimated 880 million adults that cannot read nor write in the world and two-thirds of these adults are women. They assert literacy play an essential role in improving the lives of individuals by enabling economic security and good health and it also enriches societies by building human capital, and the promotion of civic participation. The status of literacy of women in Ghana is equally low. According to 2002 Population and Housing Census 54.3 percent of females aged 15 years and above have never been to school (Ghana Statistical Service, 2002).

Concerning access to education, the 2002 Population and Housing Census in Ghana indicates that 54.3 percent of female aged 15 years and over, have never been to school despite efforts being made to increase girls education in the country. Gender parity between girls and boys has almost been achieved at the pre-school or early childhood education level. However, the gap begins to widen from the basic or primary school level to junior high and high school levels. For example, at the junior secondary school or junior high school level, the percentage of girls and boys were 44.9 percent and 55.1 percent respectively in 1999 and 2000 school years. The gender gap still widens at both high school and post-secondary levels, with female constituting only 33 percent at high schools and post-secondary institutions (Ghana Statistical Service, 2002).

Despite the introduction of Free Compulsory and Universal Basic Education policy (FCUBE) in 1994, girls enrolment in schools continue to be low and especially in the rural communities of the country. School levies and indirect costs such as book user fees, school uniforms and school supplies have made education costly, even though enrolment is free in the public schools. In addition, variety of cultural, economic, and institutional reasons, also account for this state of affairs. The traditional view that a woman's place is in the home and the kitchen still persists, in addition to domestic and household duties and chores.


The qualitative research methodology that informed this study is phenomenology. A phenomenological study tries to describe the meaning and realities of everyday lived experiences of a phenomenon from the perspectives of the participants. In this study, the phenomenon of interest is the perception and understanding of the Ghanaian women's concept of gender equality. Focus group discussions and demographic surveys were the techniques used for data collection in this study. An interview guide with questions based on issues surrounding women's life situations and their gender was used during the group discussions. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (1998), gender equality requires equal enjoyment by women and men of socially valued goods, opportunities, resources and rewards. Gender equality does not mean that men and women become the same, but that their opportunities and life chances are equal (OECD, 1998). Gender equality in this study, is taken to mean that men and women should have equal conditions and opportunities for realising their full human rights and potentials in order to contribute to national, political, economic, social and cultural development, and to equally benefit from the results.

Research participants

The composition of participants was from a broad cross-section of the Ghanaian population in terms of ethnicity, age, family situation, economic situation, education, religion and patterns of residence that is both rural and urban (see Table 1, Appendix). Since Ghana is ethnically diverse, participants from most of the major ethnic groups in the country were included in the study. Two regions were selected for this study and the selection was based on the fact that one region has a very diverse and heterogeneous population groups from all parts of the country and the second region was more homogeneous and less culturally diverse. In all, sixty-eight women participated in six focus group discussions.


A number of themes emerged from this study based on women's own views, description and understanding of their own living situations in terms of their work loads, sexual and reproductive rights, food and feeding habits and political decision-making and participation in Ghana. The findings of the study revealed admission of all participants, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, the lack of gender equality in almost all aspects of their lives in Ghana.

Overall, the main finding, which is the lack of gender equality for women in Ghana, does not differ significantly in terms of education, income and social class. The majority of the participants in this study could be classified as being in the middle socio-economic class. Most had at least posthigh school and some college education and they worked as professionals and semi-professionals in their various occupations. In addition, all the urban participants had a basic minimum education of 10 to 12 years. However, cultural practices seemed to play a major role in influencing the participants' perceptions and attitudes more than their educational background.

We are the mothers and the working donkeys of the family

One of the major themes that participants identified as a factor hindering the attainment of gender equality in Ghana is the gender role of motherhood and household duties and chores. According to Adomako Ampofo (2004), the birth of a child is an important aspect of any marriage in Ghana because it ensures the continuity of the family lineage and proof of a woman's fertility and the number of children she could bear. Even though education and modernisation are influencing the high birth rates among women, the practice is still predominant in the rural communities.

This study shows that the largest number of children per woman was found in the rural areas where the traditional concept of family was strongest. Uneducated urban women also had large families. On average, urbanised, educated and employed women had fewer children. On the whole, however, all those interviewed for this study, both rural and urban saw childbirth as an essential role for women in society, either for the benefits it bestows upon the mother or for the honour it brings to her family.

In terms of household duties and chores, all the participants complained of doing the bulk of the household chores in addition to other income generating activities and taking care of other members of the family. Women perform all the other productive tasks in and around their households for the benefit of family members. For example, most participants complained about not getting any help with household duties from their spouses. All the same, they believed it was the woman's duty to take care of the house and the children.

