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Opinions of Monday, 26 October 2015

Columnist: Brig Gen Dan Frimpong

Celebrating Ghanaian women : 20 years after Beijing

The United Nations International Day for Rural Women was celebrated Thursday October 15, 2015 the world over. Rural women continue to be the work horse of Ghana’s agriculture.

But how many of them were aware that the United Nations had dedicated a day to honour them, the unsung heroines in Ghana? Indeed, how did we honour our rural women as a nation?

1995 Conference
The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China, in September 1995. The first was held in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1975 followed by the second in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1980. Nairobi, Kenya hosted the third in 1985.
Among others, the Beijing Declaration came out with the Platform for Action for women’s empowerment. Again the declaration emphasised the equality of men and women in all spheres of life.

Since Beijing 1995, women have made significant advances into areas previously considered ‘no-go areas’ for them. This includes women in Ghana.

Female Rangers make history
On August 21, 2015, history was made in the United States of America when two female military officers graduated at the elite Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Atlanta, Georgia. They are First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, 25, an Apache helicopter pilot and Captain Kristen Griest, 26, a Military Police Officer.

They graduated alongside 94 male soldiers. The nine-week programme is described as gruelling and tough, and is easily one of the most physically demanding military courses on earth.

A Ghanaian Ranger friend of mine told me of something his Ranger instructor told them just before they started the arduous course in the USA. He stated that, “you do not have to be crazy to do the Rangers course, but if you are crazy, it is an asset.”

He said this against the backdrop of the humanly near impossible things Ranger School students have to go through. Not surprisingly that the world media, notably BBC and CNN, all shared copiously in the success story of the world’s first female Rangers.

Incidentally, this year 2015 happens to be the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Conference for Women, making the feat of the female Rangers more significant. This is because it shows an audacious entry into a world hitherto considered a man’s only.

Established in 1951, the Ranger School trains elite soldiers called Special Forces. Special Forces are soldiers who are trained to undertake unconventional high-risk military missions. American Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter hailed the pair. “It’s a huge credit for anyone, man or woman, to endure the intense training and curriculum at Ranger School,” he said at the Pentagon, after calling the two ladies to offer his congratulations. “These recent graduates will be leaders of our Army, of our force of the future.”

Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova
At the peak of the Space race in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the two super-powers at the time, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a Soviet lady made history for which she has become a national heroine.

On June 16 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first female cosmonaut, as Russian astronauts were called, to go to space. So popular did she become that, her marriage to fellow cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev on November 3,1963 was a national event which was attended by Head of State, President Nikita Khrushchev.

American Aviator Amelia Earhart
Much earlier, on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart, the first American female pilot to fly across the Atlantic, disappeared while attempting a round-the world flight covering 29,000 miles. With only 7000 miles to finish, she disappeared over the Pacific.

As the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic, she was awarded the highest honour of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Among other posthumous honours, a hospital, a dam and an airport are named after her. To this day, Amelia Earhart remains a celebrated American heroine.

It appears to me that all over the world, female pioneers, especially in areas considered to be the sole preserve of men on account of their very risky or physically challenging nature, are given heroic recognition of their achievements. But is this always the case? Do we celebrate our female achievers enough in Ghana?
“My First Ladies”

In the Ghana Armed Forces (GAF), there are a few females I call “my first ladies” because they are also pioneer achievers. Their feats notwithstanding, I am not sure they have been heralded as much as America has done for the first American female Rangers.

Indeed in February 2000, Ghana’s first female paratroopers jumped their
Commander (Cdr) Veronica Arhin graduated from the Ghana Military Academy in 1999. A naval officer and a Public Relations Officer, Veronica made history in the Ghana Armed Forces when she became the first female Directing Staff (DS) or lecturer at GAFCSC in 2014.

So like the two American female Rangers, ladies in the Ghana Armed Forces have blazed the trail in various fields. Perhaps the only difference is that, at the point of success, we did not celebrate them the way America celebrated Rangers Captain Griest and First Lieutenant Haver.

For me, I had the honour and privilege of being the Commanding Officer of these gallant ladies mentioned above when they were Officer Cadets in the Ghana Military Academy between 1998 and 2002. I, therefore, feel part of their success stories, hence my reference to them as “my first ladies.”

