In commemoration of International Women’s Day 2023
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Roslyn is a young woman who grew up in a conservative culture within a conservative country, and she works to bring progressive change in Ghana – and beyond. Everything from secularism to feminism, from religious accusations against alleged witches to human rights for LGBT+ people – she has worked passionately for change.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from UK imperialism on 6 March 1957, and the nation celebrated the anniversary of its independence this week as President Akufo-Addo encouraged unity, modern democratic principles and governance, and the advancement of human rights: “We cannot allow those who seek to divide us along the lines of ethnicity or religion to succeed.”
And yet this glowing picture hides a complex reality. A former slave colony, Ghana traditionally comprised over 40 tribes and cultures; it has relatively recent post-colonial history of military coups and a difficult record on human rights, as demonstrated by the Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Accra. The 2021 Report from Amnesty International summarises recent abuses:
“Cases of excessive use of force were reported. Prisons remained overcrowded. Women continued to suffer discrimination and gender-based violence. Attacks against LGBTI people intensified… Forced evictions left some people homeless.”
Ghana still a very long way to go. Along with Scott Douglas “Nana Kwesi” Jacobsen, Roslyn Mould notes: “Ghana has achieved appreciable steady growth levels since the late 1990s to the present day, such growth has translated much into lifting many people out of poverty… however, this increase in income levels has been highly unequal and for many people, they have in fact gotten poorer and more vulnerable… Growth has benefited the rich extremely more than it has done for the poor.”
Roslyn was born into this nation, raised in a Catholic school and a culture where religious perspective was deemed to be normal and ethical. African humanists see Ghana as possibly “one of the world’s most religious countries”; the 2010 Census lists Christians as comprising 71.2% of the population, Islam 17.6%, Irreligion 5.3%, Traditional religion 5.2%. Wikipedia notes that other faiths include Hinduism, Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism, Taoism, Sōka Gakkai, Shinto and Judaism. The World Atlas confidently declares that Ghana enjoys a strong degree of ‘religious tolerance’. Yet this tolerance may not extend beyond religious entitlement into civic and secular life. There are virtually no official atheists due to stigma and discrimination.
This religious problem is rising in Ghana. In The Conversation, Professor Jeffrey Haynes notes the rise of the Christian religious right in Ghana over recent years, under the guise of protecting religious freedoms. He asserts: “Traditionally in Ghana, religion and politics did not mix. Christian nationalism is an explicit attempt to mix them. My argument as a scholar of religion and politics is that it puts the human rights of minorities in jeopardy.”
Against this trend, Roslyn eventually came to terms with a new atheist perspective after being introduced to evidence-based critical thinking. In a 2016 interview, republished in 2021, she spoke about the trauma of outgrowing her religion:
“I went through stages of grief, disappointment, sadness, anger, and finally stopped going to church. Even when I stopped going to church I felt that God would strike me with lightning for disobeying him or ‘betraying’ him, but as time went by and nothing bad seemed to happen, my fear lessened. I did not know how to explain it to my family and friends. So for years, I kept my non-belief to myself and gave excuses for not attending church and sometimes hoped that I could be proven wrong with my non-belief so I could go back to worshipping God but that time never came.”
She also acknowledged how her humanist perspective inspired her to undergo activism:
“I became active in activism after joining the Humanist Association of Ghana. I gained confidence to ‘come out’ then as atheist and I wanted to help share what I knew now just as I was as a Christian but this time, based on evidence. I also realised how religion was destroying my country and continent due to ignorance, lack of education, and human rights abuses, and I felt I had to do something to help change things for the better. I felt that if I knew of an alternative to the dogmatic teachings I was given, I might have been atheist earlier and maybe, I could give someone else the opportunity to be a freethinker, which I was never given.”