A number of married urban participants described themselves as "working donkeys and domestic servants." They refer to all the household chores, income-generating activities they undertake, including formal and informal employment, in addition to other family responsibilities such as child care and cooking meals. All participants stated they work more than necessary because they have enormous family and personal responsibilities. They stated they do all the housework in addition to taking care of the children and their husbands and they have no full control over their sexual and reproductive issues. A number of direct quotations from young to middle-aged urban participants illustrate the low position that women occupy in Ghana:
 We are discriminated against because we are not highly educated
 enough, economically, we are not so much endowed with wealth and
 traditionally, women are brought up to believe that a woman is a
 secondary person when it comes to certain issues.

 Even though the constitution states that there should be equal
 rights for both sexes, it is not so in practice because our culture,
 our traditional prejudices still weigh heavily against us.

 Women are caring and since we are committed to the care of our
 husbands and children, we are compelled to work hard to take care
 of them. Secondly, because we try to avoid disgrace, a woman does a
 lot of work. We leave home very early in the morning and come back
 late in the evening to do the household chores, no matter how late
 and in addition, the needs of our husbands come first before our

 These days the men are irresponsible and due to this
 irresponsibility of men, women these days embark on all kinds of
 income generating activities that involved long trekking to villages
 to buy foodstuffs in order to look after the home.

 Women work a lot, we have to look after the children, take care of
 the family and perform other domestic chores. Most of us are in
 formal employment and after work we have the household chores
 waiting for us, whilst the men relax reading the day's newspapers.

 Women are burdened with housework and family responsibilities
 therefore we do not have enough time to pursue their career goals.
 If women had enough time, we would have outnumbered the men in the
 top executive positions.

 The fact is the duties of women are not restricted to the nuclear
 family alone but they extend to the extended family as well. For
 example, if a member of the family is sick, be it nuclear or
 extended family member, the woman is called upon to attend to the
 needs of the sick person.

This study reveals the reproduction and work experiences of the participants that are mostly taken for granted and regarded as gender roles. A consequence of the motherhood role is that the responsibility for childcare is seen primarily as a woman's job. Combining childcare with work outside the household places a considerable strain on women, especially for urban dwellers who have no strong kinship networks in the cities. However, all participants with children in this study regarded having children as a good and a positive experience despite the extra burden child rearing imposed on them. A middle-age rural participant puts it as:
 The children are our only treasures and our social security in our
 old age. Who will take care of you when you grow old and weak if
 you don't have children in this world?

Women in this study stated they have to work out of dire necessity for the survival of their families, most especially for their children. They have to toil under extreme economic and material conditions and limitations for the survival of their families. For example, in the focus group discussions, most participants complained about not getting any help with household duties from their spouses. All the same, they believed it was the woman's duty to take care of the house and the children. It is therefore considered a privilege if a spouse offered or volunteered to assist with house duties. A number of middle-aged rural participants expressed their views as:
 Women are regarded as those responsible for the total upkeep of
 the children since they deliver them.

 Generally, both the man and the woman come together to have a
 child. It is the man's responsibility to provide for the needs of
 his family that is for his wife and children, including the
 educational needs of his children.

 Unfortunately, in most cases the men shirk their responsibilities
 and leave the woman with all the problems and the woman has no
 choice than to take them up.

Reproductive and sexual rights

Another finding of this study revealed that women in Ghana do not fully enjoy sexual and reproductive rights in Ghana. Majority of the participants, in describing their experiences of the concept of the right to make personal decisions concerning the use of birth control and family planning services, mentioned the pressure of family and motherhood issues in terms of having children and being a good mother and wife as some of the obstacles preventing them to fully exercise their reproductive rights.

The International Conference on population and development held in Cairo in 1994 has accelerated the importance of women's sexual and reproductive health issues and gender-based power dynamics with regards to sexual relationships between men and women and women's right and control over their bodies. Previous studies have indicated that within marriages in sub-Saharan Africa, men typically have more say than women in the decision to use contraception and in the number of children that the couple wants to have and most couples avoid discussing family planning issues for various reasons (Fapohunda & Rutenberg, 1999).

The 1994 Demographic and Health Survey has indicated that despite the independent nature of some marital relationships, men in Ghana still have the primary decision-making power in issues of family planning (Ghana Statistical Service, 1998). In addition to husbands or men being the primary decision-makers, the extended family members also have vested interest in large number of children. Bawah & Akweongo (1999), indicate that in northern Ghana, the extended family can be a strong incentive to continue childbearing even if the couple prefers to limit their family size.

Reproductive decision-making is not easy for us

The right to make the decision as to the number of children one wants to have is easily understood by all participants but in practice, it seems so difficult as expressed by this educated urban participant:
 Culture plays an important role in the choice of family size; the
 Ghanaian woman cannot kick against her cultural background. For
 example, she can decide to have a specific number of children but
 the extended family and the community can put pressure on her or
 the husband for more children.