All these ladies broke barriers and entered what until their entry, were considered the sole preserve of males. While they may have received some commendation on their achievements, the international prominence given the American female rangers suggests to me that, much more could have been done in celebrating and publishing the achievements of “my first ladies.”

Angelo Dundee was a boxing training legend who coached so many youngsters to become world champions. Perhaps the most well known is former heavyweight champion, Muhammed Ali. When Angelo was asked by sports commentators what his secret was behind producing such excellent crop of world boxing champions, he simply said
“Criticism is good, but encouragement is better.”

He explained that, much as criticism may be a way of getting human beings to do better, encouraging them was more likely to bring out the latent talent in most individuals.

Unfortunately, many people who are in positions to affect others use the weapon of criticism more than the more effective style of encouraging them. In some cases, females are discouraged from daring to enter a man’s world!

Perhaps as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference for women in 1995, I could go beyond “my first ladies” and take the liberty of highlighting the achievements of other ladies I know of in the Ghana Armed Forces for their pioneering roles.

There is a lady who perhaps I cannot claim as a full first lady of mine because she was not my cadet. However, arguably I could claim her as “my half first lady,” if she agrees.

This is because, as Captain, now Colonel Constance Emefa Edjeani-Afenu was my student at the Junior Division of the Armed Forces Command and Staff College in the early 1990s.

At the time of writing, she is the Deputy Military Adviser of the Permanent Mission of Ghana to the United Nations, New York, USA. Emefa was the first female officer to command the Force Pay Office of the Ghana Armed Forces.

Years before Sqn Ldr Selase Agbenyefia became Ghana’s first female helicopter pilot in 2001, Sqn Ldrs Melody Danquah and Ayeley Commey Essel-Ampah had flown as fixed wing pilots in 1965. I was a little boy then and therefore could not assess the level of publicity they received. I daresay, however that, it would not have been on the scale of that of the American lady Rangers.

I will end with Lt Col Christine Debrah who was called to eternity on 14th February, 2014 at the age of 85. She was the first female to be commissioned as an officer in the Ghana Armed Forces. This was on 30th March, 1960. She later became the first Ghanaian Matron of the 37 Military Hospital and the Commander of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC) for the training of female officers.

Mrs Theodosia Okoh who designed the national flag of Ghana in 1957 died on April 19, 2015 at the age of 92. In what happened to be her last radio interview early 2015, she was asked what recognition she received for the selection of her design as the national flag of Ghana. She laughed and said she was only casually informed that her submission had been selected as Ghana’s national flag!

Mrs Mary Chinery-Hesse is a retired international civil servant. Between 1981 and 1989, she was the first Ghanaian Lady Resident Co-ordinator in the United Nations System. She was the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP) in Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Seychelles and Uganda. She also served as the Deputy Director-General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Switzerland.

Between 2003 and 2015, Professor Akua Kuenyehia became the first Ghanaian female judge to serve on the International Criminal Court of the United Nations.

More recently, Professor Henrietta Mensah-Bonsu was the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Head of Rule of Law in Liberia from 2007 to 2011. She is the first Ghanaian female to have held the appointment at that high level.

In conclusion, the national and international prominence given to America’s first two female rangers Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver in August 2015 have brought to the fore the fact that, we do not adequately celebrate the successes of female trail blazers in the Ghana Armed Forces at their point of achievement. This, unfortunately, appears to be so even at the national level.

“My first ladies” helicopter pilot Sqn Ldr Selase Agbenyefia, paratroopers Majors Ernestina Assan and Vera Quaye, paratrooper and pioneer graduate of the Master’s programme in Defence and International Politics Major Dorothy Tay, as well as Directing Staff Commander Veronica Arhin, deserve tons of commendations for their pioneering roles in different fields.

On the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference for Women in 1995, I doff my hat for all Ghanaian ladies, especially those who have not only defied all odds to venture into fields considered the exclusive preserve of men, but excelled in them.

Like astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, aviator Amelia Earheart, pilots Melody Danquah and Ayeley Commey, up and coming young Ghanaian females, jump for the sky!!

And when they do, let us the men of Ghana celebrate them, possibly internationally, the way America has celebrated Rangers Captain Griest and First Lieutenant Haver.