Empowering a Generation and a Nation, One Woman at a Time

“Certainly, we cherish our cultural heritage and the centuries old traditions from which our society derives its identity and resilience. But we also acknowledge that practices that undermine human dignity, retard social progress and bring about unnecessary misery and suffering must not be countenance by a society that appreciates the worth of its people.”

Dr. Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings: Addressing the 23rd Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Beijing +5); attended by over 2000 women’s groups and NGOs worldwide. June 5th, 2000, New York, USA

Former First Lady, Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, is on a mission to empower a generation, one woman at a time. As the founder and President of the 31st December Women’s Movement, a grassroots NGO, Nana Rawlings is a firm believer that women hold the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. For nearly three decades, she has been at the forefront of women empowerment. During her tenure as Ghana’s First Lady (1981 – 2001), Mrs. Rawlings crisscrossed the globe raising a new level of awareness on gender issues in Africa. Through her skillful ability to achieve concrete, measurable results and convey them on platforms, globally, she gained international prominence as a leading activist for African women. Mobilising more than two million women across Ghana—from small-scale, village level, economic projects to standing for parliamentary elections, the 31st December Women’s Movement became one of Ghana’s earliest and most successful examples of a progressive grassroots women’s movement. Since its inception in 1982, Mrs. Rawlings became the first wife of an African Head of State or President to use an organisational platform to systematically fight gender inequality and empower millions of women across Ghana and beyond. Today she is considered one of Africa’s most socially progressive and influential female politicians and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree from Lincoln University (USA) for her achievements towards the economic advancement and empowerment of women internationally. Most recently (Jan. 2010), she was elected in a landslide victory as the First Vice-Chairman of Ghana’s ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), of which her husband, former President Jerry John Rawlings, is the founding father.

Emanating from her seemingly effortless ability to be both a hard line politician and a passionate change agent for the poor, the voiceless and the under-served populations in Africa, her power is not something she wields. It’s something she is. Authentic. Smart. Unpretentious. Forthright. Engaging. There isn’t a prediction or forecast broad enough to encompass her energy, vibrancy and her ability to connect with people of all social levels. Such traits are the by-product of her confidence, wisdom and openness to the inclusion of all people. Her leadership style has served as a pioneering model for improving gender equity, equality and the empowerment of grassroots women in Africa. When purpose aligns itself with the character to serve the greater good, authentic power takes over. Such are the coordinates of where Nana Rawlings stands today.

Life before Politics

Activism for Nana Rawlings began in the tumultuous days of revolution when her husband, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, took over as Ghana’s Head of State on December 31st, 1981. His popular rise to power followed more than a decade of economic devastation, political crisis and mass human suffering under a series of corrupt civilian (1969 -1972) and military regimes (1972 – 1979). With the aim of rebuilding Ghana from the grassroots, and returning power to the people, Jerry Rawlings spearheaded a revolution that was aimed at wiping out corruption among the power elites and restoring Ghana’s shattered economy.

On the streets of Accra, the country’s transportation system had broken down. There was no reliable power grid and only a handful of paved roads were undamaged by massive potholes. Inflation had soared and food was so scarce that a tin of milk or a loaf of bread required standing in long lines for as much as five hours or more. Mrs. Rawlings recalls, “Much like the rest of the country, I was relieved that someone was finally strong and brave enough to risk his life for truth, social justice and the larger good of the nation. But I also knew my life would never be the same.”

Prior to public life, Nana Konadu had been working professionally (1972 – 1979) in Ghana as an interior decorator with the Union Trading Company (UTC), a large Swiss trading firm, where she rose to the rank of Group Manager. Her responsibilities included UTC showrooms, window displays and corporate housing units throughout Ghana. In 1975, her work took her to Switzerland for 18 months on attachment to Jelmoli, then Switzerland’s largest department store, as an administrator and interior decorator. Upon returning to Ghana, Nana and Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings exchanged wedding vows in a church wedding in 1977. Even after marriage, Mrs. Rawlings continued advancing in her career as the senior administrator of UTC’s Display Department. She recalls, “Given that the country was in such steep decline, I considered myself lucky to even have a job. What’s more, I was one of only a handful of Ghanaian women working among the professional ranks at UTC. Still, much like the rest of the country, we were struggling.”