A number of both married rural and urban participants reaffirmed the cultural argument as:
 A woman entertains the fear that if she is not able to give birth
 to at least another child of the opposite sex, especially a boy,
 the man will go in for another woman. However, men are now being
 more understanding with having same sex children such as all girls.

 When a woman refuses to have many children, there is the possibility
 of her husband having an affair outside the marriage or marrying a
 second wife.

Another urban participant believed times have changed and women should be able to exercise their rights:
 In the past when women were basically housewives and the men
 provided all the needs of the home, the man decided on how many
 children they should have but now things have changed.

A married rural participant believed since women are now playing effective economic roles in the family they could practice birth control secretly:
 Women are also contributing their quota of housekeeping money or
 even more, therefore we must make decisions on reproduction of
 children as well and practise family planning on our own, but we
 have to do it secretly.

Almost all the participants in both urban and rural settings believed they have the right to make personal decisions concerning family planning or to use of birth control and determine the number of children they want to have. However, they are faced with male dominance and unequal power relations and poor economic conditions. In order to protect themselves from ill-health and economic related problems concerning child bearing, the issue of practicing birth control or family planning becomes a 'personal thing to be done secretly', as expressed by a number of middle-age married rural participants:
 As women, we carry the pregnancy to full term and at times we are
 saddled with all the troubles of child rearing and care-giving and
 hence we have the right to decide the number of children we want to
 have or we will practice family planning or use birth control

 For instance, pregnancy, childbirth and child upbringing are tasking
 and financially difficult for the housewife and the career woman,
 therefore in the face of all these challenges, the woman has to
 decide how many children she can comfortably have.

Nukunya (1992) confirmed that the determiners of reproductive decisions within the Ghanaian family are members of the conjugal family, the extended family, and certain persons outside the family circle and the authority structure weighs heavily in favour of the men. It is evident that gender-based power in sexual relationships is unbalanced and women usually have less power than men. According to Riley (1997), these power imbalances operate in the context of universal sexual double standard that give men greater sexual freedom and rights of sexual self-determination than women enjoy.

According to the Commonwealth Secretariat (2002), patriarchy in addition to poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are other factors that increase women's vulnerability to gender-based violence and other related sexually transmitted diseases. It is pertinent that any meaningful engagement with sexual and reproductive rights should be addressed in reference to unequal gender relations between men and women.

Demanding safe sex is a thorny issue

Another major finding of this study is the right to demand safe and protected sex. The women found it very difficult to demand safe sex in the form of condom use from their spouses and partners even though they admitted some of the men practiced polygamy and have multiple sexual partners. Collumbien & Hawkes (2000) indicate that unequal power relations in sexual relationships can have a detrimental influence on both men's and women's sexual health. According to them, men's concerns about appearing powerful and in control can discourage men from discussing sexual issues with women.

The use of condoms by both men and women as a means for safe sex and protection has become a significant public health issue due to the HIV/AID epidemic. However, the use of condom for safe and protected sex among married and cohabiting couples is very sensitive and controversial for most women in this study. A number of educated urban participants regarded the issue of demanding safe sex as 'culturally sensitive and unacceptable to most men.'
 This is a thorny issue because if your husband does not want to
 practice safe sex and yet he demands sex, then you the wife is torn
 between giving in to him or allowing him to go outside the marriage
 for it. And if he goes outside, what guarantee do you the woman have
 that he will not infect you with the virus?

 Culture downplays the rights of women as far as women's reproductive
 life is concerned. Culture denies the woman the right to negotiate
 on when to have safe sex. The man calls the shots in all these
 instances. For instance if a woman decides she is not in the mood
 for sex or insists on the use of condom before sex, the man
 interprets it as an act of infidelity or even something more

It is evident from the discussion that most Ghanaian men practice some form of polygamy by being married to more than one woman or involved in extra marital relationships. Polygamy is common in many African countries including Ghana. The 1998 demographic health survey in Ghana indicates that 27.7 percent of women are engaged in polygamous relationships (Ghana Statistical Service, 1998).

The reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa convinced the participants to regard the issue of safe sex as 'a very thorny issue and a difficult problem for women'. They believed the demand for safe sex as very crucial in the fight for preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, especially among young women in the country. Two married rural participants stated that:
 In this age and time, a woman needs to demand safe sex from her
 husband because most of the husbands are not faithful. We have
 to stay healthy and therefore we must demand safe sex.

 I have a friend whose husband through promiscuity developed the
 AIDS disease and infected his wife and the newborn baby so we
 women should wake up and demand safe sex to protect ourselves.

