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'The soft racism of low expectations: cultural difference does not negate the struggle for women’s empowerment'  - by Isaac Halpern, 26.02.2024

Ghana is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. The people were unendingly kind and generous, jovial and accepting, proud but humble. The fondness with which I spoke of my time in Ghana to friends and family back home prompted them to ask questions which revealed both an excitement to learn about a place they knew very little of, and that what they did know of Ghana and Ghanaians was informed by shockingly low expectations. This blog is written in two parts; the first part is intended to be as objective as possible, and largely speaks of barriers to women’s empowerment that I encountered in Ghana through both observing them, and through primary and secondary research. The second part explores a racism that I was previously ignorant of – the soft racism of low expectations.


During the first week of my placement, I had a conversation with a group of men about what I was doing in Ghana. During the conversation, I explained that I was an intern at AFAWI, helping work towards empowering Ghanaian women and girls and narrowing gender gaps. Unanimously, the group agreed that it was not manly of me to do this work, and that it was a “red flag” for men to care about such issues. Later in the placement, I earned the nickname “middle man” from one of my male friends after sitting in the middle of the backseat of a car. This nickname was particularly funny to him because I had sat between two women in the car; as the seats filled, he laughed and said “you know in Ghana, if a man sits between two women then he is weak”.

These interactions were indicative of attitudes towards gender roles and gender itself that are deeply entrenched in Ghanaian society. These attitudes permeate all areas of life and manifest in gendered expectations, from women being expected to stay at home while their husbands work (Akotia and Anum 2015, Moussié and Alfers 2018), to being expected to prioritise chores over leisure (Adam 2014), to facing severe social consequences for political participation (Darkwa 2016, Bawa and Sanyare 2013). Barriers to women’s empowerment in Ghana are as numerous as they are significant. Not only are they institutionalized within Ghana’s politics, but they are as clearly evident in the public sector (Ghana Statistical Service 2023) as they are the private (Akotia and Anum 2015) and informal sectors (Moussié and Alfers 2018). Additionally, many of the women we worked with had internalized patriarchal views, with 68% of participants in one session reporting that they believed men are superior to women. In the same session, the women overwhelmingly agreed that they could not say no to sex with their husbands even if they themselves did not want to have sex, despite agreeing that it would be unacceptable for their husbands to take their money without consent. The implicit suggestion that their husbands could use their bodies but not their money, itself implying a valuation of money over their own bodies was surprising, and made me and the other volunteers uncomfortable.


The session, however, focused on gender issues and women’s empowerment. At the end of the session, participants overwhelmingly reported that they felt good, and that they enjoyed the session and felt a renewed eagerness to exercise their autonomy and to prioritize their own wellbeing in a way that it seemed many had not done for some time. While gendered expectations pushed these women towards prioritising chores over leisure and having children over political engagement (Adam 2014, Darkwa 2016), an organic form of empowerment seemed to emerge during that session. This echoed the organic empowerment encouraged by Ghanaian “Market Queens” (Scheiterle and Birner 2023, abstract), who are “democratically elected leaders of traditional self-help associations whose members are female traders” in informal markets (ibid, pp.1). These Market Queens act similarly to cooperatives, allowing market traders to buy products in bulk at a lower price, and securing women’s places in markets as well as increasing their collective power by organising them cohesively. This gives them increased economic and political power, including to resist decisions made by local councils that harm market traders and the market itself (ibid). These Market Queens are examples of organic systems encouraging women’s empowerment, working against the tide of systems putting barriers to women’s empowerment in place. Only one of many forms of organic empowerment and examples of uplifting women, Market Queens show that Ghanaian women are clearly not passive objects in their situations, and Ghanaian culture itself has nothing to do with oppressing women. The Ghanaian culture that I saw was vibrant, relaxed and accepting, and centred community and social good. However, when I spoke to friends and family of casual misogyny and systemic barriers to women’s empowerment, many excused these barriers by saying they're a product of culture, rather than a product of oppression. The same people who dismissed Ghanaian women feeling unable to say no to their husbands’ requests of sex as a cultural difference simultaneously champion women’s rights in the West; firmly supported the #metoo movement; and would be horrified by a woman in the West feeling unable to say no to their partner. What they saw as a serious violation in the West, they viewed with apathy and condescension in Ghana. The double standard here is clear – while people were eager to lend their voices and support to Western, largely white and other non-black women, Ghanaian women were left by the wayside in the assumption that their struggles are just part of their culture. While oppression of women in the West is viewed as a social issue to be overcome, in much of the Global South, in this case in Ghana, it is often viewed as an inherent, irreparable part of culture itself (Liou 2023). The obviously false double-standard within this is that Western societies can do better than oppress women, while those in much of the Global South cannot.


