ACCRA, Ghana (WOMENSENEWS)–Beatrice Bernice Boateng, 53, a candidate with the opposition New Patriotic Party, won her first seat in the Ghana parliament last December.
One of her first moves was to make a symbolic show of women’s need to tackle work in male-dominated fields. She hired a woman as her personal driver.
Boateng hopes the driver–whom she is also encouraging to go to school to continue her education–will inspire other women in her district in the eastern part of the country.
Not that she thinks it’s easy to move into male-dominated fields. Her own venture into politics has been hard on her entire family.
"Soon after I announced my intention, there was a newspaper story that said I had slept with members of a rival political party to assist me. This affected my children and family so much that my parents at a point even wanted me to withdraw entirely. But I refused."
Another female member of parliament, Akua Sena Dansua, decided to throw her hat back in the ring last year after serving for two terms.
Dansua, a former journalist who was a member of the Ghanaian contingent who represented Ghana at the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing, was re-elected in December.
It was a resounding victory in some ways, but Dansua, 49, notes that her political career, which she started 17 years ago, came at the cost of her marriage.
Marriage Blocked the Way
"I had to divorce in order to be able get myself into full-time politics . . ." she told Women’s eNews in a recent interview. "My husband at the time did not see my political life as very interesting. I had to get out. There are other women facing this dilemma."
For women in Ghana the problem in entering the power structure is not getting appointed to high offices.
The parliament speaker is a woman; Joyce Bamford-Addo, a retired Supreme Court judge. The chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court is a woman, Georgina Wood.
The vice chancellor of one of the public universities is a woman; Naana Opoku-Agyemang, a professor at the University of Cape Coast. The government statistician is a woman, Grace Bediako.
And since Elizabeth Robertson’s appointment last month, the acting police chief of the country is a woman.
But the December elections show how much harder it is for a woman to win a seat in parliament.
Lopsided Candidate Ratio
Only 20 women won seats in the 230-member house, down from 25 in the elections in 2004. A lopsided sex ratio among the candidates–957 male candidates to only 103 female–helps explain that outcome.
Gifty Dzah, program officer of the advocacy group, Women in Law and Development in Africa, based in Accra, says the slump in women’s numbers was also due to some female incumbents who did not seek re-election and others who were eliminated in the primaries.
In hindsight, Dzah thinks her organization should have started encouraging female participants earlier. "We started in January 2008 . . . and this did not give us enough time to get the number of women increased."
Ghana has no quota laws on female representation in parliament. Dzah says her group plans to lobby hard for a minimum 40 percent level of representation. She thinks this is necessary to win stronger property rights and access to finance, two ways of attacking women’s higher poverty levels.
In the north of the country, women have no legal rights to own land, crippling their ability to apply for loans requiring collateral security, some of which could help them stabilize and strengthen their farming activities.
Incumbents Gave Up Seats
Boateng says women lost ground in parliament this election cycle because some female incumbents gave up their seats, which were won by men. "It means however that those of us in parliament now would have to work harder to get issues affecting women on the agenda."
Boateng said that if her somewhat exceptional victory offers any lessons to other female candidates it’s to muster strong local support before the campaigning begins. "I had to fight against a rich and well-established male politician," she said. "The advantage I had over him, however, was that I had been involved in local government and was at the time presiding officer of the New Juabeng Municipal Council."
Dansua’s victory was also helped by local experience. She served as a district chief executive before winning her seat.
Ghana hosts eight political parties and joining the right one is also a key to success.
That’s something Thelma Lamptey, 49, learned the hard way. She hoped to serve in parliament so she could bring development funds to her hometown of Pokuase, on the outskirts of the capital. She says she was very popular with her local constituency but her Convention People’s Party was too small to get her elected in the parliamentary process, which asks voters to cast ballots for parties not individuals.
Both Danusa and Boateng, by contrast, ran with parties that were safe bets in their voting districts.
Boateng said access to money is also often a major handicap for women in a process where there is no public financing for candidates and they are expected to personally pay the costs of campaign lorries and food for volunteers, competing with rivals’ financial outlays on these expenses.
"Winning my party’s primaries was a challenge. The fight was between me and three other men who had money and were paying so much to the party delegates at the constituency primary. At a point my supporters came to me to try to look for money and I had to listen to them by taking loans."
She said she is still saddled with debt dating to her 2004 primary bid. For the 2008 elections, she had to depend on loans and friends again.
Dzah agrees that the high costs of winning office represent a major obstacle to women. "This is where most of the women were kicked out of the race. This is the reason why we have called for a review of the way the primaries are held now. They are not free and fair."
Francis Kokutse is an Accra-based journalist who writes for Inter Press Service, Associated Press and the Nation Group of Kenya.