Empowering Ghanaian women

Published: 20 June 2003 0:00 CET

Tope Akinwande in Accra

In the 1970s, villages around Wassa Akropong, in western Ghana, like many parts of the country, were prone to measles, whooping cough and other diseases. Each time there was an outbreak, Ghana Red Cross Society (GRCS) volunteers would offer emergency humanitarian assistance to the villagers.

"It was as if we were waiting for the next epidemic, assisting the villagers and then returning to base," recalls Theresa Nobiya, Health Co-ordinator and interim Secretary-general of the GRCS. "We had to do something to break the chain."

In 1979, the GRCS decided to go beyond emergency humanitarian assistance whenever there was an outbreak of diseases. As if heeding the saying, "educate a woman and you educate a nation”, the GRCS brought some women together to form a Mothers' Club in the western village of Nsuopon.

These women were taught child care, nutrition, personal hygiene, environmental sanitation and first aid.

It did not take a long time for this project to start yielding positive results. "We recorded a drastic reduction in the occurrence of measles and other diseases," says Nobiya. "The good news spread fast and women from surrounding villages came together to form similar clubs."

The experience in western Ghana led to the formation of Red Cross Mothers Club all over the country. Currently, there are 358 Mothers Clubs in different parts of Ghana.

The GRCS has over the years undergone a gradual shift from a purely emergency relief organisation to a development-oriented one, with programmes aimed at alleviating the suffering of the vulnerable of which women, young girls and children form a greater part.

Thanks to Red Cross activities, women are now better informed about family planning and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Mothers’ Club members are also assisted in starting income-generating activities, and receive leadership training which encourages their involvement in the development of their communities.

Functional literacy classes are also organised for mothers and young girls who in turn continue the classes in their communities.

With the support of the Swiss Red Cross, the GRCS was able to give loans to Mothers' Clubs cooperatives to start small businesses and farms.

One of the numerous women who have benefited from the GRCS Mothers' Club Women Empowerment Programme is Rahinah Issaka, a Red Cross volunteer and president of Nina Maamobi Mother's Club in downtown Accra.

Coming from a family and a region with strong traditional African and Islamic beliefs about the role of a woman in the society, she has been able receive training as a social worker, start her business, and is in turn, sharing her experiences with women and young girls in her region of origin in northern Ghana as well as in Nina Maamobi, where almost all the inhabitants are Muslims.

“It was difficult in the beginning for husbands to release their wives. They feared that they would be deviated from their beliefs and get into some immoral acts," recalls Issaka. “We had to go from house to house assuring them that the Red Cross was not interested in changing their traditional beliefs or religion, but in helping them lead a better life".

Issaka's perseverance paid off. Reluctant husbands observed that their children were no longer falling sick, thanks to the hygiene training their wives received at the Mothers' Club. They noticed that their wives were earning additional income for the family through the GRCS income-generating programmes for women. And they finally saw that their wives had not abandoned their traditional and religious beliefs.

In some areas, like Appiabra, in eastern Ghana, the Red Cross Mothers' Clubs have been so successful that some men are now clamouring for a Red Cross Fathers' Club. Some are even following their wives to Mothers' Club meetings and functions.

Musa Garba, a trader with four wives and 18 children, was one of those who initially refused to release their wives: "I was afraid they might get into some funny acts and start disrespecting me," he says. "How wrong I was! Now that my business is not going well, we live on what my wives earn from their different projects. Maybe we would have died of hunger if I had not released them to join Red Cross Mothers' Club".

Concluding with pride, Garba says: "I am still the boss of my home despite my wives involvement in the Club. They have not changed their behaviour towards me."

Encouraged by the success of the Mothers’ Club project, the GRCS has started a home for street girls in Agblogboshie, a market town on the outskirts of Accra. Rahinah Issaka doubles as the Matron of the home. She goes there every evening to ensure that the girls are well-behaved and respect the 6.00am to 7.30pm "curfew" imposed on them.

The street girls are accommodated and assisted in finding income-generating activities. Some of them help market women to carry their goods, while the more mature ones are integrated into some Mothers' Clubs projects.

Most of the girls in the home have come from northern Ghana in a search of better life. They get to Accra only to find out that things are not as easy as described by those who had come before them.

Some are forced into sex work while others roam the streets of Accra. At night, they sleep under market stalls, often suffering abuse from thugs and market guards.

"I came to Accra from Tamalé on the advice of my cousin who told me I could easily get a job and move on to Europe, but it was even difficult for me to find food not to talk of accommodation," recounts Laraba Musa, a resident of the Red Cross Home for Street Girls. "It was while roaming the streets of Accra that somebody introduced me to aunty Rahinah of the Red Cross Mothers' Club".

Laraba is not only accommodated at the home, she has also been able to save some money from her load-carrying activities and is dreaming of a brighter future as a fashion designer. "I have been able to save enough money to buy my machines, rent a shop and start my fashion designing outfit," she says.

Related links:

Ghana: appeals, updates and reports
News story: Red Cross mothers clean up Accra’s Big Gutter
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