Even though most participants affirmed their right to demand safe sex, the main dilemma they faced is the belief that it is wrong to deny one's spouse or partner sex even if they are aware of the risks involved. In effect, women are torn between giving in to unsafe sex or risk their marriage in the end. Some of their dilemmas have been expressed by a number of educated, married urban participants as:
 Before marriage, girls are taught about the joys of marriage and
 motherhood and how to keep their husbands happy and to accept
 without question the responsibilities handed down by the culture.
 These lessons are silent about our rights as women, mothers or

 The bible says the man is the head of the family and this makes it
 difficult for some women to disobey the will of their husbands.

 Women have the right to safe sex yet the men will not allow their
 wives to insist that they wear condoms. Men prefer sex without
 condom, they want it "flesh to flesh". Should the woman continue
 to insist on a condom, the man will take offence and sexually abuse
 the wife or even rape her.

 There is nothing known as marital rape in this country. It is a
 woman's responsibility to have sex with her husband and if she
 refuses and he forces her, it is not a crime or marital rape.

The contradiction and dilemma of the participants in this study with regards to demanding safe and protected sex through the use of condom is not peculiar to Ghana alone. Research in diverse settings has shown that condoms are often regarded as more appropriate for non-marital relationships than marital ones (Adetunji, 2000, Meekers, 2000). A United Nations assessment of contraceptive use has indicated that in countries with generalised HIV epidemics, only 8 percent of married contraceptive users report the use of condom, and this rate has shown no increase over the last 20 years (United Nations, 2002). In addition, a number of studies have also found the widespread resistance to the use of condoms in stable, long-term relationships because of their association with lack of trust and illicit sex (Blecher et al, 1995).

Women's sexual and reproductive role has largely determined their social status and economic opportunities. It has shaped their view of themselves and their sense of personal empowerment, yet they have received little support or care in fulfilling this role. For most women in most societies, the reproductive role has been simultaneously over-valued and under-supported (UNFPA, 1997). A young married urban participant puts it as:
 As women we do not even have the right to decide when we are in the
 mood to have sex or not to have sex, left alone, to demand safe sex.

The lack of power among women to talk about sex and even negotiate safe sex with their partners is supported by cultural norms that dictate that good women should not know about sex or the functioning of their sexual and reproductive organs. In many societies, a 'good woman' is defined as one who is naive about sexual matters and chase until marriage, while a 'loose' woman is one who knows about topics pertaining to sex and is assertive sexually (Carovano, 1992; Cash & Anasuchatkul, 1992). A married and educated urban participant sums it up as:
 Women have been indoctrinated from adolescence to believe that the
 man is the head of the household and the one in charge and so he
 deserves respect and obedience no matter what.

This study reveals that Ghanaian women, when it comes to exercising their sexual and reproductive rights, are in a subordinate and helpless position as other women in other parts of the world. They are confronted with maintaining their families and marriage relations and facing the dilemma of making choices in terms of having unprotected sex. Among currently married Ghanaian women, contraceptive prevalence is about 22 percent with only 13 percent prevalence of modern methods (Ghana Ministry of Health, 2002).

Lack of equal political participation and decision-making

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), have been instrumental in putting women's socio-economic and political participation and human rights issues on the public domain. Since then, a number of African countries have experienced some high rates of increase in women's representation and participation in political decision-making and holding of political offices on the continent. For example, Rwanda has become the one African country with the highest of 49 percent of women parliamentarians during that country's 2003 parliamentary elections.

In addition, women in South Africa, Mozambique and Seychelles hold one-third of parliamentary seats in their respective countries. Other African countries with some substantial increase in women's representation are Swaziland, with one-third of seats in the upper house of parliament, and Namibia and Uganda where women hold 42 percent and one-third of local government seats respectively. Since 1960 to 2004, the average number of women legislators in Africa has increased from one percent to 14.6 percent, with the biggest increase occurring between 1990 and 2004 (Tripp, 2005).

In Ghana, women have not been very successful in altering their political and economic locations and have not kept pace with their men in gaining much access to political decision-making and participation. In 1995, out of a total of 200 seats, women occupied only 16 seats or formed eight percent of the parliamentary seats. This number has been increased to 10.9 percent or 25 seats out of a total of 230 seats in the national election in 2004 (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2005).

Politically, women in Ghana are underrepresented in the sense that few of them hold political offices or participate in formal political organisations. Their invisibility can be documented at all levels of government. Two interrelated factors explain the political under representation of women in Ghana. First, politics is viewed by most men and women as the quintessential male sphere of action, one in which women are both unwelcome and ineffective. Secondly, most politically active women are members of the elite group. Better educated and wealthier, these women often pursue a political agenda that reflects their class rather than their gender interests (House-Midamba, 1990, Tamale, 1999).

