Today’s activist is Joyce Boham of the Talitha Qumi Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana. You can read her earlier contribution to the Shiloh Project here and watch an interview with both Joyce and Mercy Oduyoye here.
Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
My name is Joyce Boham and I am Manager of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, Trinity Theological Seminary (Legon, Ghana).
Born to Thomas Yamoah (of blessed memory) and Essie Ewusiwa Yamoah, a retired midwife, in the early 1970s, I am the fourth of five children. I am married to a Ghanaian building engineer and blessed with four children: three girls and a boy. Growing up in the 1970s was characterised by community living: your children belonged to just you as long as they were in your stomach; after birth, they were the responsibility of the whole community who collectively ensured that children would become good citizens. Our home always had a minimum of four cousins in it at any one time and other people, too, who were not relatives but just enjoyed the lively company. The issue of rape never came up for me while growing up, mostly because any discussions of sex was forbidden until puberty; then our grandmother (the wife of a Methodist minister) would give us a long lecture on sex education. These lectures were quite frightful as most of the discussion centred on getting pregnant – even if you just talked to boys.
I remember my grandmother giving me an egg and saying, “eat it; do not bite into it. You will have many children.” The egg was the symbol for fertility. The belief was that a girl would have many children when married if she did not bite into the egg. That was the ice breaker for my first lesson on sex! My grandmother then said, “if any boy looks at you in a ‘funny’ way, that is a gesture of interest; if he smiles or tells you that he loves you, RUN, RUN, RUN far from him, run to the house. When you see him coming from east, run north; when he comes from the south, run to the east. If you speak to him or he touches you even your hands, you will get pregnant, then you will have to stop going to school and join the workers on your grandfather’s cocoa farm.” As funny as it may sound to me now, that was caution enough against boys and men at the time. Her strategy was to protect us, as she did not have the voice or strength to fight the oppressor (abusive men, harmful cultural and social factors). What my grandmother did not consider was that this was a caution also against boys who were civil; being left alone with any boy was to be avoided. Also, she warned us about boys, not considering the possibility of men who might feel entitled to our bodies, even though we were young girls.
The story is different today. I have to teach my children to be cautious regarding both men and boys. Alongside receiving quite comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education from me, they also have discussions on the topic with friends and they consult the internet. I had to tell them that even though their bodies are God-given and they are entitled to wear what they please, there are some people out there who feel entitled to violate them just because they can and have the power. Moreover, when something awful happens there is inadequate support. I struggled to answer these questions from my daughters: “Do we not have laws that prohibit that?”, “Where is the police?”, “Mummy, don’t these people go to church? What is the church doing?”
I struggled to explain that while the laws on paper are protective, the wider culture and the social structures, in some cases even the family, will not protect them adequately. I struggled to explain that though Ghana subscribes to the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 (pertaining to gender equality) and Goal 10 (aimed at addressing inequality more widely) the reality is that our wider society does not reflect that women are entitled to full human dignity and human rights. I had to tell them that they have to try to protect themselves and each other. And, as was handed down to me, I said to them, “SPEAK! FOR YOU HAVE A TONGUE IN YOUR MOUTH.”
How does your research or your work connect to activism?
Since completing my undergraduate degree, I have worked as a liaison for The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a gender-centred, interreligious, interdisciplinary, intersectional and transformative association of African women. The work of the Circle, as we call it, is to carry out academic research on issues relating to religion and culture, to investigate how they affect women’s lives and how they can be interpreted for the empowerment of women and their communities. I am currently responsible for the Anglophone West Africa zone.
My role as the Anglophone West Africa Coordinator is to encourage our member countries (Ghana, Nigeria and English-speaking Cameroon) to take a closer look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and advocate on issues that concern us as a sub-region. SDGs 5 and 10 (focused on achieving equality) apply directly to issues that underpin our work, but we are also concerned about the environment (SDG 13) and quality education (SDG 4). Focus on both is essential to empowering ourselves and to taking part at the decision-making tables in our various communities. Issues like poverty, hunger, lack of basic education, lack of affordable housing, unavailability of jobs and many other factors also contribute immensely to women’s vulnerability and are, therefore, part of the discussion on rape. It is important to note that rape has damaging and distressing impact not only on the physical body, but also on emotional, academic and psychological wellbeing. The Circle intends to continue promoting research and publications by African women theologians, as well as to keep calling institutions with power to action on behalf of women.
I have also worked for the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, a multi-faith educational project established in 1998 to advocate for the urgent need for gender sensitivity and gender justice in all issues concerning women in Ghana. The Institute works primarily through public education. Currently, I am the Manager and the Institute is based in the grounds of Trinity Theological Seminary (Legon, Ghana). We work to ensure gender sensitivity among seminarians and we advocate for a violence-free society where my daughters are free to be girls and unencumbered to contribute their quota to the development of the country without fear. We have worked on a range of women’s concerns encompassing harmful traditional practices, women’s health, women’s economic development, women’s empowerment, trafficking, and advocacy for the recognition of the humanity and human rights of all women. We work with women who are opinion leaders in their communities, religious spaces, basic and high schools, and universities and we also partner with the media and with Non-Governmental Organisations. But our work at the Institute is crucial especially for the women at the grassroots. The publications of the Circle, often produced in collaboration with opinion leaders, are not only for those able to read and interpret them. At the Institute we also take these publications and present them (in workshops for instance) in ways that non-academic and also non-literate women in the rural areas or communities can learn from. Our Queen Mothers who wield much influence as opinion leaders in their respective communities fulfil an important role in our work. The Institute also works with churches (charismatic, Pentecostal, and mainline churches), women’s rights groups, as well as various Muslim women’s groups to find out about, discuss and address the issues that affect their lives. We involve also the next generation of women and men (primary and high school children and university students) in our work.
Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?
Just about four months ago, the whole country was outraged about the government of Ghana’s new policy on Comprehensive Sexuality Education. This policy proposed that sex education will be taught at all school levels beginning from first grade. It was interesting to watch how church leaders, irrespective of denomination, from charismatic to orthodox churches, as well as the Chief Imam, the leader of the Muslim community of Ghana, and also teachers and head teachers, many parents, the media, businessmen and women, the urban and rural men and women, all rose up against it. This united outrage stirred up questions in me: Why is the Church and why are all these other groups not on the streets with anger and outrage about the increasing number of rape cases? Why are countless cases of violence against women taking place all over the country and there is comparatively little said about it? Most of the so-called defilement cases involve girls living in the slums. Are our leaders quiet because they think rape of impoverished women does not matter? Is rape considered simply inevitable, or trivial? Is rape less offensive than sex education for grade one children? Why does the issue of rape not stir up the same anger as the prospect of sex education?
There is so much happening that needs fixing. Some children are raped and killed; others are raped and silenced with fear of death or misplaced social judgement when they disclose the identity of the perpetrators. This was worsened by the BBC coverage of the issue of ‘sex for grades’ in Ghana and Nigeria with the main defence from Ghana being that it was a plot to smear the country’s name. Much of the blame landed on the victims.
In this country rape is still taboo and rarely spoken about. When it is, then usually behind closed doors. Even when brave souls dare to bring the case into public forums, the identity of the perpetrators is protected. Many are the anonymous stories of rape and abuse that affirm the reality that trusted and often publicly respected individuals – teachers, lecturers, fathers, uncles, pastors, house helps – are perpetrating this violence. And often the victims have either been silenced for fear of further victimisation or for the sake of protecting their family name.
But there is also the bold decision of Elizabeth Ohene, a prominent journalist, BBC columnist and former government minister, who told her story about how she was sexually abused at the age of just seven years old and raped at the age of eleven, more than sixty years ago (in 1952). Ohene speaks of the physical, emotional and psychological effects this violence had on her and also of the “scandalous acceptance of the sexual molestation of children in our society as part of life”. Ohene’s open account won her much support and admiration but she also had friends who were puzzled and even angered at her decision to go public. To them, she should have taken her pain and suffering to the grave; after all, she had suffered it in private for more than sixty years. This drew my attention, however, to the fact that silence is no longer an option. It never was but now that the silence has been broken, we need to turn our voices into action for change.
It is time to speak up as loudly as we can and to work with the media about the menace of rape in our society. Sexual violence has settled itself into the very fabric of our society, feeding on our culture. But we have been given the responsibility by God not to just pass through this world as spectators but to contribute our share to making our world better. It is important that we continue to speak about these issues to holler our outrage and remind society at large and the generation after us that our shared humanity is a gift from God. It is important that we continue to empower our women. It is important to continue to nurture our daughters and to impress on them that they are not responsible for the crimes committed against them.
It is my hope that the Institute, with the help of stakeholders, will be able to provide public education to effectively address and eliminate violence against women and girls. In doing so, we will continue to question the role of the church in these issues.
Let me finish with some of my writings on the topic of sexual abuse.
WHEN THE TELLING ITSELF IS A TABOO: SPEAKING OUT AGAINST SEXUAL AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE.
- It is Thursday in Black and my heart bleeds for all those women and girls, made in the image of God, who have endured sexual violence and cannot speak, because telling of being raped is itself a taboo. It is black Thursday and I stand in solidarity with those who are suffering quietly as victims of rape and of stigma.
- My heart bleeds for the countless young children who are raped daily by their teachers, who shamefully violate the responsibility they are entrusted with. I stand in solidarity with the girls who are raped by relatives who are supposed to love and protect them, just as Christ loved and protected “The Church”. Where, I ask, is these girls’ refuge? I cry with all girls and boys who are raped. Where shall they turn?
- Who will come to the rescue of the street girls who are raped – made so vulnerable by their poverty?
- Who will speak for the countless women who are raped by their abusive husbands? Where is their refuge? Who is their hope, shield and fortress? Where is the Church? How my heart bleeds.
- Its Thursdays in Black and I ask, where are the girls who were kidnapped in Takoradi? Are they forgotten so soon? My heart bleeds for the world we are leaving for the generation after us.
- We shall refuse to keep quiet over the rape and violence that is stalking our homes, communities, public and private institutions. Do not be afraid to speak out for fear of being branded a bad girl, or for fear of dying as threatened by your rapist.
- Though it may ring in your mind, we are here to help you yell it out. We shall yell together. Speak, for you are human with a tongue in your mouth.
- Speak out, for the Church with a commandment to be a refuge for its people is YOU. Until we begin to shout it out together, sexual and gender-based violence will not stop.