Subsequent activism includes working as an open humanist in a nation where religion holds an unhealthy handgrip on power. Wikiwand reports: “She began her work in activism when she joined the Humanist Association of Ghana in 2012. Between 2015 and 2019, she became Organizing Secretary, and later, President and Council Member of Humanist Association of Ghana.” Under her tutelage, the Humanist Association of Ghana began to run conferences that addressed issues including communicable diseases (Ebola, etc), health and medicine; science, technology and reason; witchcraft accusations; LGBT issues; sex and relationships for African atheists; and feminism. Roslyn has subsequently spoken publicly on the history and customs of her country, and used her own experience to encourage others to nurture a humanist, human rights culture of activism.
In 2016, as a member of Young Humanists International (and later to become a Board member within Humanists International), she demonstrated her penchant for tireless work when she spoke up for women’s rights in Ghana, confronting these issues:
• female genital mutilation;
• public ‘initiation’ or announcement of a pubescent girl as available for marriage;
• exploitation, arrests and stigma related to prostitution;
• health issues (including maternal mortality rates, STD rates usually caused by their male partner, breast cancer and cervical cancer – this last of which accounted for 35% of all female cancer in Ghana);
• religious rites relating to marriage (including child-marriages, polygamy, forced conversion, and the dowry ‘purchase’ of a woman as property, diminishing her individual human rights);
• accusations of witchcraft;
• sexual harassment and rape;
• domestic violence;
• and the unavailability of menstrual pads for schoolgirls.
Despite these ongoing human rights abuses, Roslyn writes optimistically for women in her country given the gradual evolution of human rights away from these traditional problems: “Ghana has come a long way in the last 3 decades in terms of equality and there are many more opportunities for women of today.” Her work has been a factor in leading such changes.
Humanists International reports of Roslyn: “As President of [the] Humanist Association of Ghana she helped to build the young group to become the umbrella organization for non-religious groups in Ghana and the biggest allies to the LGBTI+ community and feminist movement in Ghana.” Nigerian activist Leo Igwe stated in 2017: “A few years ago, such a humanist group sounded like a pipe dream but today it is a reality. I thank Roslyn Mould and her team for diligently delivering on this key humanist promise.”
In 2019, she was appointed the Coordinator of the West African Humanist Network, stating: “We all need to work together to achieve positive and progressive change in Africa.” That same year, she opposed the visit to Ghana of a US-based anti-LGBT hate group, publicly stating:
“Homophobia was foreign to Africans until colonization and here we are again with history repeating itself. As a Humanist, I condemn the actions of these groups in their promotion of hate, inequality, undermining of women’s rights to reproductive health, and their imposition of their religious ideas of ‘family’ on us. This reeks of imperialism and a total disregard of human rights.”
She also attended an international protest against a virulent 2021 Ghanaian anti-LGBTI bill, stating: “Ghana is a peaceful society, but this bill will make people turn against each other.” She later stated: “The current Anti-LGBTI bill before the Ghanaian Parliament dubbed ‘Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021’ is a hate bill under the guise of Freedom of Religion and Belief… The Bill will set Ghana back… and puts every Ghanaian at risk. We call on the International Community to help us to kill this Bill (#KilltheBill).”
Such homophobic hatred in Ghana resembles that from Uganda and Kenya and other African nations, fuelled by religious conservatism and political scapegoating. Roslyn’s work for activism, advocacy and human rights is needed more than ever. In her 2016 interview, she notes that she spent earlier years advocating for the rights of animals and the plight of near-extinct species, the rights of girls, and within awareness campaigns such as HIV/AIDS and Breast Cancer. Now, she sees her current activism as being vital: “I believe that becoming atheist made me more aware of my passions and my part to play in advocacy and the promotion of human rights based on the realisation that there is no one and no god to help us other than ourselves as people.”
In what is seen as a male-dominated culture (atheist activism), Roslyn Mould is a role model at the forefront for change and equal rights for all. Her life and her work are a living intersectional testament to his year’s theme for International Women’s Day:
“Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.”
©2023 Geoff Allshorn