According to de Haan (1998), social exclusion is the process through which individuals or groups are wholly or partially excluded from full participation in the society within which they live. Links have been made between strong political representation of women and a high incidence of female poverty, suggesting that increasing women's political representation may be instrumental to reducing women's poverty. It is argued that effective participation of women in terms of their ability to articulate gender issues and interests will impact and enhance actual resource allocation processes and decision-making.

We are relegated to the background

A number of educated urban participants referred to their position as women as "being relegated to the background." These participants were of the view that as women, the Ghanaian society does not give them equal chance as compared to their male counterparts and so they play second fiddle to the men. These opinions have been expressed in direct quotations as:
 Tradition has a tremendous impact on the situation of the Ghanaian
 woman. A woman is always in the background and when a woman is
 outspoken, she is given all kinds of names.

 Our situation is difficult because of our entrenched traditional
 beliefs and norms. The traditional notion is that men are the heads
 and this notion is working through every sphere of life and
 including the political sphere.

 Men do not encourage us and they look down on us, and would not
 even vote for a woman as a candidate. They discount whatever we
 say as "women's talk."

 Even in parliament women are not allowed to exercise their rights.
 We do not often hear our female parliamentarians speak because the
 men take the floor all the time.

A joint study undertaken in 1998 by the National Council on Women and Development (NCWD), Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) and Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) and the Development and Project Planning Centre of the University of Bradford, discovered that there are numerous indications that the sexbased inequalities in the world of work are deeply rooted in cultural attitudes in the Ghanaian society. The study noted that no amount of legislation alone would help women until the traditional attitudes leading to prejudice and exclusion in the public arena are overcome (Oware-Gyekye, Bortei-Doku, Aryeetey & Tsikata 1998).

We face cultural, educational and financial barriers

According to Goetz (1995), men's physical and historical dominance of the public sphere has contributed to the embeddedness of their needs and interests in public institutions. This public and private split has institutionalised women's exclusion from the public sphere and has reinforced gendered power relations in the public sphere. UNDP (1997) indicates that the weakness of state interventions in promoting gender equality is attributed to the persistence of customs and traditions, which often undermine rules and regulations. There is the need to accompany state and international efforts to change traditional and cultural barriers through education, training as well as affirmative action to promote women's representation in politics.

In a study conducted among women politicians in 65 countries, it was found out that cultural attitudes and attitudes hostile to women's participation in politics was mentioned as the second most important barrier to running for parliament (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000). According to Reynolds (1999), chauvinism, patriarchy, socioeconomic disadvantages of women due to poverty, burdens of health care, childcare and underemployment and unemployment are some of the barriers that prevent women's active political participation.

In this study, both rural and urban participants identified some of the barriers preventing women from effectively participating in politics and even daring to stand as a parliamentary or a presidential candidate in Ghana. Culturally, two married rural participants also expressed the barriers of marital obligations to husbands, children and to family even when it comes to of voting for a political candidate:
 Our husbands will not even encourage us and they will even tell us
 the political party we should vote for.

 One could get into serious problem with the husband should one vote
 for another political party and since women are so concerned about
 the stability of their homes, they tend to obey their husbands in
 matters like this.

In terms of financial barriers, a number of educated urban participants stated that:
 For example, women do not have the necessary resources and capital
 to do active politics because politic is very expensive and most
 women are handicapped financially.

 The men for too long have dominated us both financially and I think
 women in this country are getting fed up with the situation.

UNDP (1995) declares poverty as wearing women's faces and there are about 1.3 billion people living in poverty, and 70 percent of these people are women. Evidence indicates that the feminisation of poverty has a close relationship between the small number of women parliamentarians and the large number of women in poverty (UNDP, 1997).

In terms of education, the dominant Ghanaian social culture socialises young women from birth into roles that are removed from the world of public decision-making. According to Graham (1971), since the inception of Western education in Ghana, education of Ghanaian women was determined by their position in the society, which was to prepare them for domestic roles and to make them into good wives and mothers. In the case of boys, receiving education was to train them to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families. However, A number of educated middle-aged urban participants believed that if women are given the educational opportunities and proper training they could become politically active and even stand for election as a president one day:
 I believe that with time and the required education, Ghana could
 have a female president. However, for now, we women still believe
 that men are better endowed than women are.

 It is only possible for women if our cultural norms are relaxed to
 allow women to further their education.

 Before an individual can be totally liberated, the one must be
 educated because knowledge is power and if one does not know how to
 deliver herself when in difficulty, one cannot make progress in

 Therefore society has an obligation to help women and women must
 organise to fight for their rights.

