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Opinions of Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Columnist: Dake, Mawuli

The New Wave Of Sexism Against Today’s Women Leaders.

By Mawuli Dake[i]

Fact check: there are still men, in this day and age, who believe that women are less competent than men and that men are superior to women. Such men do not only frown on efforts aimed at ensuring equality for women, but aggressively use their positions of power to diminish the dignity, value and accomplishments of successful women. Recent successes in an unprecedented number of women attaining high political positions and exercising political clout in arenas heretofore monopolized by men, is bound to trigger an even more vicious reaction from such men.

This new wave of refined sexism especially in today’s politics does not typically take the form of a 1960 blatant sexism that is deliberate, direct and visible, but comes in more subtle and covert ways. There may be no deliberate systems and strong men that openly tell women to shut up and keep out today, but there are numerous conscious and unconscious acts that perpetuate the same agenda that old fashion sexist tactics did--to silent and undermine women. We have seen manifestations of this particular form of attacks in recent months, by very powerful men and groups, aimed at some of the most outstanding women leaders of our time. Internationally, a virulent campaign against one of the world’s most distinguished leaders and most forceful advocates for human rights- Mrs. Mary Robinson; regionally-fierce agitations from the MRU for the immediate removal of Africa's first elected woman leader- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liebria; and nationally in my dear Ghana, unsavory and baseless attacks on a remarkable woman leader and Ghana’s first female Attorney General (AG) and Minister of Justice-Hon. Betty Mould-Iddrisu.

These are just examples of the new war against especially outspoken and outstanding women leaders. These attacks come in different forms, target women leaders from different sectors and are orchestrated on both local and international levels--but they all share one thing in common- sexism. It constitutes despicable attempt by a handful of powerful men in society to define boundaries for their women colleagues. Even in the midst of the tremendous challenges that call for all hands on deck, such chauvinists expend time and energy to attack and bring down women leaders that dare to stand out and speak out. Often using outright fabrications and misogynistic tactics to diminish these women leaders and what they represent.

I will focus in this article on specific appalling developments in Ghana. With just nine months into the new administration, some of the woefully few women appointed into important positions in the new government have come under attack from some “big boys” in Ghanaian politics. They have even gone as far as to call for their dismissal or resignation. The attack on the AG particularly blows my mind. I just returned from a two month extended visit to Ghana, during which I interacted with both professional and social associates about the new government. One of the few things that both NDC and non-NDC members almost unanimously spoke about was their impression with the performance and the conduct of the AG. She was indicated to be one of the most impressive new ministers. This made it all the more shocking to hear the attacks on her--are they talking about a different AG than the one Ghanaians generally find impressive?

I was as astounded to hear recent charges of extremism and anti-Semitism against Mary Robinson, as I am to hear insinuations of incompetence against Betty Mould-Iddrisu. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of these women knows they represent the very opposite values. In fact, from my perspective as an independent, I considered Betty Mould-Iddrisu’s appointment as one of the most important and impressive by the president. This is a woman with credentials that match those of any qualified male that has served in any high office in the country in the past few decades. In fact, she has professional, social and academic accomplishments that far surpasse those of the vast majority of these men. Through hard work she rose through the ranks to Chief State Attorney during her long and dedicated service at the Ministry of Justice. She has played tremendous leadership role in the promotion of women’s rights and social justice in Ghana and beyond and until her appointment, served as Director of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat- a 53 states inter-governmental organization based in London. How intriguing that some men will still find such a woman incompetent.

If we are going to scrutinize and hold our leaders accountable, which we must, we have to do so from a rational position. And in doing so, we must insist that leaders are judged/ accessed based on their performance and integrity- not on their sex, ethnicity or social background. And as part of that process, we must equally point out those who display sexists, selective and prejudiced attitudes in such efforts. Not only because it is backward and unacceptable, but because such hypocrisies in the long run undermine genuine demands for accountability and efficiency.

In this regard, I particularly want name some of these men. The Minority Leader of Ghana’s parliament- Osei Kyei Mensah Bonsu and the Publisher of The Ghanaian Chronicle newspaper- Nana Kofi Coomson as wel as some “big men” of the ruling party/ government.

The most amusing thing about these men engaged in these disgraceful attacks is that, their allegations of incompetence is not based on any tangible misconduct or professional ineptitude on the part of the AG. They are purely based on their misguided opinions of what the AG should and shouldn’t do. Regardless of the constitutional mandate and guiding principles pertaining to the work of the AG, these men feel they have the power to prescribe new rules for the AG. Some members of the current government have openly come out to demand the dismissal of certain female appointees within the few months that they have been in power. I have not seen or heard any of them say so of their male colleagues- including their male colleagues implicated in serious corruption and other scandals and should have no place in government. Other high profile members of the party and government have also come out to publically to dictate what they think she should do at the ministry- hastily pursue political prosecutions to satisfy their personal vendettas.

I am not suggesting in any way that these men, are engaged in a deliberate conspiracy against women leaders. What I do know is that, their actions and words against the strongest female voice in government today, connote stereotypical biases that suggest that her occupation of the AG’s office mismatches with the stereotype they hold of who can and cannot occupy that office. These attacks whether conscious or unconscious, whether covert or overt must be resisted. It matters when they call their female colleagues names and selectively attack them in ways they rarely do with their male pals. It matters when in attacking their female colleagues, they feel no obligation to be rational or truthful, and it matters when they display sexist tendencies in their critique.

From my professional standpoint as a human rights defender and as someone who has lamented about and fought against past executive manipulations in the justice system, I believe we are lucky to have the Hon. Betty Mould-Iddrisu’s in her current portfolio. For the first time, we have an AG who is not willing to engage in hasty and political prosecutions or to manipulate and interfere with the justice system as we have seen under past ministers. It is a good thing for Ghana and we should salute the AG for daring to be different. This shows that it is not only critical to enhance women’s access to opportunities and positions, but it is extremely important that solidarity mechanisms are put in place to support women in leaderships when they come under unjust attacks. I hope those who have fought for and are committed to promoting women’s leadership accordingly strategise in ways that not only get women into leadership, but provides them with the support and defense against such frivolous and sexists attacks. Contemporary sexism against women leaders continues to thrive in high places and will do so unless we join hands to resist and fight them with the fierceness it requires.

I am sure Ghanaians are very proud of the Attorney General’s immense contribution to ensuring and improving justice delivery and the human rights of all in Ghana and we owe it to her to show it.

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[i] Mawuli Dake is a leading African human rights advocate and strategist. He currently serves on the Board of Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa; and as the CEO of The Africa Group Consult.