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How do you say vagina in your local language?

I did not enjoy the recent conference on sexual harassment organised by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) & Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES).

As a young woman who grew up in the UK, I am no stranger to discourse and data surrounding sexual violence. Throughout my life, I have watched shows, read books and been present for discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault and the ways that it can be avoided. Before university, my secondary school even hosted a self-defence workshop to ensure that we would know the basics of how to protect ourselves.

In this workshop, they demonstrated how to remove yourself most efficiently from a stranglehold and told us that the best way to incapacitate an assailant is to poke them in the eyes. However, my repeated exposure to this topic has never made it more palatable. In fact, hearing it yesterday, from a Ghanaian perspective and coupled with Ghana’s particular socio-cultural context might have been more impactful than any of my previous experiences.

While the self-defence classes have not remained in my mind, I have found my own ways to protect myself: sharing my location with my sister, sending my cousin the number plate of every taxi I enter, discarding a drink if I’ve left it unattended etc. On a recent solo trip to the US, I even resorted to carrying pepper spray. However, all of these precautions are only effective for the unidentifiable stranger who lurks on street corners and tries to snatch women in the dead of night.

The caricatured movie villain who preys on vulnerability and doesn’t even attempt to be your friend. As Juliana Ama Kplorfia of the Girls Excellence Movement highlighted, in the case of Ghanaian SHS students, this is rarely ever the case. Their data revealed that the perpetrators of sexual harassment were usually friends (24%), family friends (12%), schoolmates (12%), uncles (11%) and teachers (10%). Most of the precautions I have mentioned would be useless in the face of these people because they all require caution and wariness of the very people that you should be able to trust most.

Moreover, Juliana highlighted a complex interrelationship that I had never realised prior to this event. Other types of abuse, such as verbal abuse, physical abuse (read: corporal punishment), and bullying, can create a fertile breeding ground for sexual violence. This is because they foster feelings of hurt and inadequacy in their victims, which they are already susceptible to due to the changes that occur during puberty. This vulnerability is often preyed upon by assaulters, which is much easier when they have ample access to these children. But this isn’t what struck me most.

What truly stayed in my heart was that mothers were the main source of these other types of abuse, and were therefore, in some cases, becoming the very thing that their daughters sought refuge from in the arms of an aggressor. After the second day of the conference, dedicated to motherhood protection, I could only marvel at the notion of sacrificing so much to give birth to a child, only to scorn and berate them when they became a young adult.

Ultimately, the conference presented a striking image of the snarling, ravenous beast that is sexual assault, which eagerly waits to rob Ghanaian children of their innocence, confidence, and happiness. My impression while sitting there was that we were attempting to fight this beast with a blunt toothpick. The Ghana Education Service was repeatedly lambasted for being weak and unhelpful. Meanwhile, Ghanaian politicians had themselves denied the existence of widespread sexual violence in Ghana.

The Girls Excellence Movement (although fighting valiantly to protect girls and create safe spaces for them to share their experiences) revealed that only one person had ever been prosecuted because of their work. This person was in fact a judge who had been raping his driver’s daughter. He was arrested and put on trial however the trial was continually delayed. He continues to be a judge.

While those in power have let us down in this fight, we, as Ghanaians, have also betrayed our children by silencing them when they come forward, blaming them rather than communicating with them, and not giving them the tools to speak up when they are hurt. At one point during the conference, Bashiratu Kamal of the CSJ, asked a very apt question – “How do you say vagina in Twi?”

If we don’t give our children the vocabulary to express the injustices that they experience, we are, in effect, silencing them. There are many cultural barriers that interfere with us having these conversations, but I believe that if we don’t overcome them, the future and well-being of our children are at stake.

The CSJ is proactive in searching for ways to improve the situation. For example, they are planning a publicity campaign to spread awareness around some of the key statistics about sexual harassment and the ways that it can be detected and avoided. They are also planning an awareness and engagement campaign within schools where creative methods like dance-for-development will be used to share these messages and spur a shift in attitudes and behaviours among managers, teachers and students.  Although none of these is a Magic Bullet, they are, at least, a way forward being planned by a growing coalition of advocates including CSJ, GEM, the Theatre for Advocacy project and relevant Government agencies.

I did not enjoy the CSJ-FES conference on sexual harassment. I don’t think I was supposed to.

The writer, Emerald Effe Ace-Acquah is a graduate of Oxford University and currently works with the Centre for Social Justice in Accra as an intern. CSJ is a think tank advocating for progressive social transformation and people-centred development.

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