A number of urban university participants also believed that women as a group are not very supportive of each other in that they will not even vote for a woman. For example, they expressed their views as:
 Even women will not vote for a female president even if she has the
 courage to stand for the position.

 All depends on the women, if only we stop being each other's enemy.
 We are in the majority yet we are the same people who will
 assassinate the character of the female presidential candidate.

 Women are their worst enemies because most women are jealous and do
 not do much to improve their lots and if a fellow woman decides to
 excel, we defame the person and do nothing to encourage one another.

 I do not think any Ghanaian woman would dare to stand for presidency
 because women in general look down upon themselves and do not support
 each other.

In examining the possibility of a woman becoming a presidential candidate in Ghana, an argument emerged from a group of urban university participants, both married and unmarried, with regards to the type of woman who could dare put herself up for a presidential candidate in Ghana. Some participants believed a single woman or a single mother with no marital affiliations with a man would be an effective political leader. This assertion is based on the belief that as a single woman, she will not be burdened with marital obligations and conflict of interest or harassment from the husband

A number of single urban participants expressed their views as:
 It is possible to have a female president but it will not be easy to
 achieve because our traditions pose a stumbling block. Such a woman
 would be ridiculed and snubbed by the men and even by her own family

 Only a single mother or woman who has experienced the rough edges of
 life would want to venture into the presidency. This is so because
 she will have a tough personality that will enable her to organise
 women very well.

 I support the notion that a female president of this country must be
 a single mother because my sister who was a Member of Parliament in
 1992 incurred the displeasure of her husband because of her
 political ambition. The husband threatened to divorce her but she
 however ignored the threat.

One married educated urban participant believes:
 I do not agree that only a single woman could become a president.
 A married woman could become a president too if women are able to
 get over petty squabbles, attitudinal problems and their
 inferiority complex and societal prejudices.

We occupy the lower positions in political parties

Even though some countries in Africa, including Ghana have had powerful female rulers and war leaders in the past century, and few other countries such as Kenya, Liberia Uganda and South Africa have had female presidential and vice presidential candidates in recent times, it is still evident that membership of women in national political parties is faced with power imbalance with respect to occupying elected leadership positions in their various political parties. In Ghana, men have held national leadership positions in all political parties since independence in 1957 to date.

A number of educated urban participants summed the low position of women in political parties as:
 When one takes a look at the roles women play in the political
 parties, one would realise that women have not yet taken up the
 challenge to rise up to the top.

 The highest position a woman is given in a political party is
 that of a women's organiser and not as a presidential candidate.

 Men do not encourage us to participate they rather look down upon
 us and would not even vote for a woman as a candidate. The society
 believes that men are the heads and women the tails.

 In this country, women are knowledgeable but are not given political
 appointments, because the men see us as threats and they have this
 notion that we are into competition with them and yet they are not
 doing their best.

Despite the low political participation of women in Ghana is a reflection of the bigger picture on the African continent in terms of women's equal representation and participation in the political decision making processes.

Ferguson & Katundu (1994) discussed a number of negative reports about women who dared to enter into politics in Zambia. For example, they found out that some Zambia women were threatened with divorce and forbidden by their husbands to enter into politics. Even in national parliaments, women have difficulty being accepted for who they are and are not taken seriously and or even listened to.

Tamale (1999) in her study of women in parliamentary politics in Uganda found that women parliamentarians are frequently subjected to humiliating sexual stereotypes and derogatory remarks and sexual harassment. Legislation for various forms of equality has been passed and continues to be in effect. However, the pace of actual change that will be beneficial to women is very slow. Even though women are becoming active in politics, they are still too often subordinates in the system. It is evident that educated women and gender activists who have shown interest in politics have been assaulted physically to teach them to stay out of politics (Nzomo, 1997). Politicians and political leaders view contemporary African women politicians as ambitious and as embodying interests that are antithetical to the interests of the state.

Ongom (1999) states that the beliefs that women are good as cooks, sex providers and juniors are still persistent. For example, women are given ministries that are considered useless to the economy and therefore not so demanding. This is simply to prove the point that women cannot take on hectic jobs. For instance, out of the 26 cabinet ministers in Uganda, only six of them are women, and they occupy very silent ministry posts that are considered not of utmost importance, and out of the total of 35 state ministers, only eleven of them are women. This means, out of 66 ministers in Uganda, only 17 of them are women signifying less than 1/3 of the total percentage (Ongom, 1999).

Although clear legal systems are in place to address women's participation in policy making, the implementation of this policy is derailed by gender discrimination in all sectors. The dilemma women face today is how to change the attitudes and perceptions that they cannot perform, or engage in full decision making that affect society. However, six African countries are leading in terms of women's representation in national assemblies due to affirmative action and quotas. These countries are Rwanda leading with 48.8 percent, Mozambique with 34.8 percent, and South Africa with 32.8 percent of women representation in parliament. Burundi has 30.5 percent of women in parliament and Seychelles has 29.4 percent of women in parliament. In addition, Namibia has 26.9 percent of women representation in parliament and Ghana has only 10.9 percent of women in parliament (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2005).

