By Katrina Kalcic
On Dec. 8, 2016, Ghanaians elected Nana Akufo-Addo as their next president. Shortly before the election, I traveled to Accra to discuss the election with women from diverse socio-economic and religious backgrounds. I spoke with lifelong residents of Accra, as well as recent migrants, from various tribal groups including Ashanti, Northerners, Ga-Adangbe, and Ewe. Throughout the capital women called on the future president to address unemployment and sexual harassment against women who are looking for work.
It is difficult to pin down the exact rate of unemployment in Ghana, but a 2016 report by the World Bank estimated that 48 percent of individuals aged 15-24 were unemployed. Even people with tertiary degrees are unable to find jobs utilizing their skills or employment compensating them at a level matching their education.
The high rate of unemployment also increases the risk of sexual harassment for job seekers, and women routinely confront unwanted advances as they look for work. “Women go for interviews, but first the managers want to sleep with them before they get the job,” explained Rita, a kindergarten teacher at a public school in Accra. “It’s very common, it happens to women all the time.”
Ernestina, a third-year student studying finance in Legon, explained that this abusive and discriminatory behavior negatively impacts men as well. “For instance, if I go on a job interview with a guy, I will be picked, even if my certificate is lower than the guy, or my grades are not as good,” Ernestina said. “It’s because of what they [employers] want from a lady.”
What happens if a woman refuses to trade sex for work, or if transactional sex fails to result in employment? Or more simply, what if she just cannot find a job in the highly competitive market?
“Maybe she has to stay and help her mom at home,” Rita said, shrugging her shoulders. “Maybe selling, or petty jobs,” which can include anything from selling packets of pure water, to cooking and peddling food by the roadside at night.
High amounts of debt, inflation, uncertainty regarding commodity prices, and corruption have pushed Ghana into a persistent economic downturn over the past several years. As the pool of available jobs continues to shrink in this economic environment, managers have more power to barter for sex and employment with female candidates. This is a truth made all the more terrible when one factors in all of the sacrifices these women made to get this far in their careers. First, they had to attend good schools, working hard to achieve top marks. Along the way many of them borrowed money or are supported by family members living abroad to pay for their education. They are hoping to earn incomes not only to support themselves, but also to help take care of their extended family members and support the education of younger siblings and cousins. This struggle and sacrifice is then for the right to enter a marketplace rife with predatory employers who view transactional sex as a standard part of the hiring process.
In the neighborhoods of Accra with the lowest incomes, young women often see marriage as the one viable path to economic stability. Faizra, a lifelong resident of Accra, explained that young women feel marriage is the only way to carve out an economic future for themselves. Many young women value education, despite the high costs associated with it, she explained. But, given the high unemployment rate and the prevalence of transactional sex for jobs, it is easy to understand why marriage is sometimes seen as a more secure option.
Nana Akufo-Addo and the New Patriotic Party campaigned on the promise to create an economy that will work for all Ghanaians. Nana Akufo-Addo’s plan to build a factory in each of Ghana’s 200 districts aims to industrialize the Ghanaian economy and create jobs for people at all education levels. A variety of other incentives, such as tax breaks for companies that hire recent graduates from tertiary institutions, aim to address unemployment specifically among young people with higher education. A promise to crack down on corruption regardless of political party or tribal affiliation also earned the respect of many voters.
Not surprisingly, the NPP’s pledges for job creation and fiscal responsibility resonated deeply with women from all socio-economic backgrounds. They are frustrated with an economic situation they feel is stagnating, and they are excited at the prospect of change. Many women also remember the public services they had under the NPP government led by former President John Agyekum Kufor from 2001–2008, which included the National Health Insurance Scheme and school feeding programs for young children. Today, the NHIS struggles to function and many school feeding programs have been shut down throughout the country as part of cost-cutting measures. For example, Beatrice, a women’s right’s activist based on Accra, explained that many pregnant women want professional medical attention but are afraid to go to the hospital to deliver their babies because it can be impossible to predict what insurance will cover. They are afraid of incurring large medical bills they may never be able to pay back.
Beatrice said she is frustrated to see women forced to make tradeoffs between their health and their finances, and she believes the NPP will introduce the kind of fiscal discipline and political resourcefulness to fix the problems with the NHIS. Rita, a kindergarten teacher in Accra, said she supported Nana Akufo-Addo because she felt he was a well-educated man who would focus on job creation for all Ghanaians. This summer, Rita also participated in a city-wide teacher’s strike in an attempt to force the government led by the National Democratic Congress to pay teachers back due wages. Throughout Accra women are hopeful that the NPP will defend their interests and implement the kind of changes they believe will help them achieve fair treatment in the workplace and address unemployment for all Ghanaians.
Katrina Kalcic and her research partner, Sheba Frempong, conducted these interviews while researching women’s political participation in Accra, Ghana, in the summer of 2016. All interviews contain original material. Kalcic studied political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She most recently served as a research analyst at the International Peace Institute, studying women’s participation in conflict mediation. She resides in New York City.
[Photo courtesy of R. Osei-Tutu]