Knowledge as Power: Women's Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa
Although not much changed during the one hour I spent with Sylvia Bawa, I left her office feeling empowered. It was empowerment from knowledge, which is something that Bawa knows a lot about: she researches women’s rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. In her eyes, knowledge is a powerful tool.
“My research examines discourses around women and women’s empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Bawa, a recent PhD graduate in the Department of Sociology. “African women are often constructed only as helpless victims of oppressive local cultures. I didn’t find this depiction to be accurate, given my experiences.”
Bawa lived in Ghana most of her life. When she moved to Canada in 2005 she noticed a discrepancy between her memories of Africa and Canadian perceptions of Africa. “The most difficult thing for me was seeing images of Africa on the television that I didn’t recognize,” Bawa says.“Of all the things that I had prepped for mentally, that was the one thing I wasn’t prepared for.” That is, the depiction of the continent as a place that needs to be “saved” by the West; or the depiction of its problems as peculiar to the continent – without any recourse to a violent history of colonialism and its lingering legacies.
With a new external perspective, Bawa began her PhD dissertation at Queen’s focused on deconstructing the notion of women in African post-colonial societies. She undertook a six-month field study in Ghana and organized 16 interviews and eight focus groups. Other than a few men, the participants were all women with a post-tertiary education that were actively negotiating or defending women’s rights in Ghana. In her thesis, Bawa includes direct quotations from these meetings; she says she did this to use the women’s voices and experiences as the basis for analyzing women’s rights.
“The women know the reasons why they find themselves in particular situations,” Bawa says.“I didn’t want to speak for African women, I wanted them to speak.”
Bawa unearthed many issues regarding women’s lives in Africa. However, she noticed some recurring themes. Education was a big one. Human rights, post-colonial feminism, identity construction, the use of religion, and what it meant to be empowered were all topics that her participants wanted to discuss.
“There is a campaign slogan that says, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation.’ It’s one that is very popular in Ghana. If you critically analyze such a slogan, you see it reinforces the notion that women are primarily caregivers in society.Such that if they are educated it enhances their mothering and reproductive roles,” Bawa says. “It’s not the same discussion for men’s education. It’s okay for them to be an individual.”
This idea is reinforced around the world. There is a global emphasis on putting African girls in school, and although this is very positive, there are neoliberal economic and cultural expectations that contradict this goal: once girls reach a certain age they are expected to take on primary reproductive responsibilities, including childbirth, care and mothering.
She emphasizes that Africa’s colonial history must be kept in mind in discussing women’s marginalization on the continent.
Bawa says African culture was shaped by colonization. Ghana gained independence not too long ago, in 1957, and as a result, it is very much a post-colonial society. In other words, the legacies of colonialism are still very present. Among other things, British colonists imposed Victorian notions of womanhood onto the country; women were expected to be fully domestic and out of public view.
“There’s an idea that African women just stay at home, but that’s not the case,” Bawa says. “They are very much in the public eye, but they’re not in the formal places … If you look at the informal sector, women are going to the farm, they trade, and they travel for trade.”
In her research, Bawa finds that domestication, or perceived domestication, is magnified by global trade policies. Current trade policies focus on growing the formal macro-economy in Africa, which is an economy that has historically marginalized women. Bawa concludes that these things together – colonial legacies and a focus on the macro-economy in global economic relations and trade – are contributing to the impoverishment of African women.
However, there is a silver lining to Bawa’s findings. Bawa believes that the evolution of knowledge will allow us to examine issues regarding African culture more critically. And this will lead to change.
Her thesis defence, which occurred in December 2012, was a success and she is now turning her research into a book.
Profile by Catherine Owsik
About the author...
In August 2012, Catherine Owsik, a fourth-year undergraduate biology student, launched the inaugural issue of Nerve, a monthly, online science, engineering and technology magazine. It was a project that she initiated out of her own interest, but Nerve has flourished with support from the Queen’s and scientific communities.
Owsik’s writing career began in her second year at Queen’s, when she accepted a job working for the Queen's Journal. The next two years were busy, but she loved the chase of a story and a strong work ethic grew out of the many late nights. It was also at this time that Owsik discovered she enjoyed working with layout and design.
The idea for Nerve came to Owsik suddenly one night when she realized she wanted to write about science, but there wasn’t a science publication on campus. Almost immediately, Owsik started jotting down notes about creating a science magazine and taped them to the wall above her desk. During the following months Owsik refined her wall of ideas, and worked hard to make the magazine a reality. Owsik advertised Nerve on campus, found a base of contributors, and soon was busy managing and designing.
Owsik and Nerve caught the eye of a Scientific American blogs editor on Twitter. He was impressed with Owsik’s initiative and he interviewed her for the Scientific American Incubator blog. He also reviewed Nerve, and invited Owsik to present the magazine at the Science Online 2013 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Already in its seventh issue, Nerve will continue to grow. Owsik is unsure of her post-undergraduate plans, but she will keep following her instincts towards new learning opportunities, whether they are from a job or graduate program.
You can access Nerve magazine at: issuu.com/nervemag/docs