Johanna Stiebert is Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.
In late October we, Katie and Johanna, travelled to Accra. We were going there to participate in a collaborative project funded by WUN (the Worldwide Universities Network). This project is led by Rev. Dr. George Ossom-Batsa, of the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Ghana (UG). Alongside us three, the project also includes Shiloh’s third co-lead, Caroline Blyth, who will take the lead in compiling and editing a special issue on religion and gender-based violence (GBV) for the journal The Bible and Critical Theory (BCT).
Our project has the title ‘An Intersectional Exploration of Religion and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of Accra in Global Context’. The idea for the project grew out of the Shiloh Project.
Just looking out the car window on the way from the airport to our hotel, the prominent presence of religion in public spaces was very striking. Huge billboards depict Christian preachers and advertise crusades and prayer meetings, or promise prosperity and blessings, or proclaim the imminent return of Jesus. Religious leaders on these billboards take up the kind of space reserved in our own context only for mega-celebrities.
Over the days we would see some publicity also about leaders and revered figures in the Muslim and African Traditional Religions communities – but a dazzling array of Christian churches certainly predominate over other religious communities. We would see all kinds of products sold using Bible verses and allusions to God’s will and endorsement. Be it gear boxes, drains, beauty products or foods – God is all around in public and commercial spheres.
The central part of our visit was a day-long conference followed by a day of workshops to investigate our topic from a range of perspectives. The conference day was opened on 30 October by the Provost of UG’s College of Humanities, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah.
The keynote speaker was Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo who, until recently, directed UG’s Institute of African Studies. She is also founder of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy and winner of the Feminist Activism Award. A sociologist by training, Prof. Ampofo has a long and strong record of challenging GBV, including through her advisory role in the process of passing the Domestic Violence Act and criminalizing marital rape (2007), and her extensive empirical work on masculinities in a range of African contexts. Her work on African masculinities resists both what she aptly calls the ‘Western gaze’ and the disproportionate emphasis on South Africa – to the exclusion of other African contexts.
Prof Ampofo was a hard act to follow – but Katie’s and my joint presentation was next on the conference programme. We introduced the Shiloh Project and spoke on rape culture manifestations in the Bible (Johanna) and on the application of religious iconography in popular culture (Katie).
The next co-presentation was by George Ossom-Batsa and Dr. Nicoletta Gatti, both biblical scholars from UG’s Department for the Study of Religions. Their presentation focused on the Hebrew Bible book of Job alongside prosperity preaching by Ghanaian Pentecostal churches. The paper demonstrated on the one hand, how in the prosperity gospel poverty has come to signify absence of blessing and, on the other, how poverty (and therefore such preaching) disproportionately harms women who are far more likely than men to be impoverished. One distressing statistic cited was that the estimated average hourly wage for women in Ghana is only 57% that of men.
The next two presentations moved away from biblical studies. First Dr. Rabiatu D. Ammah (of UG) explored the Qur’anic verse 4:34, sometimes described as ‘the verse of abuse’ or the verse that condones wife beating. Dr. Ammah describes herself as a scholar-activist and her paper covered a range of interpretations of the verse and infused this with her qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with 15 local imams, three of whom openly acknowledged having beaten their wives. Her conclusion was, however, that there is none the less no prima facie or Qur’an endorsed case for GBV in Islam.
The final presentation of the day was by Dr. Yaw Sakordie Agyemang (University of Cape Coast) and explored GBV in the context of the indigenous beliefs of the Asante people. Again, research was centred on empirical research, this time constituting 16 focus group discussions guided by two questions: How do women and men experience violence? And, how does gender inequality affect violence? The paper offered insight into all sorts of forms of ritual violence, ranging from female genital mutilation, to the harvesting of body parts for ritual purposes, and rites surrounding both apotropaic and polluting qualities of menstrual blood.
Whereas the first day focused on academic presentations, the second day gave the floor to practitioners, before we all separated into groups to discuss practical strategies to confront, address and eliminate GBV.
The first practitioner to present was Dr. Angela Aboagye Dwamena, Executive Director of The Ark Foundation. The name of the Foundation already reveals its foundation in religious principles. It is not, however, named after Noah’s Ark but after the Ark of the Covenant, alluding to God as a refuge and strength. The presenter has a background in law and has for over 25 years defended the human rights of Ghanaian women and girls, and sometimes also boys, particularly with regard to GBV. The Foundation focuses on advocacy, community-based education, law reform and services provision. Dr. Dwamena was vocal as to the constraints of the Foundation. For instance, the first shelter for battered women was opened in 1999 but 17 years later it had to be closed, due to lack of funds. A campaign is in progress to reopen and keep open the Ark Shelter (see www.arksheltercampaign.org).
Next up, was a representative from the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. The Commission conducts research into social justice matters and offers protection on a range of human rights matters, including concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. In Ghana, the law, which has remained unchanged since 1960, designates a number of sexual acts ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’. These acts include ‘sodomy’ and oral sex. Ghana’s LGBT community is particularly vocal in resisting this law. The matter of LGBT rights was seized on in the discussion that followed the first two presentations and members from both Christian and Muslim communities expressed horror at homosexual orientation and acts, comparing them to the sin of murder, to bestiality and pedophilia. Also clearly articulated was that LGBT persons regularly do not receive justice – including in matters that have nothing to do with matters sexual (e.g. when they report crimes of property). The vulnerability to GBV of the LGBT community is likely to be considerable. It was very clear to us both that the conversation around LGBT rights in a setting like that of the conference and workshop, dominated as it was by religious leaders and practitioners, was a particularly difficult and unreceptive one. There was not really a sense that dialogue was possible.
