Rawlings Speaks for Rights of Women in Ghana By Sujata Massey Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, the first lady of Ghana, says her role as champion of her country's women is based on respecting the past and embracing the future. "We are the custodians of tradition," said Rawlings, the 45-year-old wife of President Jerry Rawlings, and mother of three daughters and a son. "We are not looking at the female emancipation aspect; we are interested in what women actually need--their necessities--because we are fighting a battle against poverty." Mrs. Rawlings came as a fellow to Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies earlier this month to gather ideas to strengthen the 31st December Women's Movement, a nonprofit organization with the goal of improving life for the women of Ghana. The group was named to commemorate the day in 1981 when rioting took place in the capital city of Accra. The 2 million-member group receives no money from Ghana's government and is supported by donations and its own fundraising activities. Rawlings, whose family comes from the Ashanti region of Ghana, is entitled by heredity to be a "queen mother," a female community leader whose power is passed matrilineally. While developing the 31st December Movement, Rawlings benefited from the built-in respect queen mothers are given by working closely with them. In 1984, for example, queen mothers initiated laws that were passed to protect widows from culturally sanctioned harassment. "If a woman's husband dies, it is assumed immediately there was some foul play," Rawlings said. "The woman is put through a ritual punishment. She has to sleep on the floor, she has to use a stone for a pillow. Some put pepper in her eyes so she cannot see. So many things are done to make a widow's life miserable, but if a woman dies, everyone says [to the husband], 'poor man, you need a woman.'" Rawlings is also proud that the group has taught more than 1 million women to read and write in their regional languages and has helped others to establish agricultural and other businesses. Women are planting trees for lumber and building houses. Others are producing food, jewelry and crafts. The movement has also sponsored child immunizations, built preschools and founded family planning clinics with information on birth control. Rawlings does not shy away from comparisons to U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she is scheduled to meet during her time in the United States. "If you are married to somebody and you don't advise the person, I think something is wrong with you," she said. "Moving into the 21st century, we have to change the way we operate as first ladies. We don't only have to help our husbands, we have to see what specific areas we can support to improve the quality of life for the people within the countries. We cannot afford to just have tea parties, arrange flowers, cut tape or whatever was done before." Rawlings will give a public lecture about her experiences in Ghana and the United States at 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 31, in Mudd Hall. For information, call the Institute for Policy Studies at 516-7174.
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