The attainment of full political participation of women in Ghana is more beyond mere tokenism and political party nominations. It is important to explore the issues surrounding the ideology of gender relations and power relations. According to Reynolds, (1999), the sociocultural barriers to the representation of women can be overcome but the process evolves time and it also entails both male and female coming to accept the legitimacy of women in positions of power. That is until every voter sees the election of women into political position as normal and not something unusual or just based on tokenism.

Implications for social work education and practice

The attainment of full gender equality in Ghana and other in other countries in Africa is a challenge for social work educators, researchers and practitioners. It is important to explore the issues surrounding the ideology of gender relations and power relations. These power relations are being reproduced by the various institutions and structures, such as the family, the educational system, the religious institutions, as well as the social and economic, legal and political structures in the society.

Social workers believe in the inherent dignity and worth of the person. This is based on the belief that people have a right to develop fully and freely their inherent human potentials and to live productive and satisfying lives free from domination and exploitation by others. It is therefore essential for social work professionals in Ghana to examine what type of society best promotes the values, ideals, principles and beliefs espoused by the social work profession.

The profession of social work is founded on humanitarian and egalitarian ideals (CASW, Code of Ethics, 1994). Humanitarianism means the practice of the doctrine of humanism. Saiflin & Dixon (1984) describe humanism as a system of views based on the respect for the dignity and rights of all people, his/her value as a personality, concern for his/her welfare, his/her all-round development, and the creation of favourable conditions for social life.

Mullaly (1997) asserts that the central value premise of social equality is that every person is of equal intrinsic worth and should therefore be entitled to equal civil, political, social and economic rights, responsibility and treatment. According to him, a society based on social inequality is based on the value premise that people differ in intrinsic worth and therefore are entitled to different rights and to as much power, control and material goods as they can gain in competition with others. There is a need to adopt a structural approach to social work education and practice in Ghana. Structural social work is motivated by an interest in the emancipation of those who are oppressed, and it is informed by a critique of domination, and driven by a goal toward liberation (Kellner, 1989).

The ultimate goal of structural social work is to contribute to the transformation of society. The approach to structural practice emanates from the radical humanist school of thought (Carniol, 1984; Howe, 1987; Mullaly & Keating, 1991). They based this approach on the belief that changing people by personal consciousness-raising on a massive scale is a prerequisite for changing society. The consciousness-raising focuses on raising people's awareness of how capitalist and patriarchal society shapes, limits, and dominates their experiences, thus alienating them from social structures, from each other and from their true selves.

Social workers working with women

Feminist social work has always promoted the awareness of the connection between the personal and the political. However, the emphasis has been on personal change, adjustment and coping of the individual, family and the group levels, leaving the larger socio-political and cultural issues to the numerical minority of community organisation and social policy social workers (Mullaly & Keating, 1991). The personal is political is a method of analysis developed and refined by feminists for gleaning political insights from an analysis of personal experience, in particular, female experience (Collins, 1986).

The role of the structural social worker is not to personalise gender problems as women's personal problems, but to promote the political end of changing the structural and societal domination and oppression of women, with the ultimate goal of social transformation. The structural social worker has the responsibility of helping clients, mostly women, to relate their disempowerment and experience of oppression at the personal level to a broader political understanding. This practice approach will move clients' problems beyond 'coping and adjustment' social work practice to a social work practice that will attack the alienating and oppressive institutional and thought structures. This social work practice could be an important model for the Ghanaian society.

Training of social workers

Feminist theory has a lot to offer social work and human service professions in Ghana and Africa as a whole. In order for social workers in Ghana and Africa to continue working toward social changes for the elimination of oppression experienced by women, there is a need for curriculum development that incorporates feminist theory into social work training programs. This will enable social work students to become aware of what women have accomplished and could accomplish given equal opportunities and resources. Once students become conscious of the feminist and gender issues, they may work to make a difference in their social work practice and approach toward clients.

Personal and collective empowerment

The majority of Ghanaian women are oppressed mentally, socially and psychologically. The findings from this study indicate lack of equal power and control over their life situations and their destiny. Oppression violates, contradicts, and nullifies several important social work values and beliefs such as self-determination, personal growth and development, inherent dignity and social equality. Pinderhughes (1983) has identified empowerment as the major goal of social work intervention. Simon (1990) refers to empowerment as a series of attacks on subordination of every description such as psychic, physical, cultural, sexual, legal, political, economic and technological.

