British High Commissioner's speech at the TEDxAccraWomen event.

British High Commissioner to Ghana, Jon Benjamin delivered a speech at TEDxAccra.

Jon  Benjamin

I’d like to welcome all of you to the British High Commission Residence for this important TEDx event  “It’s About Time”.  

That’s a great title. “It’s about time” is of course a common English phrase referring to something which is long overdue - important societal changes perhaps. But more metaphorically that phrase - “it’s about time” - also reminds us that time is our most valuable commodity and, for each and every one of us, a very finite one. So, we must all use what time is given to us wisely. And this event is, I think, a truly valuable use of our collective time together this evening.

I’m a huge fan of the TED concept, having first attended such an event in New York a decade ago. And I’ve attended several TEDx Accra events during my two and a half years in Ghana, working closely with their fabulously enthusiastic team here. So, when they asked me if we could host this event, the answer was an immediate ‘yes’, not the answer, I can assure you, that we give to all, or even most, of those who ask.     

Allow me to use my few minutes here - or to abuse my position as host if you prefer - to say a few words on the subject of women’s issues from our perspective, particularly in the context of current global, regional and national efforts to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.   

Improving the lives of girls and women remains a key priority for the UK government and it is also a key focus of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. One of those goals – goal number 5 – commits all countries to, and I quote,

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

  Now I dare say that, relatively speaking, the vast majority of us here today are, frankly, somewhat privileged. We should therefore daily reflect on the lives of those who are less fortunate than we are. And, when we do, we realise that too many women suffer from stigma, discrimination and poverty, including right here in Ghana, simply because they are women.   

Women in far too many parts of the global south experience rape, property theft, and abuse. Right here in Ghana, some women are stigmatized just for being widows, others are forced to marry while still legally children, or subjected to the horrific act of Female Genital Mutilation.  

And despite the fact that Ghana was - laudably - only the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to put in place a Domestic Violence Act, violence against women and girls continues to be too widespread.Official figures say that almost one in five women in Ghana aged 15-49 have experienced sexual violence, while almost four in ten women in that same age range have experienced physical violence.  

All that highlights the need for more effective implementation of laws, including firm sanctions against perpetrators, while encouraging an active role for influential men, such as traditional and religious leaders: they, too, also need to play a part in combating these scourges, and not pretend by default that only women should be advocating for women’s issues.         

Another example of the challenges in this regard:   

In Ghana and elsewhere, some women are still labeled as ‘witches’ and are consequently isolated from society.  I’d like to express a purely personal view, so as to be very clear on this point: I believe that there is simply no such thing as a ‘witch’. It is, rather, all too often just a negative label, a term of abuse, an offensive insult, and sometimes the hallmark of an ill-informed collective paranoia. The label ‘witch’ too often serves to dehumanise already vulnerable and marginalised women. And when you dehumanize a group of people, it makes discrimination, so-called revenge, even open violence, against them that much more likely, and more likely to be justified openly.   

That dehumanisation is how and why some people still justify condemning marginalised women to lives in which their basic rights are demeaned with no legal process whatsoever.They effectively become prisoners to lifelong poverty which they have no hope of escaping, to a lack of education and to a lack of any opportunity that might help them aspire to a better life.  

What we believe is of course up to each of us.But I would say that, irrespective of what you or I or anyone else might believe, including if you do believe, as I decidedly do not, that ‘witches’ as they are sometimes known have supernatural powers, those people still have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, and not be subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment, stigmatised and locked away in camps which they have little or no hope of ever leaving.   

We are after all in the 21st Century; it is the year 2016; to quote the title of this event again, it’s about time, in my view, to stop condemning such women extra-judicially and unsupported by any empirical evidence of real wrong-doing; and to start believing in and practicing equal human rights in word and deed for every member of society, including or perhaps particularly the most vulnerable members of society.   

More generally, in fact, it is about time to stop stigmatising vulnerable people per se - men, women and children - whether they be physically disabled, mentally ill, albinos and so on. Vulnerable people deserve our support and compassion, not our contempt.  

The bottom line is this:  we simply cannot achieve sustainable, equitable and inclusive development anywhere, while further marginalising people, including and particularly based on their gender. It is well established by now that the active and meaningful inclusion of all women and girls in all spheres of life -political, social and economic, remains critical to the development of a nation.  

Of course, one reason why in so many countries the sort of legislation, which – if implemented of course – could be truly effective in combating these scourges, in fact struggles to pass is that too many parliaments are too full of men.   

We salute the female MPs of Ghana who, by their own admission, have to put up with a lot to compete in the macho world of politics. And we note the concerns that some female MPs in both the major parties have expressed to us that the percentage of women in Ghana’s parliament might even drop to below 10% in the elections in just six weeks’ time.    

And, in that respect, allow me to recall that when I was a child in London, a female Prime Minister for the UK still seemed like a sheer impossibility, even though our Head of State was, and is, female of course.  However, when I was 16, we had a female Prime Minister; she was still Prime Minister six years after that when I started work in the British Diplomatic Service; and now 30 years later, I’m working for our second female Prime Minister. And, right now, too, the heads, or First Ministers, of our three devolved governments – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - are all women.  And that all seems totally right and totally natural, exactly as it should.  

So, what price Ghana’s first female President in the not too distant future? Perhaps she’s sitting right here in the audience or is about to speak to us on stage?  I don’t need the alleged prophetic powers of my dear friend, Obinim, to predict that, one day, that too shall come to pass right here.              

To conclude, Ladies and Gentlemen:  

The UK is committed to addressing the root causes of gender inequality as a way of empowering girls and women now and for the future, enabling them to have voice, choice and control in their lives. Specifically, we are guided by four key pillars: that 1. all girls complete primary and secondary education; 2. universal sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women; 3. women and girls become more economically empowered; 4. all girls and women live free from violence.   

Our current programmes in Ghana, led by our Department for International Development (DFID), strongly resonate with those four priorities, particularly by enabling girls to access education and remain in school.   

Our programmes also work to promote an enabling environment of inclusive economies and societies.That includes addressing harmful social norms and relationships that underpin the often low value placed on girls and women in society, and which negatively impact on the opportunities they are able to seize:  and, allow me to repeat, the UK is, for example, a very vocal advocate for the view that both child marriage and female genital mutilation must be fought against and one day totally eradicated.   

Our vision is to positively change society’s negative perception of girls and women and help to unlock their potential.  We hope that, through our collective efforts, this vision will be realised. We hope all your efforts, those of TEDx Accra, and the results of today’s event all tend in that direction too.  

The underlying message here is simple: no society can ever fully develop, if half of that society suffers some degree of marginalisation and exclusion. And women are half of society, in fact a little more, and have the most basic of human rights to equal treatment with men in every aspect of life.   

So, let us all strongly recommit here today to the aspiration towards a world free of discrimination against women and girls, and to making it a reality in our lifetimes.

Published 28 October 2016