In 1978, at the height of the nation’s collapse, Nana Konadu was expecting the couple’s first child, Zanetor. During her pregnancy, however, it was not uncommon to find the halls of the Military Hospital plunged into darkness, due to power outages, with only partial lighting provided by the aid of a generator and the flickering light of lanterns carried around by hospital staffers.

While power outages were intermittent, deprivation was constant. The hospital had no bed sheets, no painkillers, no sanitary towels, no syringes, no cotton wool, not even a light bulb in the labour and delivery room to guide the medical staff as she struggled through labour. If she wanted any of these comforts, she would have to supply them on her own. And, fortunately, she could. Weeks before she went into labour, Nana Konadu and Jerry made the four hour journey by road into neighbouring Togo to buy the list of hospital supplies suggested by their doctor.

She recalls, “All the while, I could only think of the blinding fluorescence of public facilities in Switzerland. From Swiss banks to shopping centres to public universities, high-quality lighting and overflows of supplies filled every facility in abundance. I could only imagine the hospital delivery wards: the blankets, pink or blue, the menu of painkillers, doctors in white coats and sanitary gloves, tending to patients under the hard white hospital light. How much different was it in the hushed, dark tensions of Ghana.”

As the economy fell apart, senior military officers continued to increase their ill-gotten riches at the expense of the poor and starving masses. While men monopolized power at all levels of development, it was women (and their children) who suffered the most from poor judgment and weak governance. Yet women were the backbone of the rural economy. In Ghana, as throughout most of Africa, women account for more than fifty percent the population producing more than seventy percent of the nation’s food crops, which make them the largest part of the nation’s economic efforts. Adding to that, many of these women bear the sole responsibility for raising the children, feeding their families and providing care for the elderly in their communities. Despite their major contributions to family, community, and food security for the nation, their dire living conditions and basic needs for sustainable development had never been placed on the national agenda or even prioritised as a part of the nation’s development needs.

“At the Military Hospital, I witnessed the miraculous delivery of a newborn through the birth canal of a very beautiful, but very young, girl, who had been rushed into the hospital for urgent medical care, but with no medical supplies  and probably no history of prenatal care. Although the baby she delivered was healthy, I was traumatised the next day by news of her death ‘due to complications beyond the hospital’s capacity.’

“By the time I gave birth to my first child I was an exception: I was 29, married and college educated with a university degree in graphic design.” In rural Ghana, however, without access to education, it is not uncommon to find young girls who, by the ages of 12, 13 or 14, have been sold into marriage and given birth to multiple children within a few years. If you look at the generation before her, the story is likely the same – one of subjugation, marginalization and disempowerment, a formula for the vicious cycle of poverty.

Worse yet, Mrs. Rawlings notes, young girls are more likely to be the victims of outmoded customs, such as polygamy, trokosi (female sexual slavery), and painful genital cutting, a practice which could result in excessive bleeding and death of infant or adolescent victims. Once held sacred as a form of purification, this horrific practice is commonly known today as female genital mutilation (FGM). “These customs are not only inhumane; they’re tools of oppression and subjugation that render African women and girls subservient, docile and exploitable,” she asserts. As a result, young women become socialised to think their ideas, personal struggles, and needs for greater equality are of no interest or consequence to the world around them.

Viewed through this lens, Nana Rawlings is convinced that the leading difference between her situation and those of rural women starts with access to education—from girlhood throughout young adulthood. “Education imparts a desire for a better life, the knowledge that such a life exists, and a basic framework for how to attain that life,” she explains. “Without it, however, young girls are groomed to be nothing other than the perfect wives and mothers, and any thoughts or aspirations beyond that, is fiercely discouraged and in some cases, even shunned.”

As the former First Lady sees it, a woman who is enlightened about the world around her is empowered to engage confidently in her own self development before entering into marriage. This provides a strong foundation that will allow her to make better, more informed, choices for herself and, more importantly, for the generation she raises.

These socio-cultural problems are only a slice of the gender inequities that have fuelled Mrs. Rawlings’s passion for social reform and women’s empowerment. “I instinctively understood that in order to help women escape from the clutches of oppression, I had to reject and publicly denounce the outmoded customs of generations past (e.g. as trokosi, FGM and child marriage, etc.) that have served as traditional barriers for women’s progress.” When it came to tackling issues that affect women in particular, her model for revolution was deliberately different: “It starts with ONE woman who says ‘enough is enough’, ONE family at a time, and continues onward from ONE generation to the other. That is how we measure long-term success—by the multiplier effect of empowering ONE woman.”

