Every year, the world comes together to celebrate Human Rights Day on the 10th of December. The theme in 2012 is “inclusion and the right to participate in public life,” which has come at the perfect time as we hope for increased female parliamentary representation as a consequence of the recent election in Ghana. But, having more women elected is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to allowing all people to be included and having the right to participate in public life. At the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), we fight for the rights of ALL citizens of Ghana, and seek to be a voice for the voiceless – those people who otherwise would never be heard, and would never have their human rights violations addressed. It is those groups, the most vulnerable, who need us to speak out the loudest this Human Rights Day 2012.
We need to speak for the youngest citizens of Ghana – our new babies - who are born with HIV/AIDS simply because their mothers are not aware that they themselves are infected (and passing it to their baby during pregnancy), or are unable to access simple drugs that would be able to reduce the likelihood of mother-to-child transmission to less than 5%. We need to speak for our girls and women, who continue to have unsafe and illegal abortions because they are not aware of their sexual and reproductive rights. Often, they are not aware that in some circumstances, abortion is legal –and they don’t know where to access these services. We need to speak for women and men, boys and girls all over Ghana (and indeed, all over the world) who are infected with HIV (PLHIV’s) and who struggle daily with the stigma that is attached to this disease. This stigma makes it difficult for PLHIV’s to access treatment, social services, gainful employment and housing. They often face rejection and isolation from their families and communities and are more likely to be reluctant to disclose their status, even within committed relationships (thus increasing the danger of transmission).
We need to speak for our elderly women, often the poorest and among the most vulnerable members of a community. We need to speak especially loudly for those who have been banished to witch camps and live outside of society, without the support of their friends and family. Conditions in these witch camps are often far from ideal, and represent a gross violation of these women’s rights, at a time when society should be respecting and supporting them.
The mentally ill, who also often find themselves in similar camps, are desperately vulnerable in Ghana, and we must help them find a voice in public life. Often, with sufficient treatment and support, they are able to actively and meaningfully contribute to society, but instead they too are banished to camps, or left to languish in hospitals without the resources to properly care for them. Recently, a documentary and fact-finding mission exposed the horrendous and degrading conditions in prayer camps – which are the most common option for treatment of the mentally ill – and psychiatric hospitals, which remain under resourced, under staffed and overcrowded. These issues need to be addressed from every angle – from training of leaders of prayer camps to improve their services (as HRAC undertook in 2011), through to the inclusion of the Right to Health in Ghana’s Constitution.
The Human Rights Advocacy Centre also speaks for the rights of LGBT persons; for children in schools who suffer gender based violence; for female sex workers; for people most-at-risk (MARPS) of contracting and transmitting HIV; and continues to push for the amendment and passing of a right to information bill in Ghana.
Sometimes, the number of human rights issues to address can seem overwhelming. But, this Human Rights Day 2012 is also an opportunity to positively reflect on all of the steps that Ghana has taken towards protecting and promoting the human rights of all of her citizens. In 2012, Ghana had the opportunity to present its human rights record to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR). The UPR intends to draw attention to, monitor and raise awareness of human rights abuses around the world, and as Ban Ki Moon (UN Secretary General) has stated, the UPR can “promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.”
The Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC), headed by Nana Oye Lithur, together with Amnesty International Ghana, made a submission for the UPR which summarised the human rights situation in Ghana from 2009 to 2012. The report did highlight a number of different human rights abuses in Ghana which remain topical today, but it also identified positive steps that have been made towards realising the human rights of all.
In June of this year, the government accepted the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee which included removing the death penalty from Ghana’s Constitution. To achieve this, the issue needs to be taken to the people of Ghana in a referendum, which will hopefully happen without unreasonable delay.
The issue of forced evictions, which was given centre stage when more than 1000 people were left homeless after the Accra Metropolitan Assembly demolished the slum community at Odawna Railway and destroyed market stalls and containers in Kaneshi in January of this year, has also seen progress. Since the issue was exposed due to the actions of HRAC and other NGO’s and media organisations, there have been no reports of forced evictions to date. Forced evictions violate individuals human rights because often, there is not sufficient consultation or notice prior to the evictions, and the evictions are sometimes carried out whilst people are sleeping, leaving members more vulnerable and at higher risk of injury.
All the time, the government and civil society organisations across Ghana are working to improve the human rights of all of citizens of Ghana. The projects and programs are too many to name, but they range from sanitation programs, to sensitisation workshops for sexual and reproductive rights, to microfinance and food security. With continued advocacy, and unrelenting efforts, we can see advancements in human rights in Ghana. This Human Rights Day, we must continue to empower our citizens through these programs, and to be a voice for the voiceless to ensure that all people can be included, and participate meaningfully in public life.