Three practitioners from the Muslim community presented next. First to present was Sheikh Yacoub Abban, the General Secretary of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama, an organization that conducts marriage guidance counseling alongside other dispute settling activities (e.g. concerning inheritance). The organization has only men on its board but the perception by members of the Muslim community in attendance was that it was very supportive of women’s cases. The Sheikh reported a growing number of GBV cases brought before the organization by women. Whereas in 2016 cases (in Accra alone) by 96 men and 264 women were brought to the organization, by 2017 the numbers were 75 men and 384 women. Thus far in 2018, the number of women’s cases already stands at 407. The Sheikh reported that while men’s cases do not reflect physical violence, instead reporting wives’ ‘recalcitrance’ or wives who pressed for divorce in cases where husbands did not want divorce, the cases brought by women are often very disturbing and distressing. The presentation included anonymous examples of severe emotional torture, physical maltreatment and of marital rape. While the Sheikh did not deny the possibility that some men are also enduring physical violence perpetrated by women he confirmed that cases reflect that women are disproportionately victims of violence and that this violence shows no sign of abating.
Next up was Dr, Nas iba Taahir, Educational Consultant and Psychologist of the Montessori Foundation of Ghana. She disclosed that she herself is a victim of long-term marital GBV and reported, too, on her work in the capacity as a school psychologist. Both her accounts of counseling victims of physical violence in domestic settings and her own story of a six-year trial, exclusion from her religious community and of stigmatization were harrowing.
The final presenter from the Muslim community was Hajia Maliki, a marriage guidance counselor with 15 years experience. She reported that marriages in the Muslim community of Ghana very often deteriorate quickly and end in acrimonious divorce. Unlike in Christian communities, she reported, pre-marital guidance counseling was not a requirement and nor was mandatory post-marital counseling.
The final practitioner to present was the most affecting. This was Superintendent Alice Awarikaro, Regional Coordinator for the Accra Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit. Charged with domestic violence and child abuse issues, the Superintendent had seen many awful violent crimes close-up. In 2017, her unit dealt with 4,511 cases (about one third of total cases country-wide) and, as she stressed, far more cases have gone unreported. Victims of violence, including sexual violence, were male, female, young and old. Again, however, violent crimes against women and girls far outnumber those perpetrated against men and boys. Also, perpetrators were far more likely to be male than female. She showed graphic images of terrible abuse and outlined efforts to address GBV, including sensitization programmes, capacity building, proactive and reactive measures.
With particular relevance to our project, the Superintendent reported that in her experience religious leaders and religious beliefs play an obstructive role. Advice from religious leaders is often detrimental, delaying the reporting of crime, or adding to failure to report (e.g. on account of instilling stigma with regard, for instance, to divorce). She urged that counselors and advisors be properly trained professionals and advocated the following: creating safe spaces for those reporting GBV, not judging or condemning those who report GBV, education across the sectors, and encouraging reporting and following through with the legal process so that more perpetrators are brought to court and more victims protected.
Following group discussions and then a plenary session that pooled key points from discussions, we collectively determined that the conference and workshops had done much to explain what GBV is and to begin to plumb the complexity of its causes and effects. We determined that we would endeavour to apply for more funding to harness the energy of the event and to achieve more concrete results through user-led and research-underpinned activities and resources.
With the funds left in the budget from WUN we will produce and disseminate a leaflet that: 1) defines GBV; 2) supports intervening bystanders, with a section setting out what to do and where to turn (in Accra) if you suspect someone is a victim of GBV; 3) details victim support and legal rights for those who are themselves victims of GBV; 4) contains a section that specifies the rights and services of members of the LGBT community in Ghana.
While in Accra we also had opportunity to interview theologian and activist Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Mercy Oduyoye recently turned 85. She is a pioneer for African women and remains as active as ever – both in her Talitha Qumi Institute, based at the Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra and through the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, which she founded in 1989. Well before this already she initiated women’s rights initiatives, campaigning for women’s inclusion and against women’s economic deprivation and vulnerability to other inequalities, including GBV.
We also taught classes both at the Trinity Theological Seminary and at UG, which was a lively experience.
Lastly, no travelling in Ghana should be complete without visiting the coastal fortresses that facilitated the Portuguese-, Dutch- and British-administered slave trade. We visited both Castle Osu and Elmina and saw the awful dungeons where slaves were crammed together in tight, dark stone surroundings before being herded into ships bound for the Americas. While African slaves sat in fear and terror below, the European slave administrators sexually abused those whom they selected, dined while looking out at the sparkling ocean, and prayed in their chapels. Here, too, as everywhere in the streets of Accra today, biblical verses were prominently displayed – mere metres from where massive atrocities took place.
Written By: Prof Johanna Stiebert
Image Credit: Prof Johanna Stiebert
This piece was originally published here.