This is the racism of low expectations, as opposed to the hard and explicit racism of violence and slurs. It is the same low expectations that prompted friends to tell me they expected “war stories” when I came back – stories of struggle and sickness, rather than the stories I actually came back with that were largely of the sights, the work and the people. The same low expectations also prompted family to text me asking “What does the city look like? Anything modern? Big buildings? Traffic? Lots of bikes and scooters?”. “Anything modern” – I received this message while walking through a neighbourhood that, if I was unaware that I was in Ghana, could easily have been in a beautiful area of Silicon Valley, and it struck me that even close friends and family had such low expectations of a place they had never been to. When I mentioned this to some of the AFAWI staff, they laughed and related it to how some volunteers will bring entire suitcases of food and snacks in the expectation that Ghanaian food would not be safe to eat. At this point in the conversation, another volunteer laughed and said she had done exactly that.


Progress, innovation, safety, security, and women’s rights are not uniquely Western ideas or goals. When those who champion women's rights in the West  dismiss oppression in Ghana as cultural difference, it shuts down any possibility of a productive conversation because it conflates oppression with culture, and therefore accuses those criticising or pointing out oppression of Ghanaian women of being racist. However, Ghanaian culture is not part of this discussion, let alone the conflation of this culture with oppression. Pointing out barriers to women's empowerment in Ghana is not racist; conflating these barriers with Ghanaian culture and subsequently calling those observations racist robs Ghanaians of the criticism that leads to improvement. Criticising and pointing out power structures that bar Ghanaian women from political involvement is not racist; however, conflating those power structures with Ghanaian culture, and asserting that oppression and misogyny is Ghanaian culture, certainly is.















Adam, I., 2014. Gendered perspectives of leisure patterns and constraints of university students in Ghana. Leisure/Loisir, 38(2), pp.181-198. [Viewed 11/09/23]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/14927713.2014.985475


Akotia, C.S. and Anum, A., 2015. Gender, culture, and inequality in Ghana: An examination of sociocultural determinants of gender disparity. Psychology of Gender Through the Lens of Culture: Theories and Applications, pp.375-394. [Viewed 29/08/23]. Available from: doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-14005-6_18


Bawa, S. and Sanyare, F., 2013. Women's participation and representation in politics: Perspectives from Ghana. International Journal of Public Administration, 36(4), pp.282-291. [Viewed 17/09/23]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/01900692.2012.757620


Darkwa, L.A.O., 2016. In Our Father's Name in Our Motherland: The Politics of Women's Political Participation in Ghana. Darkwa Linda," In Our Father's Name in Our Motherland: the Politics of Women's Political Participation in Ghana", Boni Yao Gdbe (Ed), Constitutionalism, Democratic Governance and the African State,(Accra: 2015). [Viewed 17/09/23]. Available from:


Liou, D.D., 2023. Expectations as property of white supremacy: the coloniality of ascriptive expectations within the racial contract. Race Ethnicity and Education, 26(4), pp.478-496. [Viewed 12/01/2024]. Available from: doi: 10.1080/13613324.2023.2207982


Ghana Statistical Service., 2023. 2022 Annual Household Income and Expenditure Survey [online]. [Viewed 14/09/23]. Available from:


Moussié, R. and Alfers, L., 2018. Women informal workers demand child care: Shifting narratives on women’s economic empowerment in Africa. Agenda, 32(1), pp.119-131. [Viewed 29/08/23]. Available from: doi: /10.1080/10130950.2018.1427690

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