At the recent gathering of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, convened at the University of Botswana from 2 to 5 July, Shiloh co-directors Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert met up again with Joyce Boham. Joyce is manager of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, which is attached to the Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Accra. Both the Circle and the Institute were founded by Mercy Amba Oduyoye who has recently retired as Institute manager.
The Institute is also called the Talitha Qumi Centre, a name which recalls the (Aramaic) words spoken by Jesus to the daughter of Jairus whom he raised from the dead (see Mark 5:21-43). Talitha Qumi means “little girl, arise!” and is an apt name for the Institute, which in a number of ways works with seminarians, academics, and members of grassroots communities to improve the lives of women and girls in Ghana.
What follows is an account of the Institute and its work by Joyce Boham.
African women academics are increasingly involved in intellectual discussions in their disciplinary areas, yet in the humanities they continue barely to be heard. ‘The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians’ was founded to encourage and promote African women theologians to make their ideas, insights and writings available within and beyond continental borders. As such, the Circle serves as a platform for disseminating African women’s research on religion and culture, focusing primarily on Africa’s rich store of indigenous religions, cultures and popular religious movements. Nurtured by the Circle, members from across the continent have begun to write about themselves and about their understanding of and reflections on religious and cultural issues and how these affect them and their communities. The publications by members over the past thirty years since the Circle’s foundation have brought immense benefit to academics and students interested in African women’s perspectives on religion and culture. They have also made the international academic discourse on such topics more inclusive and more comprehensive.
The Institute of Women in Religion and Culture (hereafter known as the Institute) is a project started in 1999 by the Circle’s Ghana chapter and led by Mercy Amba Oduyoye. One of its founding principles is to disseminate the writings of the Circle to women in grassroots communities. A leading pioneer of African women theologies, Mercy Amba Oduyoye is sowing the seeds for a harvest of peoples attuned to gender sensitivity and gender justice in the religio-cultural space of Ghana. At the Institute we examine what religion and culture mean to the lives of Ghanaian women. Our focus is on the “Way-forward” – or, on how to move from the difficulties and problems of the present towards a better future of justice that honours the humanity of women.
The Institute focuses on areas including but not limited to:
- The challenges single women face in bringing up their children in the absence of fathers.
The roots of this issue lie in long-entrenched patriarchal family systems, where fathers are regarded as the heads of families with primary authority over all other members. The absence of fathers (for whatever reason) creates difficulties for women who have to be both father and mother at the same time – but in a context where their status and authority are low, including, often, in the eyes of their own sons who may not accept maternal authority on account of wider social pressures that undermine it.
- Violence against women perpetrated and perpetuated through rape culture, including the use of language in lyrics, proverbs and common sayings.
To give one example, there is a saying that goes: “even if a woman is brave enough to use the gun, the gun rests in her husband’s house.” What this transmits is that irrespective of how brave a woman is, she is still under the authority of her husband. There is, therefore, no need for a woman to be brave or independent – being a woman is enough to curtail her opportunities.
- Violence against women and girls connected to cultural practices.
These practices include, for example, trokosi: a practice where a virgin girl is sent to live with a fetish priest to serve him in whatever way he deems fit in order to atone for the crimes of older members of the girl’s family.
- Women living with HIV and AIDS and their families.
- Marriage, focusing on the marrying of under-age girls.
While the legal age of maturity and marriage in Ghana is 18, forced and under-age marriage still take place.
- Trafficking of persons, especially women and children.
- Current or arising challenges.
We ran special seminars on peace and conflict resolution during the election season, because elections in Ghana are often marred by violence. One reason is that politicians sometimes incite youths, known as ‘foot soldiers’ (who are disproportionately from under-privileged communities) to riot and disrupt elections, which has led to clashes with police, injuries and fatalities. The Institute, in partnership with the Electoral Commission, called out to women before the elections, educating them on how letting their sons and daughters be used as foot soldiers is exploitative and has harmful consequences for their children, their communities and the country as a whole. This public education campaign contributed immensely to the relatively peaceful elections of 2016. The Institute also held a vigil and prayer meeting following the spate of ritual murders of women before and during elections.