A Lineage of Doers & Leaders

Nana Konadu Agyeman (maiden name) was born in Cape Coast in Ghana’s Central Region on November 17, 1948. She is a direct descendent of the Ashanti Royal family in Kumasi, the former centre of an empire that once controlled much of present-day Ghana. Both her mother and father hail from a long line of royal ancestry with a proud tradition of leadership. Her father’s uncle was the great king of Asante, Nana Agyeman Prempeh I, who was exiled by the British in 1897 to the Seychelles Island, where he was later joined by the famed and venerable Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa.

As the third-born of seven children  six girls and one boy Nana Konadu grew up in a prosperous and well-educated family in the 1950’s Gold Coast (Ghana before independence). Her father, John Osei-Tutu Agyeman, was a prominent and widely respected businessman, who always stressed the importance of education and independent thinking to Nana and her five sisters. After obtaining a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, Mr. Agyeman became one of the first Africans in the Gold Coast to work at the senior levels of management within the United Africa Company (UAC), a colossal British trading firm that was a branch of Unilever. He was later recruited into government by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, as a top commerce executive and business advisor to the nation’s first post-colonial administration.

Her mother, Felicia Agyeman, was an educator, whose career in the classroom ended abruptly when she married Nana’s father. In the days of colonialism, British law mandated that married women stay home and look after their husband and children. So Mrs. Agyeman was forced to abandon the classroom and the teaching career she loved the moment she married her husband. Still, Nana’s mother made good use of her professional skills inside the home, where she often home-schooled Nana Konadu, her six siblings and several cousins from Nana’s father’s large extended family.

Young Nana Konadu attended a series of elite public and private schools, including the British-established Achimota Secondary School, where she had her first encounter with Jerry Rawlings in 1961. The Agyemans’ good fortune prompted Nana’s parents to continuously take in and support the children of struggling relatives. Her mother was strict, yet full of compassion she says, always putting food, clothing, and other basic provisions away for relatives in need. She emphasises that her mother was probably the strongest influence on her. In Nana’s words, “It was she, by her concern for the poor and the disadvantaged, who helped me to discover my interest in social reform. Perhaps this explains why, amidst the tumult of revolution in the early 1980’s, I discovered a powerful pull and personal calling in the world of politics. My recognition of injustices against women and the poor in our society ignited my early desire for social change.”

Activist and First Lady

Unwilling to live life within the strict limits imposed by a male dominated society, First Lady Nana Rawlings stirred national debate over what role a Head of State’s wife should play. Normally, she would have been expected to confine herself to managing the household, raising the children, perhaps engaging in some charitable work, and supporting her husband’s political agenda. But she insisted on developing a more independent life. In spite of much criticism, Mrs. Rawlings forged a new identity for herself by engaging in meaningful political activity. So on May 15th, 1982, she and other like-minded women established the 31st December Women’s Movement as a means to ensure that women in Ghana did not get left behind in the revolutionary process.

“From that day forward, I took on the biggest challenge of my life. I emerged from the ‘relative’ comforts of city life to learn about the plight of poor rural women – not by reading or hearing about them, but by actually going out and meeting those who were struggling.”

She smiles as she thinks of how her youngest daughter, Amina, recalls these early days, “From a very young age, I travelled around Ghana with Mum so much that she could have easily confused me with her handbag.”

“It’s true,” Mrs. Rawlings admits. “I can’t deny this. I threw myself into my work. In my political life, passion took over. I wanted to understand the problems of rural women firsthand and with the country in crisis, there was plenty to absorb.”

Winding across dusty ochre-red roads through grassy, rich savannah, Nana Konadu travelled to areas such as Ghana’s remote northern region. She met with local chiefs and explained to them that the 31st December Women’s Movement was borne out of a desire to get women to be a recognisable part of national development. The Movement, she noted, “emanated as a result of the revolution that came to stop the rot and decay in our society. Women wanted to be part of that change and not just observers.”

She danced with townsfolk and addressed crowds of hundreds of women and children. At the podium she stressed to women that they must be completely politically and economically empowered by becoming micro-entrepreneurs in their homes and villages. And under the watchful gaze of traditional chiefs, she defied social norms by stressing the importance of family planning through the use of contraceptives.

