Sept 2022 – Nov 2022
Abena Awuku-Larbi is a Legal Practitioner, Women’s Rights Activist, and a Poet. She is a Benino-Ghanaian based in Accra, Ghana. She is a graduate of the University of Ghana School of Law, Legon and the Ghana School of Law, Accra. She specializes in Human Rights and Oil & Gas Law.
She is the Project Lead of the Happy Monthlies Project, an initiative for the alleviation of period poverty in Ghana. She is also a Senior Associate at ActionAid Global Platform, a worldwide network of training hubs for empowerment and activism. Before 2021, she worked with several organizations for the protection of girls and women against physical and sexual violence. Her recent work has been in the field of advocating for female sexual and reproductive health education and the alleviation of period poverty.
She is an alumnus of the Mo Issa Workshop 2021 and her poems have appeared in the Contemporary Ghanaian Writers’ Series and The Big Yellow Post.
AGN; You are of Benino-Ghanaian heritage. Do you feel this provides you with a much more unique perspective on things in comparison to your compatriots?
AAL; My basic school education was my first lesson in the complexities of identity and borders. I attended a Roman Catholic School in the suburbs of Accra. The Roman Catholic Church that built and named my school is located next to it. One could walk through the compound of the parish into the school and through the compound of the school into the parish.
There was an aisle outside the church leading right up to the altar and then the cross. On particularly rough days – like being late or not having completed an assignment – I would stand at the outer aisle and pray to God and all the saints to save me from harsh punishment. I had been concerned that from where I stood, God would not hear my prayers well. One day, I decided to enter the chapel.
There was an old gatekeeper who said I wasn’t allowed in the chapel because I was a student and not a student-mass server. I looked up the requirements to be a mass server and I had to first take catechism classes and be confirmed as a catholic. I was upset.
On several occasions, the gatekeeper didn’t let me in. “My family has a catholic background – did that count for something?” “No”. “I was raised in the Catholic faith” “No”, “I knew how to recite the rosary” “No”, “I could name patron saints” “No” “I had a dogeared hymnbook” “No” “Father Nicholas is my friend” “No”. I was shattered; I felt that I couldn’t get close to the altar and whisper in God’s ear because I didn’t have certain qualifications.
Having two home countries is a similar experience. I have met “gatekeepers” who control who is granted access to an identity, a place, or status. “How Ghanaian are you?” “You don’t look Ghanaian” “Where in Benin are you from?” “What is your grandfather’s name?” “Where is his home?”. These kinds of questions snowball into other areas of my life – my gender, “What makes you think you are a woman?” “Do you know women don’t behave like this?” my religion, “You can’t be a Christian and be doing xxx”, and even my age.
It is never so simple to be a person and to assert an identity. There is always a lot of force involved in being. There are social constructions drawn and enforced by gatekeepers that determine what a person is and whether they qualify to assert an identity.
AGN; Why did you decide to read law?
AAL; At school I had other interests totally unrelated to law but things didn’t quite work out. I was in remedial school and was scrolling through options for courses. Law was the second option that came up and pretty much on the spot I chose that. I was angry at myself due to my own failings and also angry at society due to the norms I was expected to conform to and irrational comments I received during what was a challenging period of my education.
In hindsight I chose what was a really good fit for me. From time immemorial, people have suffered violence. One will often meet with resistance when trying to be something. It is the way things are. We are born to fight, and we die fighting. Law is a power that challenges power and I do not go down without a fight.
AGN; You specialize in ‘Human Rights’ and Oil & Gas Law. What can you tell us about the work you do?
AAL; Lessons have been learned from what other oil rich nations in Africa and elsewhere have experienced. We have also been able to draw on lessons learned from the mining industry in Ghana to some extent. These things have helped shape our regulatory framework.
There are a number of stakeholders within the oil & gas sector here. The challenge is to ensure the rights of all parties are safeguarded so that regulatory mechanisms deliver in reality what is on paper.
Things are of course dynamic and at times rights are infringed upon. Stakeholders utilize the legal system ergo services such as those I provide to seek guidance or clarification on points of law and/or to seek redress where necessary.
I’d also like to tell you about my advocacy work. I work as a Senior Associate at ActionAid’s Global Platform and I co-run the “Happy Monthlies Project” with my close friends in the medical profession. I work for young women and girls of school going age.
I am concerned about the identity of a woman and disabling the social constructs that hinder her growth. The identity of a woman is a concept. The concept of a thing determines how it is applied generally. In the feminist/womanist field, we are constantly battling against ideas and standards of gender roles, beauty, body sovereignty, sexual orientation, and self-actualization/agency. Through training, donations and artistic intervention, we push forward an idea of womanhood that is free from any sliver of oppression.
