Ghana’s young women may have a rosy vision of school holiday romance but the reality is no Sweet Valley High. Sex is a taboo subject in Ghana.Add a patriarchal society, where boys and young men grow up to know they hold all the power, and there are going to be consequences. And, it’s women bearing the brunt of those consequences – young women. The consequences come by way of a small, swaddled, very alive and very demanding infant and, for most, a lifetime of disadvantage. Australian Nyani Quarmyne is a photographer who has been documenting social issues in Ghana for the past seven years, in particular maternal and child health-related issues.
He’s seen, over and over again, the weight of the burden young women carry in Ghana and the challenges local and international agencies have to improve the lives of women and children. He’s met the young women and men at the forefront of the crisis and says the problems are clear, but the solutions are going to take time and generations of action. “The issue is sexism,” Quarmyne says. “It’s a huge issue.” “It’s patriarchal. Men make all the decisions. Women are excluded from the decision-making to a significant extent. Quarmyne says there is little sex education and even when it’s delivered, young people are confused and shy to ask questions.
He recalls the story of one young woman, Florence, whom he met on a photographic assignment for UNICEF. Florence told her she didn’t really understand the information she was told about birth control in sex education classes so had failed to use it. Nyani says Florence fell pregnant in her first year of junior high school to a young man who, noting she was fearful of walking home from school in the dark of the evenings, offered to walk with her. The father of her son initially refused to take any responsibility for Florence and the newborn, but Florence, wouldn’t hear of it and moved herself and the couple’s son into his family’s home. “All of the young women I met had a real sense of not knowing what they were getting themselves into,” Nyani says. “They have a vision of what it’s like to be at home with a baby and keeping house for their husband, but the reality is that they’re now saying, if I didn’t have a baby, I could be out with my friend.” Others are more vocal about what they could be doing if not for their new young, single mother status.
Linda fell pregnant to her high school boyfriend and dropped out of school to have her daughter, Jennifer. While her boyfriend accepted responsibility for the baby girl, it goes only so far as a transaction of material goods and food for the baby. Nyani says girls like Linda feel they’ve been unfairly treated. They see the fathers of their children at school, and they have no hope of returning. “It’s not uncommon for young men to have children all over the place and for women to just deal with it.” Nyani says the girls and their families get enough money and grain to feed the household, and the men are absolved of further responsibility. “This is how things are: the consequences are always far less severe for boys.” UNICEF works for children and in Ghana delivers a program in schools with local NGO Youth Harvest Foundations to bring sex education to boys and girls.
Written by Kate Moore, UNICEF Australia media and communications manager