“The more I listened to the stories of rural women, the more I understood their frustrations, knowing that they remain secondclass citizens despite their contributions to family and community. Throughout my travels, I encountered the complete absence of academic opportunity for the girl-child. Women had been made to feel they have little stake in the country’s success. In some rural areas it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to give birth in the morning and be back working in the fields in the afternoon.”

She admits, “I have never claimed to be an economist, but my travels throughout the country allowed me to discover the real-life economics of poor and rural grassroots women. Back in Accra, one of my primary missions as a women’s activist was to convince public officials and policy makers to recognize rural women and the underprivileged in our country as valid and important constituencies whose advancement could benefit the entire nation.”

A committed progressive, Nana Konadu successfully formulated and influenced legislative policies against human rights abuses such as trokosi, child marriage, and FGM that have historically and traditionally subjugated women in Ghana. But she didn’t stop there. Simultaneously, she strongly believed that without the effective mobilisation of women — Ghana’s largest labour force — the nation could not achieve its aim of economic reform. “We recognised that for women to be really empowered for development we needed to make them economically active. That was the only way their male counterparts were going to recognise them as equals. So we developed small-scale business models, such as cassava processing plants to process local staples such as gari and kenkey, as well as other self-sustaining businesses like vegetable cultivation, batik making, pottery design, beekeeping and soap production. By securing local and international donor funds, we were able to offer impoverished women tiny amounts of seed money to establish businesses and encouraged them to move into male dominated industries. The women guaranteed each another’s debts and began meeting regularly to make payments and discuss a social issue, like family planning or schooling for girls.”

Travelling tirelessly around the country, sometimes with her own infant child, Nana Konadu became controversial for her candour and fierce criticisms of a male-dominated status quo. While supporters cheered her on, critics attacked her for “overstepping boundaries” and meddling in her husband’s job. But her extraordinary resolve to fight discrimination against women and the rural poor made Nana Konadu a pioneering activist. No other First Lady in Ghanaian history has ever had such a direct role in policy making.

By the 1990’s, in a flourishing economy and restored democracy, Nana Konadu’s Movement was credited by many as being an instrumental part of the revolution in Ghana’s economy. Before December 31st, 1981, women had no access to micro-loans or adult literacy programs, nor did they have power or influence in law or politics—even those laws that pertained to them. A decade later, there was a national program to reduce poverty which offered women micro-credit facilities and entrepreneurship training. There was also legislation to protect women’s property rights and the presence of women in parliament and government greatly enriched Ghanaian politics. By opening doors previously closed to women, Mrs. Rawlings broke the mould for African women in politics and attained genuine political power in her own right.

Changing the Face of Womanhood

Perhaps the greatest lesson presented by the track record of Mrs. Rawlings and her colleagues is that Africa’s greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or goldfields; it is the women and girls who are denied an education and shut off from playing a major role in the formal economy. Twenty-eight years later, through the drudgery of their work, a powerful recognition is coming to light: women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution. They might possibly represent the best hope for reducing poverty in Africa.

Mrs. Rawlings asserts, “Gender equality is not only morally right; it is pivotal to human progress and sustainable development. If Ghana is to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular, Goal Number 3 – promoting gender equality and empowering women – women’s rights should be prioritised. Government’s commitment should go beyond simply putting policies in place to monitoring how women’s participation in all levels of national development is taking place on the ground.”

Political Ambitions

Although the former First Lady has not publicly declared any intentions to run in Ghana’s 2012 presidential elections, early endorsements for her candidacy have stirred massive debate and speculation about her political ambitions. There is no doubt that Mrs. Rawlings has the capacity to run and the experience to turn Ghana’s fortunes around. But the question remains: Will Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings enter the race in 2012 to become Ghana’s first female president? At this point, only time will tell. As one supporter states, “she is arguably the most politically exposed and politically experienced Ghanaian female around.”

Perhaps the answer to this question lies beneath the surface of her own words: “Through my work as both an activist and a politician, I strive to demonstrate that it is our continuing responsibility, as African women, to challenge inequality, resist oppression, and question our exclusion from every level of African society. I’ve come to realise that it takes a woman to break the endemic cycle of poverty. This is a task too large and too important to be left alone to the government. So it is up to us, the women of Africa, to bear the responsibility for actions needed to end poverty—first in our homes, then in our communities and, ultimately, throughout our nations, one woman at a time.” WAM