AGN; Why did you decide to get involved with the ‘Happy Monthlies’ project?
AAL; The onset of menstruation is not exactly the joyous ceremony it is envisioned to be. In some parts of Ghana, menses are an enabling condition for the violation of human rights. Menstruation can make a girl politically, economically, and socially vulnerable. In Ghana, menstruation is believed to signal that girls are eligible for marriage, or sexual activity, and childbearing which leaves them exposed to a host of violations, including child marriage and sexual violence.
At Happy Monthlies, we are committed to demystifying menses for young girls and women through training, believing that the information imparted would empower them to be able to fend for themselves using available local materials. We also help them understand the ins and outs of sexual violence and how they can defend their integrity and dignity through this natural phase. We do not leave the boys out of these discussions and they have proven to be curious and eager to learn.
- Happy Monthlies raises awareness about periods.
- We provide age-appropriate and comprehensive sex and reproductive health education
- We provide comprehensive education on menstrual hygiene management
- We encourage conversations on period stigma
- We distribute free and sustainable menstrual hygiene products and supplies
- We distribute stationery for children of school going age
AGN; You are a women’s rights activist. What burning issues are you currently grappling with and can you highlight some key success of the women’s rights movement in Ghana?
AAL; The battle is far from won. There are a number of things to highlight.
Period Poverty and Body Sovereignty is a pressing concern. It remains a challenge to be able to provide free materials and spaces for girls to access during those phases of life. I believe arranging for high profile and successful people to visit schools and community spaces to speak to girls about body sovereignty would be impactful. How to resource this remains a challenge
The women’s movement has been able to play its part in delivering the following success;
- Increased literacy rates
- Higher enrolment in tertiary education
- Increased numbers of women employed in the civil service
- Placing advocacy for “women’s rights” firmly on the agenda
AGN; What can you tell us about your up-bringing and where you were raised?
AAL; I spent my formative years in suburban Accra, Ghana. My education was Roman Catholic and my socio-political socialization was that of a middle-class West African. In this sense, I have a conservative worldview.
Contrastingly, I grew up in areas where people think everyone owes them everything; your achievements and rewards should not only be shared but without consequence or accountability, willingly given or free for the taking. As you can imagine, I became intimately acquainted with conflict and confrontation early on.
I grew up in a Bini community and that has left an imprint on the types of places I tend to feel most at home.
AGN; Who inspired you as a child and why?
AAL; Margaret Thatcher and Condoleeza Rice. These are women who asserted their identities in a man’s world. It is nothing short of a miracle that they were able to ascend to such heights. I should note that they were all I would see on TV, hear on Radio and read about in the newspapers.
AGN; What do you like to do in your free time?
AAL; I write poetry. I read and I plan the next advocacy action.
AGN; What typically makes you laugh?
AAL; Vogue dance fails. It is something I love watching on TikTok and other social media platforms.
AGN; Do you have a skill or talent that nobody or not many people know about?
AAL; I do. Cooking amongst other things. Let’s leave it at that.
AGN; What word or phrase best describes who you are?
AAL; ‘I am’. It is an assertion of my being.
AGN; If you hadn’t become a lawyer what other career path might you have taken?
AAL; I’d have become a caterer. It is something I have been passionate about for as long as I can remember. I still involve myself in catering when I can but solely for pleasure.
AGN; What key procedures frustrate you about the way things are done in your profession and what do you consider to be the remedy?
AAL; Like all institutions, they are people made and nothing is infallible. We have inherited things from the British legal system that ours is founded on. There are some aspects that could do with being reviewed to see if any adjustments can be made that might give rise to a system that better suits modern Ghana.
AGN; Do you envisage advancing further in your profession and if so what role do you aspire to?
AAL; The world is my oyster. I am results driven however, at this stage of my personal development I prefer to challenge existing establishments rather than set things up from scratch. Due to experience I have accepted that at times one has to acknowledge that what one has established may not be strong enough to survive and grow.
There are a number of career paths that appeal but it is too early to say which direction I may choose to follow.
AGN; Ghana has a lot of ethnic groups however it has been politically independent since 1957. While it is still comparatively a young country, it has had some time to focus on nation building. Would you say the country now has a strong national identity that most Ghanaians subscribe to or are things still very much a work in progress?
AAL; Definitely the latter. I conceive in my mind Ghana as the body of a women, bruised battered and held together by plasters in so many places. She could be deemed to be Mrs Frankenstein that needs to undergo drastic surgery in order to make her whole. Hope springs eternal that we will get there sooner rather than later!
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on behalf of African Global Networks (AGN) - Sept 2022