ACCRA, Ghana (WOMENSENEWS)--There's not much that makes this office stand out, here in a corner at the Institute of African Studies. A few computers, a bookshelf stocked with documents and--on days when the power is out--a few academics fanning themselves with pieces of paper during meetings.
But the one-year-old Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy--with a wide-ranging mandate to tackle university policy on sexual harassment and hiring, develop gender courses and establish a sexual assault crisis center--is new for the University of Ghana and still a rarity for the region.
"Our mandate is to make gender legitimate business within the university," said Akosua Adomako Ampofo, its head. "Gender as a discipline should be highlighted . . . Gender should infuse the governance of the university."
Ampofo says female faculty may face occasional snide remarks from male counterparts but not overt discrimination. The problem, she says, is more difficult to pin down and ranges from women's research being treated dismissively to the non-existence of policies on sexual harassment.
A harassment complaint by either a student or a faculty member will typically go to the head of a department, who may then forward the complaint on to a superior. An investigation could be launched, but there's no definite framework for handling complaints.
Female faculty are also a distinct minority; in 2006, the school had 1,049 female staff to 3,602 males.
Women's studies, meanwhile, may be relatively well established in neighboring Nigeria, where Ahmadu Bello, Ibadan and Usmano Danfodiyo universities and the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria offer a variety of gender and women's studies programs. But the field is still tentative and experimental for most West African campuses.
Degree Programs Scarce in Africa
Twenty-seven universities across the continent are doing some research and teaching in gender studies, according to a 2002 report by University of Cape Town's African Gender Institute in South Africa. Only five offer undergraduate degrees in gender or women's studies: Uganda's Makerere University; in South Africa, the universities of Pretoria, Cape Town and the Western Cape; and the University of Buea in Cameroon.
Postgraduate programs are more numerous: 12 schools of the 30 English-language universities surveyed say they offer master's degrees in gender and women's studies, but only two are in West Africa: Cameroon's University of Buea and Nigeria's Usmano Danfodiyo University.
Ampofo hopes to create an undergraduate gender degree either as a major or a minor for the University of Ghana, which was founded in 1948 and enrolls about 27,000 students, 41 percent of whom are female. She thinks a degree program will expand the influence of the center and help improve the campus culture for women.
"The number of students we interact with is too small," she says, referring to attendance at the handful of gender-related courses now offered by the African studies and communications departments. In her own graduate level course on gender studies in an African context, for instance, Ampofo teaches between 10 and 15 students each semester, with as few as four women, which reflects the low overall numbers of women in graduate studies.
Studying Her Own Experience
One of her students is Zuweira Abukari, who decided to take one of her gender studies courses because it touched on her own family experiences.
Coming from Tamale in northern Ghana, where polygamous marriages are common, Abukari, a 34-year-old mother of three, says her own mother was one of four of her father's wives. While the other wives had sons that got the chance to be educated, Abukari's mother had only girls and fought to allow her daughters the same chance.
"My mother's children were not being educated by our father because we were girls," she says. "I thought, why should the boys be sponsored and the girls not be sponsored?"
Her mother pushed her father to give the female children educational opportunities, inspiring Abukari to continue to higher levels.
Abukari says offering more courses--even a full degree--in gender studies would empower more women to seek education and better the lives of others.
"You know there's something wrong but you don't know how to go about making it right," says Abukari, who is working on a graduate degree thesis on labor migration in Ghana.
The center will soon move from its nondescript office in the Institute for African Studies to a converted residence in the section of campus that houses faculty.
Ampofo is meeting with architects on the design of the building, which will include a separate, private space for a sexual assault crisis center.
The problem of sex assault on campuses drew widespread attention about two years ago when a popular female singer was sexually assaulted on stage at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. According to media reports, she was stripped of her clothes and molested by students during a performance. Since then many women's student groups have responded and are running programs for new students, giving tips about prevention and awareness. The crisis center will offer in-person counseling services, a telephone hotline and referrals to medical services.
The center has so far been funded with a budget of about $300,000, through a World Bank initiative called the Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund which is funding several higher education programs in Ghana.
The center is building a library of documents and films on gender issues, many of them on such African themes as the role of women in village life and the education of female children.
"I would most like to see a change in the culture," says Ampofo. "If in two, three years people look at the issue of sexual harassment and say this is not in order . . . If they think in that kind of way, then we've made some kind of headway."
Emily Bowers is a freelance journalist in Accra, Ghana.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.