Posted by: kyliepearce | March 13, 2012

Human Rights Advocacy Centre and life in Ghana

I have been thoroughly enjoying my experience working here at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre.  We have had a very busy couple of weeks since my last blog post. I will share some of the highlights with you.

Following the demolition of the slums where we conducted our first fact finding mission, there was another unannounced demolition in the local area near where I was staying.  Police and Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) members turned up with a large bulldozer, ordered the local shop owners out of their kiosks and containers (large metal structures), and proceeded to knock them over. One of the shop owners had been conducting her business there for 40 years.  When residents asked for an explanation, and for a chance to consult with the authorities they were refused, and told that orders had come from above and they must leave the area.  A majority of the shop owners held business operating permits, and were paying tax to the AMA.  I participated in the local town meetings, and conducted interviews of the affected individuals.  Over the past ten years in Ghana, there has been a line of forced evictions which are a blatant violation of human rights.  We are currently organising training for government ministers in international human rights obligations and how these are violated by the practice of forced evictions, as well as a media awareness campaign.

The HRAC organised and ran a seminar to educate Market Women about their human rights – some of the main topics we covered were widowhood rights, child maintenance and defilement.  There has since been an influx of cases at our human rights clinic, as the locals realised that there was a means of getting information and legal advice about their rights.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is another area I have been researching and working on for a client’s case. There has only ever been one successful sexual harassment case litigated here in Ghana, and it was heard before the Commission of Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). The male dominated culture and treatment of women within the workforce, means that the concept of sexual harassment as a cause of action is not yet well received even by the judges here.  The case which was successful at CHRAJ, involved a young flight attendant who was harassed by her manager. The harassment occurred once or week a week over the 9 month period of the complainant’s employment, and included – fondling, attempts to kiss and hug her, calling her a prostitute, pestering for dates and sexual favours, quid pro quo statements involving promises of rewarding treatments if she acquiesced, accusations of sleeping with other male employees of the airline, unwelcome verbal remarks and physical contact, threats of dismissal when his sexual advances were refused, and being grounded from work for nine days after she had accepted a lift from a male pilot home. This precedent has set the bar quite high in terms of the factual elements which may constitute a cause of action for sexual harassment, as courts assess the nature of harassment, the degree of aggressiveness and physical contact, the ongoing nature, the frequency of harassment, and the psychological impact to the victim. This issue requires a lot more advocacy and awareness in order to adequately promote and protect the rights of women in the workplace.

I am also currently working on the drafting of a submission for the Universal Periodic Review for the UN Human Rights Council – some of the key human rights themes in Ghana identified by the HRAC are: commercial sex workers, forced evictions, gender based violence in schools, mental health, LGBT rights, HIV/Aids, abortion and maternal health, as well as, the right to information.

I attended a two day seminar on Domestic Violence in Ghana to educate and train Queen mothers, chiefs and other prominent community leaders.  The response to the issue of Domestic Violence illustrated the need for continuing outreach projects and for active advocacy programs and trainings. The local police force and the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit members were also participating, which facilitated dialogue and ideas as to how community leaders could work together with the police to help protect victims of domestic violence.

In partnership with the World Development Bank, HRAC also held a seminar for Government ministers to facilitate discussion on the outcomes of the national consultation for the Right to Information Bill. The discussion consisted on recommendations from the national consultation, and a debate between the ministers on the content of the Right for Information Bill.  We are currently writing a report to the World Bank and a submission for Parliament on the outcomes.

On a more personal note, I have been continuing to have an invaluable cultural experience and am thoroughly enjoying the lifestyle here.  I recently traveled to Cape Coast Castle, where the British slave trade was organised from.  Ironically, the first Methodist church in Ghana was built directly above the male dungeon, which kept up to 1500 male slaves at a time in darkness for up to three months.  Once the slaves were sold (exchanged for fabrics, mirrors and other items), slaves were branded with a hot iron and oil, shackled and then sent through the “door of no return” onto ships.  Some of the local youth I spoke to, explained how they had felt very angry towards anyone white after first seeing the inhumane treatment of the African slaves by the British.  They said when they saw white people after visiting the Castle that they felt different; however, with time they came to realize that anger and a sense of retaliation were not the solution.  They described how they came to an understanding that they must communicate the story so nothing similar will ever be repeated in the future, but they must forgive the past.  The emotions I experienced here were similar to when I visited the Hiroshima Peace museum and heard the Japanese survivors talk about the nuclear bomb in World War II.

After visiting the castle, I went to a local funeral service, to see a performance by Footprint International Dance group.  Footprint International is a NGO which travels internationally. They had ten Danish girls visiting for a three month dance program. The girls said they were having immense fun. I know that Ashanti Dance group in Melbourne will be bringing students to Ghana in June this year, for a month or so of dance lessons and training with the dance group, which will culminate with a performance at the International Pana-Fest Cultural Event. Apparently, Ghanaians from all over the world travel back to Ghana to perform at this event. I would highly recommend that anyone with an interest or passion for dancing consider joining in – please contact Appiah or Belinda,

Another recent highlight was the celebration of International Women’s day at the Australian High Commission, where we heard inspirational stories from Ghanaian women Ministers who shared personal experiences to reach their current position in government. And also, Ghana’s Independence Day, where we joined thousands at Independence Square to watch school children and various groups march, and be a part of the ceremony and celebration.

Sadly, my grandfather and great-grandmother both recently passed away unexpectedly, within two weeks of each other. This came as quite a shock.  However, the response by my local Ghanaian friends was also unexpected and very comforting.  My friends whom I did my first month home stay with, came directly to my house to offer their condolences and to keep me company, and they explained to me that it was not a time to be alone, as my spirit would feel down.  In the subsequent days I really experienced the sense of brotherhood and warmth of the culture here.  My friends also announced that they would like to prepare a funeral here Ghanaian style.

Funerals here in Ghana are a very significant event, which usually are run over four days and also involve very loud music late into the night.  Family members, relatives, friends and whole communities come and sit together over the four days for the event.  The Sunday memorial service we held was heartwarming and not only a tribute to the memory of my grandparents, but also to the community spirit here in Ghana.  After the speeches, we had two dance groups perform, followed by dinner, refreshments, and then a night disco (which came to an end before the next day, only due to a nationwide blackout).  The food was hand cooked by my adopted Ghanaian relatives, who all helped to serve all the visitors and members from the community who joined us.  I never thought I would hear myself say that I had great fun at a funeral.  I was touched that I had been here such a short time, but the whole community already considered me as a member and my friends as part of their families. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to each and every person who contributed.

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