Eight years on since Ghana’s government technically criminalised rape between husband and wife, and one female MP is pushing for legislation that could force men to marry girls they impregnate.
A step backwards – I hear some of you cry – especially when set against a backdrop of disturbing and frequent reports of child and adult rape cases in the West African country.
According to the latest government statistics, 1,000 children are raped annually in Ghana – three times as many as adults. And these figures are believed to be just the tip of the iceberg with many more going unreported.
Articles alleging abuse, paedophilia, and child pregnancies at the hands of family members, authority figures and celebrities are becoming an all too common feature in Ghana’s newspapers. Even more disturbing is the public’s attitude to rape and the blame culture that often prevents victims from seeking help.
Earlier this year, a child bride was imprisoned for killing her adult husband. And in a much publicised case, which broke at the end of 2014, an alleged victim was not only named but details of her confidential medical examination following the alleged incident leaked to the media.
In some parts of Ghana, the custom called trokosi, which forces some children to become slaves in religious shrines to repay family debts, has also resulted in children being systematically abused. And if the tasteless comments I have seen on social media sites and the proliferation of rape videos freely available online are anything to go by, rape and its victims appear to be reduced to just another pawn to sell sex in the media.
Appalled by this lack of public awareness and the effect rape has on individuals, one woman decided to put her frustrations into action. Some of you will know Dilys Sillah from her video blogs (vlogs) – Rape: To Be or Not to Be…That is the Question and Speak Now or 4 Ever Hold Your Peace. Both are platforms she uses to deconstruct pre-conceived views on rape and spell out its debilitating effects not only on victims but on wider society.
In the last few months, this north London mother-of-two from Ghana has established non-governmental organisation (NGO) Who Will Hear My Cry (WWHMC) aimed at raising awareness around child abuse and rape, primarily within ethnic minority communities in the UK and people across Africa. More recently she was hand-picked by one of the UK’s largest children’s charity, the NSPCC, to raise awareness around sexual and other abuses in primary schools.
A culmination of events Dilys has witnessed over the years and recent conversations she has been having with women provided the catalyst for establishing NGO WWHMC. She talks to MisBeee about her vision for the future and explores how Ghanaian culture maybe unwittingly stifling the discussion on sex and rape.
“I felt that it was time that we [Ghanaians] had something in place that educates our country and hopefully Africa as a whole on how we protect the sexual boundaries and sexual integrity of women and children,” Dilys said.
A topical – yet taboo subject – that inevitably means unpicking some aspects of Ghanaian culture including exploring the adult-and-child dynamic, and the role that power and poverty play in that.
“We make it very clear that children do not have a voice and are to do as they are told regardless,” she said. “This attitude is what, I believe, paedophiles rely on in being able to exploit and isolate a child.
“Employers exploit young women looking for work, house helps are subjected to violation by ‘Dada’, because of the master and slave mentality. And because there is no enforceable laws around sexual harassment, that ‘oversight’ sends a message that it’s ok for women and children to be violated.”
Power and control
The hypocrisy around sex and how Ghanaian society relates to it is yet another factor, she outlined. Sex education in schools is inadequate, churches pretend it doesn’t happen and parents abdicate their responsibility to constructively discuss. What this ends up creating is an information vacuum where the young have no real guidance or understanding of sex and limited information around forming healthy relationships, she added.
“Our men are raised not only with a sense of entitlement to just take sex if they want it, but our girls are raised to accept that they have no choice but to give it,” said Dilys. “In our society, girls are led to believe that a boy or man’s sexual urge is uncontrollable and therefore when he wants sex, he’s likely to fall ill if he doesn’t satisfy that desire.
“It is, therefore, unreasonable for us to expect understanding and sensitivity from the public around the topic when young boys who become men are not taught to respect the dignity or sexual boundaries of girls,” she added. “We need to educate ourselves on what sex is, what it isn’t and what it can be…”
Related: Sticking two fingers to the virginity test
Despite having such a massive undertaking on her shoulders, Dilys remains unperturbed. She believes in taking baby steps. Her NGO was established in February 2015 in partnership with the African Movement for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (AMCAN) – the Ghanaian arm of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN). And Dilys hopes that her work will complement existing efforts by such organisations in Ghana as the Domestic Violence and Victims Unit and the Ark Foundation to change attitudes towards rape.
Setting her sights yet higher, Dilys eventually wants to engage with the political elites to ensure constructive legal reforms.
But, she said: “We are nowhere near there yet. How does one lobby to have reforms where nobody sees a problem?”
Her comments follow a call by Mrs Freda Prempeh, the MP for Tano North in the Brong-Ahafo region of Ghana, to discuss and probably file a motion in Parliament that would force men to take responsibility for the girls they impregnate. Her comments are reported to have come on International Women’s Day.
In a MyJoyOnline article published on 10 March 2015, the MP is reported to have said that a motion could possibly include men marrying the girls they impregnate. MisBeee Writes contacted Mrs Prempeh to confirm the comments before this article went to press but she was unavailable.
“This does not sound like we are at all ready for sensible, empowering and constructive discussions for our daughters and sons,” said Dilys. “To say I was appalled and highly alarmed and disappointed is an understatement. This MP was not looking to pass laws to enforce fair child maintenance for our girls and women, mentoring programmes for our girls who fall pregnant, good sex education or programmes to keep young single mothers in school so they get an education.
“Rather let’s go back 100 years and force marriage and stigmatise these girls and put them at the mercy of a boy or man that doesn’t want them. Such a ridiculous law robs a girl of her dignity and puts her at the mercy of another person in her most vulnerable state.”
Seeds of change
Dilys remains positive and is heartened to know that her efforts are gaining traction in Ghana. On a recent visit to formally establish WWHMC in Accra, she was surprised that so many abuse and rape survivors reached out to her. And although hurt by comments from boys and men, who after watching her videos now believe their previous actions could have been tantamount to rape, it is positive that her online discussions are encouraging some self-reflection.
Raising awareness and funds to support her work is key to WWHMC’s success. Dilys will be targeting churches, organising events and engaging with schoolchildren in the UK and Ghana as part of her work. She is planning a string of workshops aimed at young boys and men that use interactive discussion, bespoke videos and drama.
“Every child matters and every woman and young adult deserves to live in an environment where they are safe,” Dilys concluded. “We should never be comfortable with injustices of any kind and must stand up and be counted and stand up for what is right. You may not always be popular, you may not immediately have support but great change starts with one person’s passion and burning desire for it.”
Survivor not victim
With a topic as sensitive as this, Dilys is keen to emphasise to rape and abuse survivors that they are never to blame and cannot be held responsible for the actions of others.
“That responsibility rests SOLELY with the person who didn’t control or respect themselves enough to respect your right not be victimised and violated. But there is life after rape and abuse. Get help and rebuild your life (I intentionally didn’t say ‘try’) because it can be done and it will be done!”
Dilys will be speaking at the ‘Compliment Me’ charity fundraiser at March Arch’s Cumberland Hotel on Saturday 28 March 2015 where she will be talking about WWHMC and her other community work.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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