An actress who said women needed men to take care of them has sparked fierce debate in Ghana and widened the focus about sexual harassment in the country.
Moesha Boduong said the economy was so bad in Ghana that she was forced to have a relationship with a married man in order to pay her bills.
“You just need someone to take care of you. You can’t make enough money as a woman here,” Boduong told CNN in an interview aired recently in the United States.
Boduong has since been pilloried by high-profile Ghanaians for her comment and quickly apologised, saying her experience was “not a reflection of what happens in most homes”.
But the interview struck a nerve in the conservative West African nation, where sexual harassment is an issue but is rarely talked about.
“Sex-for-marks” scandals regularly make the news in Ghana and in nearby Nigeria.
Nigerians are currently following the case of a female student who recorded a conversation with a university lecturer, who demanded sex in exchange for good marks.
The student says he failed her because she refused.
“The angst that has greeted this scandal is not misplaced,” columnist Monday Philips Ekpe wrote in the ThisDay newspaper on Friday.
“Stories about lecturers who seek to satisfy their sexual passion not minding the mental and emotional trauma their victims suffer are common.
“These unscrupulous men sometimes refer to the girls as ‘bush meat’.”
– ‘Victim blaming’ –
In Ghana, an investigation has been launched into allegations that high school girls in the central Ashanti region were sexually harassed by their school staff.
Maame Akua Awereba, a representative of activist group Pepper Dem Ministries, told AFP there was a pervasive gender power imbalance in Ghana that needed to be addressed.
“Look at the system, that is what gives men the power and gives girls the need to do these things for money for things as basic as rent.”
Awereba said sexual harassment was widespread across Ghana. “Their lecturers are harassing them to sleep with them to get the marks,” she said.
In a 2011 study published in the Cambridge Journal of Education, researchers found the most common form of sexual harassment at two Ghanaian universities was sex-for-grades.
Dilys Sillah, the founder of a sexual abuse awareness non-profit operating in London and Accra, said Boduong’s comment reflected Ghana’s hierarchal society.
Those with status and power are protected, said Sillah, explaining that often victims do not see the point in speaking out.
“There are people when they commit certain crimes no-one will come out and say anything. You may even find situations when other victims may be involved but they will not speak out.”
In the case of sex-for-grades, women are often seen as responsible.
“Until we recognise child sexual exploitation is real and it’s a crime we will continue to victim-blame,” said Sillah. “We need to put the responsibility on the adult.”
Earlier in April, two Ghanaian sisters were jailed after they assaulted a lecturer who demanded sex to boost their marks.
– Speaking out –
For many people in Ghana, the time is right for the country to have a #MeToo movement, following the lead of women who have spoken out after suffering sexual mistreatment by men.
George Ossom-Batsa, a professor of religion at the University of Ghana, said Boduong should be praised for her honesty.
“Instead of condemning her she needs to be given credit for making society aware of what is actually happening on the ground,” he said.
“It’s only in that way that the ills in society could be fought or addressed.”
Eve Akagbo, a 27-year-old copywriter living in Accra, said she was aware of the “sex-for-marks” issue in Ghana.
She said she believes that hard work is enough but is sympathetic to others who feel the need to look to a man for support.
In her eyes, it’s a “personal choice.”