“Vote for Woman” was the campaign slogan that delivered Africa’s first female President to power in 2005, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Since then African countries have continued their march towards gender parity. In 2016, two former child brides, Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, made history when Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court ruled in their favour, stating that no one may enter into marriage before the age of 18. A milestone for a country with a deep-rooted history of child marriage.
Still, despite such steps, the call to action of International Women’s Day will not be heard in every corner of the African continent.
Bolgatanga is a small community in Northern Ghana, 25 miles from Burkina Faso. The area between the town and the border is home to an alarmingly high number of illiterate women and scores higher than any other part of West Africa in its number of teenage pregnancies. This is where I met Sandra.
In early 2016, I slept in a small lodging in Bolgatanga next to a thriving Baobab tree. While investigating malaria prevention Sandra helped with my work. The disparity between us was stark. We were practically the same age (Sandra was two weeks older) yet she couldn’t read. So Sandra translated for me in Dagbani while I wrote up my findings. We were a great team.
Sandra spoke openly about wishing she had gone to school, she wanted to be a nurse and learn to read properly. One afternoon she said if she had had the chance, she would have spent everyday in school shaping a different future for herself. Sandra had spent the past 15 years raising her two brothers after her mother died during childbirth, a role she loved and embraced, but would not have chosen for herself aged nine.
When I left she asked for the book I was holding. I gave her my copy of Great Expectations. We both hoped that one day she would read this famous English classic.
So while on International Women’s Day we rightly celebrate the achievements of women like Sirleaf, Mudzuru and Tsopodzi, we cannot look beyond areas where the ripples of change are less commonly felt. We will not achieve universal equality until we reach those who stand at the back of the line and make an effort to bring them to the front.