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Literacy empowers

Ajoa Yeboah-Afari, the Editor in chief of The Ghanaian Times, says that gender was no major obstacle to her career, though she did encounter some hurdles. In her view, however, the media could do more to highlight the plight of those who cannot read and write – the majority of whom are women.

[ By Ajoa Yeboah-Afari ]

Perhaps the fact that I have had to really rack my brains to recall relevant incidents, in response to the question, “what gender hurdles did you have to overcome personally to ‘make it’” in Ghanaian journalism is the best testimonial for the practice of journalism in Ghana.

But that is not to say that it has been easy all the way. And hurdles come in many forms, overt and covert. The workplace is but a reflection of the society and there are gender hurdles everywhere, although they may differ in form and extent. In some cases it is culture that is to blame for the attitudes that place hurdles in the way of women or makes others see them as second class to men.

I recall an incident early in my career as a journalist going on an assignment in Accra with a male photographer to interview somebody at a venue where my aunt, visiting from up-country, happened to be. To my chagrin, she called the photographer aside and requested him to help me, keep an eye on me, take good care of her niece! The implication was that he being a man could protect and guide me in the profession! She was illiterate and didn’t really know about my profession. She could not understand that as a reporter I was leading the team, not the other way round although the photographer was a man.

Today I can laugh over it, but at the time it was an incident that made me very cross with her because I often wrote about women’s equality with men and criticised attempts to keep women down. Being unlettered my aunt can be forgiven for her stereotypical view of what a woman’s role should be, even a professional woman, but surely the same charitable thoughts cannot be extended to media house leadership, or people in government who think men should take precedence, or that women are unequal to the task.

For I also remember that when the paper I worked for, The Mirror, needed a Deputy Editor in chief, a barrier suddenly emerged in front of me. It was a state-owned weekly, published by the then Graphic Corporation (now the Graphic Communications Group) where I had worked for many years. I was qualified to be considered for the position and I had been unofficially doing the work of a Deputy.

Professional expericence

One day the then Minister of Information invited me to his office to discuss the issue. Obviously worried, he asked me what the staff would think if I were given that position. Being a woman, would there not be talk if I were given that position, he asked me. My answer was that if I was thought capable of holding that post, my being a woman and what people would think should have nothing to do with it. He said he would think about it and I would hear from him again. I did not and eventually the government he was part of was overthrown in a military coup d’etat.

Sometime later, the appointment of a Deputy came up again. This time it was my then Editor who was pushing it for me. However, even though he said I qualified to be his Deputy in terms of seniority and contribution, the management was not happy about my being appointed just on the Editor’s recommendation.

For the first time the rules were changed. Whereas the practice had been that an Editor would decide who should be his deputy and make the appointment, this time, clearly because a woman was in the contention, it was decided that the position should be advertised on the notice board for others to apply, and that applicants should go before an interview panel. In the event, two of us attended the interview, the second applicant, a man, was my junior. The panel selected me on merit.

It is an example that I cite because it was clear to me that if I had been a man, there would have been no insistence on an interview; my Editor would only have informed the management that he had selected so-and-so as his deputy and that would have been that.

Probably other women in the profession may have suffered worse, but, thankfully, apart from that episode, on the whole, I believe that the fact of my gender has not really hindered my advancement. Indeed, although my writing often championed the cause of women, I do not recall writing articles about women in the media being discriminated against.

For example, in my “Thoughts of a Native Daughter” column (in The Mirror), on March 3, 1978, a piece I wrote began thus: “No woman commissioner. No woman ambassador. No woman regional commissioner. No woman district chief executive, etc. etc. etc.” Noticeably, I did not add “No woman editor” although I was criticising the absence of women in decision-making positions. Maybe it was because I thought my platform should be used to fight for those who had no voice, not to fight for journalists.