The Institute has produced publications based on discussions on all of these focus topics. These booklets are available to students of religion of the Trinity Theological Seminary, as well as to students of other universities in Ghana. In this way, engagement with how religion impacts on topical issues becomes a resource for purposeful scholarship and for collective problem-solving.
I have worked with Mercy Amba Oduyoye for the past twenty years, first as the liaison officer for the Circle and later as programme manager for the Institute. Following Mercy’s retirement, I am now manager of the Institute. The Institute is now entering a new phase, with Mercy’s blessing and oversight.
I am planning a number of public events at the Institute, which will bring together students, academics and members of the community. One of these, which may be of particular interest to those who study and seek to detoxify rape culture, will focus on the effects of language, in particular popular sayings, proverbs and songs, in terms of how women are depicted and portrayed. For instance, we have saying – onoo na wo pea kofa, ankaa abirikoo naso afede yetino bushe. The saying translates as, “if that is what you want, you can take it. The orange is eaten ripe, but we want it green”. We would like to discuss such a saying in group seminars to probe what it transmits and how acceptable and accepted people find it. We want to ask, “whom does the orange represent?”, “is it okay to take what you want?”, “what does it mean to refer to a person as ‘ripe’ or ‘green’?”, “if this is about women, how are women depicted in this saying?”, “is this acceptable?”, “if not, what needs to be done to change and how can we be the change we want to see?”
We also want to discuss together ideas about marriage. For instance, what does it mean to say “she has gone to her husband’s house”? How do we understand the dynamics between men and women? Should women keep their opinions to themselves, because they live in their husbands’ homes and not their own homes? How do such sayings unconsciously affect women’s attitudes to their roles, identities and homes?
Our aim in these discussions and with our other events at the Institute is to create safety nets, especially for women. Many young women and girls migrate to Accra where our Institute is located from the northern regions of Ghana. Often they are escaping forced marriages or poverty. But life in the capital city is also fraught with difficulties. It can be difficult, for instance, to find a safe place to wash, or sleep, and that can make them and their children vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence and exploitation. The Institute seeks to work with women who hold some authority and power (such as queen mothers and traditional women leaders), alongside the Department of Social Welfare, NGOs and politicians, to find ways forward to keep these women and girls safe and help them towards lives with opportunities and prospects.
Another area of the Institute’s attention is to initiate practical strategies that advance the wellbeing of women in rural areas. Sometimes these strategies can be narrowly targeted but make a significant difference. To give an example: in some rural communities in Ghana cultural norms persist that forbid girls who are menstruating from crossing rivers. Unfortunately, when community schools are located over the river, this means that menstruating girls cannot attend school for a significant timespan each month. The Institute offers public education focused on this practice, among others. Education can empower and include girls and work against the stigma associating menstruation with pollution.
The topic of women’s health more generally is an area requiring more action. The Institute seeks in the future to foster public education on early cancer diagnosis, STD prevention and treatment, as well as on other illnesses and conditions that affect women. Reproductive health, broadly defined and including negotiating consent and sex, spacing children and safe sex, is another significant area for more work. This needs to be done in conjunction with education on proper nutrition, regular exercise and maintaining good mental health. These are programmes the Institute hopes to develop.
The Institute, while focused primarily on the concerns of women in Ghana, also organizes educational tours for religious studies students from outside Ghana, especially those who may want African women theologians’ perspectives on issues related to religion and culture.
We also provide workshops and resources for students of religion and theology that focus on the role and significance of gender in ministry.
Our elders say it is easy to break a broom stick but impossible to break a bundle of brooms. Together we can create a strong and just future. This is our call for partners. Come join us and shape our generation.