Simon (1990) thinks empowerment is a compelling topic for social work for three main reasons. Firstly, she asserts that the people that social workers work with tend to be in marginal and disadvantaged positions and are among the most oppressed, alienated and powerless groups.

Secondly, social work is a profession disproportionately staffed by women, who themselves comprise a group that historically has been oppressed and powerless. Lastly, she states, social workers of both genders have been discounted, dislodged, underpaid and overlooked by legislators, public administrators, executive directors, colleagues in other professions, academics, clients and the public. Social workers know the meaning of occupational subordination firsthand, therefore social workers should devise theory and strategies for working with oppressed and disempowered groups, including the profession itself (Hasenfeld, 1987).

Consistent with radical humanism, the empowerment process involves the psychological, educational, cultural and spiritual dimensions involved when individuals are helped to understand their oppression and to take steps to overcome it. At the personal level, the social worker must be responsible for assisting the individual not only to take control of her life, to set goals, to access resources, and to articulate needs and ambitions, but also to create or join associations or organisation of members of similar social groupings.

The social worker also has the responsibility of helping women clients to understand the connection between individual powerless and its structural and political sources through a reflection on her own experience as a member of an oppressed group. The structural social worker must also work alongside oppressed groups of women to help them find and have their own voices heard. This involves helping them to define their own needs and develop the skills and vocabulary required to articulate these needs. It also involves gaining access to public forums to address the structures of power and domination, and to help legitimise their authentic voices by supporting them in every way possible.

The major responsibility of the social worker is to encourage and support the formation of women's groups based on common social interests and goals that are aimed towards social transformation and structural change in the society.

Mullaly (1997) asserts that empowerment is a goal and a process. As a goal, it will not be reached overnight and as a process, it is ongoing. As a goal and a process for overcoming oppression, it enables people to transform their life's situations and social environment. It also enables them to have choices and reasonable opportunities for a better and improved life.

The empowerment of women is not just an issue of women, but it is also a gender issue, which necessitates a re-examination of gender relations, which ultimately, will require changes made by men as well as by women. It is also a development issue, in that women who become empowered also become active not only in economic activities, but also active in exerting pressure and influence on political, social, and legal issues concerning women.


This study reveals the problems Ghanaian women face daily in their lives and how these problems shaped their views and impressions about themselves. The comments, views and opinions provided and expressed by the women in this study have shown the extent of societal discrimination and domination that the women experienced as part of their everyday life.

This study also examined and discussed three main themes emerging from the data and their implications. These themes included multiple roles of women, in terms of motherhood and productive activities, reproductive and sexual rights and political participation and decision-making. A number of contradictions and dilemmas have emerged from this study that have theoretical importance and implication. For example, the family, reproduction and motherhood have been firmly tied together. This structure shapes stereotypical identities in children, encourages passivity in women and dominance in men. It also ties women to the home and childcare and this interferes with women's achievement of selfhood and independence.

Another ambivalence or dilemma expressed by most participants is their sexual and reproductive rights. Sexuality is one area in which almost all the participants found themselves highly controlled even though they expressed the opinion that they knew their sexual rights. The issues surrounding sexuality and reproduction have remained a private and a thorny matter in most of the participants' marriages because they are scared to be labeled as promiscuous or accused of infidelity by their spouses if they are open about sexuality. The main dilemma revolves around power relations between spouses concerning the threats of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS epidemic. The women have heard just enough about these diseases to be worried about the dangers of unprotected sex in view of infidelity, but they still continue to put their lives at risk.

In order to overcome the institutionalised power relations and bring about total transformation in the system, actual processes of empowerment have to occur at several levels. The empowerment process must challenge and change the set of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and practices in gender relations, in institutions and structures such as in the family, the household, the villages, the market places, the churches and in the local communities.

Table 1: Participants by age, marital status, education,
residence, occupation, ethnicity and religion.

 Number Percentage


18-35 years 24 35%
36-45 years 21 31%
46-60 years 21 31%
61-70 years 2 3%

Marital Status

Married 48 70%
Divorced 2 3%
Widowed 6 9%
Single 12 18%


Primary/Middle 15 22%
Secondary/Post Secondary 32 47%
University 14 21%
No Education 7 10%


Urban 44 65%
Rural 24 35%


Civil/Public Servants 15 22%
Teaching 27 40%
Self-employed 12 18%
University Students 8 12%
Farmers 6 8%


Akan 17 25%
Ewe 29 43%
Ga-Adangbe 16 23%
Dagomba/Kasenas/Buli 6 9%


Christianity 61 90%
Islam 7 10%


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Marie-Antoinette Sossou, Assistant Professor, College of Social Work, University of Kentucky. Email:
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Date:Nov 1, 2006
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