Whenever my opinion has been sought on gender problems in journalism, or when I give advice to women colleagues, my advice has always been that one should work hard, extra hard to make one’s by-line a respected one. In journalism one’s output and the quality of one’s work is the best weapon to fight discrimination, especially as the reading public can tell who is good!

I am happy to say that currently, The Mirror has a woman Editor in chief and another paper of the Graphic Group is also edited by a woman. Other media houses also have women in decision-making positions and until last year, the national broadcaster, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation was headed by a woman.

Ironically, when I encountered a serious workplace hurdle that forced me to hand in my resignation, it had nothing to do with gender; it was politics. The government of the day (under Flt-Lt J. J. Rawlings) felt that I was not supportive of their cause. I was not “revolutionary”. I was seen as someone who was too independent minded for their liking and therefore I was passed over for the position of Editor in chief of The Mirror, although I was next in line. An outsider, a man who was a columnist on the paper, and who was supportive of the Revolution, was made Editor, instead.

Increasingly marginalised, I decided to leave the paper and resigned in 1986. I then became a freelance journalist and earned my living that way until 1996, ten years later, when I was head-hunted by the Commonwealth Secretariat, in London, to become its first Public Affairs Officer. After nearly six years in London, I decided to return home and resigned from that job. I returned home in November 2002. I resumed freelancing until December 2003, when I was appointed Editor of the Ghanaian Times and started work in January, 2004.

My life as a journalist began in about 1970, when still a student journalist at the Ghana Institute of Journalism, in Accra, I was given the opportunity to write for The Mirror. Eventually, I joined the paper as a sub-editor in 1971 and rose through the ranks to become Deputy Editor.

My “Thoughts of a Native Daughter” column started in 1976 and soon became must reading in the country. To this day, it is still remembered, even though I stopped writing it in 1986. After leaving the paper, I became a freelancer and was the Ghana Correspondent for the BBC African Service’s programme “Focus on Africa”, West Africa magazine, published in London, and also wrote for other international media organisations.

Empowering women

The catchphrase now is “empowerment” and there is general agreement that giving disadvantaged women income-generating skills will empower them. To me, literacy is an equally essential tool for disadvantaged women. It is equally important to empower disadvantaged, illiterate women by teaching them to read and write.

Illiteracy is a big problem in any disadvantaged country. Among other things, it slows down development. It is a fact that the majority of the illiterate are women. Obviously even if they are in business, and even if wealthy, women who are illiterate always feel inferior and cannot be assertive in the community as they lack self-confidence.

According to UNESCO, four out of 10 adults in sub-Saharan Africa cannot read or write, two-thirds of them being women. In Ghana, sources give the national literacy rate as 57.9 %; and the adult female illiteracy rate as 32.7 %, down from 69.4 % in 1980. There is a national programme to eradicate illiteracy by 2011. The high number of illiterate women should be an issue that the media should be tackling, but sadly, we have not done as much as we should be doing.

Usually when women are featured in the media, it is women who have made good, either in commerce or in high education; or beauty contest winners; or women in show business. The plight of the poor, illiterate woman tends to be overlooked. My own paper, The Ghanaian Times is as guilty of this neglect as other media houses, unfortunately.

However, this also gets overlooked at high level forums. For example, at a recent High Level Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment in Berlin, I was most disappointed that the subject of women’s illiteracy never came up for discussion. I had hoped to raise the issue during question time but unfortunately there was no opportunity. However, at the end of the conference, I did express my concerns to Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul.

But perhaps the blame should go to the media. If the media would turn their spotlight on the large segment of society disadvantaged by illiteracy, mostly women, as a reminder to society, then conference organisers would in turn take that issue into account.

All countries are now on the information and communications telecommunication band wagon and all the advantages that come with it. Where does that leave those who are unlettered, the majority being women? So, it seems to me, it is more crucial than ever for the media to champion the cause of empowering women through literacy. I hope that at the next Women’s Economic Empowerment conference, empowerment through literacy will be on the agenda.