By Naomi McClellan
It feels surreal to be writing my final report with no fear of power outages or Internet failures, and minus my insect repellent and sweat rag (which was always in my pocket, no matter how formal the occasion)! As I reflect on my time in Ghana I realise that it is a country riddled with contradictions. The lessons I learnt by working for Nana Oye Lithur at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC) were enriching, and I hope I never forget them.
The work that I undertook at the HRAC was diverse, at times extremely challenging and always fascinating. One of my favourite projects was writing the Strengthening Transparency, Accountability and Responsiveness in Ghana (STAR-Ghana) funded report on Gender Based Violence. The project gave me the opportunity to couple field work with legal analysis, which I believe is a ”key” to creating meaningful work, relevant to the needs of people “on the ground”. By undertaking this project I also had to overcome the frustrations of “Africa time” and learn to be direct in my communication with colleagues. Other projects I undertook in my time at the HRAC included: preparing lectures on why Reproductive Health Rights (RHR) are human rights, delivering lectures on human rights, preparing and submitting legal opinions to the Supreme Court, and drafting reports on various LGBT issues. The hours were long but the rewards that I reaped made every second of hard work worthwhile.
Through this wonderful work at the HRAC I learnt how crucial it is for traditions to yield to the rule of law. This is particularly significant for progress in Ghana. For example, female subordination to men in Ghana has enabled a culture of domestic violence to prosper, and presently results in two spousal murders a month. Tradition is also enabling the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) to persist, with Amnesty International Ghana finding that 76% of women in the north are being subjected to FGC, with only 2% of women consenting. Likewise, the practice of trokosi persists. Trokosi is a traditional form of sexual servitude, which involves young virgin girls being sent to live and serve in the shrine of a fetish priest as reparation for crimes committed by their families. The United Nations Human Rights Council has estimated that there are at least 23 shrines in the Volta region and three shrines in the Greater Accra region.
Despite the existence of laws in Ghana protecting human rights, they will remain meaningless unless they can be enforced, and the greatest impediment to enforcement in Ghana is that ominous word: “tradition”. Kenneth Roth summarises my insight succinctly: “frustrating as it can be, majority preferences in any democracy worthy of its name must be constrained by respect for the rights of individuals and the rule of law. Majoritarian hubris can be the greatest risk to the emergence of true democracy.” It is this insight that has made me more enthused to fight against the hubris of the majority, which, in a country a like Ghana, places tradition on a pedestal beyond the reach of the law in order to maintain unjust power structures that oppress minorities.
While my time in Ghana was spectacular, in the final weeks of my internshipmajor changes to the HRAC meant that things got even more chaotic than usual! Once Nana Oye Lithur was appointed as the Minster for Gender Children and Social Protection, she had to resign as the Executive Director of the HRAC. The loss of Nana’s powerful leadership left a huge gap in the office that has yet to be filled. The fact that there is no female lawyer capable of replacing Nana is a reflection of the need for better educational opportunities for women in Ghana (as well as a testament to the unique and fabulous woman that Nana is). I’m confident that someone will eventually fill her shoes, but it may be a long process.
A final valuable insight I gained was how privileged I am to be able to make choices (simple, I know). I had to leave Ghana before my five months concluded, as I became very ill with typhoid. While living in Ghana power outages were thrilling, and I was delighted when I ate fufu with the locals in the village. In other words I liked to think that I was “roughing it”. I soon learnt that I was not. There is a big difference between choosing to live somewhere and having no choice but to live there. I learnt what this difference meant when I decided to leave Ghana to get better medical attention in Australia. I had the privilege to make a basic choice that none of my local friends or colleagues could make, or even consider. I really hope that one day my Ghanaian friends will be free from poverty and free to make the everyday choices that all people have the right to make.
In light of my outstanding and unique experience in Ghana, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the Castan Centre, which has provided me with unwavering support and encouragement. This is an experience I will never forget. I encourage anyone passionate about human rights to make the most of the amazing opportunity offered by the global internship program.