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Ghana’s forgotten hero who is the first African woman to hold a cabinet portfolio

January 25, 2019 at 05:00 pm | Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Staff Writer

January 25, 2019 at 05:00 pm | Women

Susanna Al-Hassan is the first African woman to hold a cabinet portfolio and Ghana's first female minister

In Africa, many of the male freedom fighters are well known and celebrated while their female counterparts are usually forgotten and relegated to the background.

From the likes of Kenya’s Muthoni wa Kirima, Zimbabwe’s Sheba Tavarwisa, South Africa’s Albertina Sisulu, and Nigeria’s Funmilayo Ransome-Kutithese, these women were very instrumental in the fight for the liberation of their respective countries.

Showing that they were not just passive on-lookers, some of these women led battles to ward off their enemies while others chose the rather civilian and activist role.

In Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence, scores of women provided financial and other support services in the struggle for freedom from European colonisers.

A 2007 paper on the Contributions of Women to Ghana’s Independence and Democratic Governance cited by an article in the Daily Graphic stated that these women were the main basis of the political success of the Convention People’s Party that was formed by Kwame Nkrumah to campaign for independence.

Most of these women were traders who formed voluntary groups and became loyal supporters of the Nkrumah and his CPP, giving in their all to ensure that the independence dream was a reality.

In spite of the indispensable role played by these women in the political struggle, there was no woman holding a Cabinet position when Ghana attained republican status.

Being at the forefront of political affairs even after independence, a Representation of the People (Women Members) Bill was introduced in 1960, which ensured that 10 women were elected unopposed as Members of Parliament (MPs) in June 1960.

This made Ghana one of the first African countries to introduce a quota system for women, the Daily Graphic article said.

Susanna Al-Hassan, a politician and author who had taken part in Ghana’s emancipation process, was one of those women.

She served as a member of parliament for the then Northern Region parliamentary constituency between 1960 and 1966. Largely described as a northern female hero, Al-Hassan became the first African woman to hold a cabinet portfolio and Ghana’s first female to be appointed a minister.

Born in Tamale, Ghana’s northern regional capital, Al-Hassan schooled at Achimota School before becoming the headmistress of Bolgatanga Girls’ Middle School from 1955 to 1960.

From 1961, she became the Deputy Minister of Education in Nkrumah’s republican government, making her the first woman to be appointed minister in her country.

She served for two years before being moved to the Minister of Social Affairs, first from 1963 to 1966, and again in 1967. In 1965, Dr Nkrumah appointed her as the Minister of Social Welfare and Community Development, while most of her colleague female MPs were appointed as district commissioners.

During this period, prostitution had come to the forefront of the state’s agenda, especially in northern Ghana, and officials sought ways to deal with the menace.

Campaigns associated prostitution with terms such as “social evil”, “enemy” and “crusade”, among the aged and illiterate population, who were “so deeply entrenched that nothing seems important enough to motivate them to transform their lives.”

Al-Hassan, however, believed that the issue had to do with “the soaring rate of depravity and lewdness among our younger generation especially school girls and young working girls” who travelled to Tamale for work and school, said Jessica Camaert in the book: Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930–1972.

On January 7, 1997, Al-Hassan passed away and was commemorated on a 50th-anniversary stamp in 2007.

As an author, she wrote several books for young children. Some of her works include: Issa and Amina: Stories for Africa (1983); Asana and the Magic Calabash (1998); The river that became a lake: The building of the Volta Dam (1979), and The river that became a lake: The story of the Volta river project (1979).

Al-Hassan is one of the many forgotten female heroes who were strong crusaders of Ghana’s independence struggle. Hannah Cudjoe, a political activist, is credited as the founder of the All African Women’s League in 1960. She also served as the party organizer and propaganda secretary of the CPP.

There are also the likes of Ama Nkrumah, a strong supporter of Nkrumah, who is noted for slashing her face with a razor during a CPP rally to show that no sacrifice was too great in the united struggle for freedom and independence.

Writer and journalist, Mabel Dove Danquah, who is also the first female member of the legislative assembly in 1954, used her communication skills to challenge colonial supremacy and female rights in the 1950s.

For Dr Evelyn Mansa Amarteifio, her focus was on the emancipation of women in the Gold Coast. Together with a group of other prominent women, she established the first women’s organization on a national scale, the National Federation of Gold Coast Women which would later become the Ghana Assembly of Women (GAW).

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