Bernice Sam built her career fighting for gender equality and calling for her government to tear down the walls that have so long divided men and women.
Why, then, has the Ghanaian activist also been working to amend her nation's constitution to prohibit gay marriage? Doesn't that contradict her message of equality? Well, not if you prescribe to her and others' gendered political thinking.
Sam, Ghana's program coordinator for the non-profit Women in Law and Development, appeared before a Constitutional Review Commission this weekend and insisted Ghana's founding document remains impotent against the seeping threat of same-sex marriage.
If Ghana doesn't act fast, she warned, gay marriage will infiltrate their entire society: “We believe it is time for our constitution to define marriage clearly because we cannot hide from the fact that these kinds of unions may catch up with us in the future. This is the time to say that we don’t want same sex marriages."
She later elaborated on the legal loopholes posing the greatest threat: "Article 11 that lists the laws in Ghana includes Common Law and under Common law it says customary law is also part of the laws of Ghana. And we know that when we define marriage, it is left to the definitions under customary law. Some countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, are looking at same sex marriages."
The self-described activist also sneered at comparatively progressive South Africa, saying, "In fact in South Africa, there are laws on domestic violence recognizing violence within same sex relationships." It's worth noting that Sam has also worked to curb domestic violence in Ghana, although clearly only one breed of it.
Sam, whose organization receives funding from the World Bank, the EU and the Danish government, finally insists that Ghanaian lawmakers must gender the constitution: "The Constitution Review Commission should make proposals that clearly define marriage such that we do away with the possibilities of people bringing up arguments that say that our Constitution is gender neutral so we can now make the argument that same sex marriages are allowed."
Sam's strictly gendered view of "equality" echoes those made by another self-described activist, influential American conservative Phyllis Schlafly,
Still a right wing powerhouse at 86, Schlafly's star shined brightest during her crusade against the 70s-era Equal Rights Amendment, a failed piece of legislation that read "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
Though it seems logical that Schlafly, a woman, would support such a cause, she and like-minded activists saw ERA as a liberal agenda encroaching on their traditional way of life.
"All 50 states at that time said it was the [legal] obligation of the husband to ﬁnancially support his wife and children," Schlafly told me in a 2009 interview. "The feminists tried to get those [equality] laws repealed [with ERA], which just shows their maliciousness because they didn't have to have a husband supporting them if they didn't want to. And they wanted to make sure other women didn't have that."
She went on to insist that while men and women are equal, women have different priorities, such as a family, which can prove biologically and emotionally consuming. Women can have it all, she agrees, but "not at the same time."
"Most of the women who go in the workforce simply donʼt have that same commitment to the career to put in the 60-hour week. I would not call it sexism, but I would call it a sex difference, a gender difference," claims Schlafly.
Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzly" provides a more recent example of this conservative reasoning. Time and again she used midterm campaign speeches to celebrate an empowered population: hockey moms, ideal American females who found "common sense" in maternal duties.
"It seems like it’s kind of a mom awakening in the last year and a half where women are rising up and saying ‘no, we’ve had enough already.’ Because moms sort of just know when something is wrong," explained Palin.
"Mothers know best," she seems to say, while subtly ejecting women not enrolled in the soccer mom club. It's a cheer for both women's equality and "traditional" values that exclude those who break the nuclear family bold.
To Schlafly, Palin and Sam, women and men have specific roles. There's no blurring the lines. There can be equality, sure, but customary norms must also be upheld. LGBT people threaten that balance. They must therefore be contained, and marriage amendments like the one Sam proposed provide the perfect constraint.
Ghana was the first African nation to escape European colonialism and gain independence. Though its nascent democracy, finally free in 1957 and led by liberation activist Kwame Nkrumah, would crumble under coups, Ghana for decades represented a democratic beacon for a continent fighting for freedom.
Ghana's government straightened itself out in the 1990s, and democracy appears to be thriving. But with the nation's women bearing the brunt of poverty, gay male sex still illegal and homophobia running rampant, Ghana makes clear that democratic vote alone doesn't necessarily breed equality.
It's an ongoing, strenuous battle, one that's not always clear cut: an activist who looks like an ally, like Sam, may actually be playing for the other ideological team.
The people and organizations backing Sam's organization should take serious pause and reconsider whether Women in Law and Development fosters the best environment for future Ghanaian generations.