Last September a striking story stole the headlines of newspapers and media outlets all across Ghana. Samia Nkrumah, the daughter of the nation's founding father, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, became the first female chairperson of a political party in the country's history as an independent state.
The event was lauded as a giant leap forward in women's political participation within Ghana and was rich in symbolism: the daughter of the fallen visionary who delivered independence to the small West African nation and made it a known entity to the rest of the world had become the first female chairperson of the political party her father founded.
The Convention People's Party (CPP) was politically powerful before President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup in 1966. But in 2011 the CPP casts a thin shadow of its former glory - it holds only one seat in parliament and its relevance derives from its role in the independence movement and establishing the first republic.
Samia's victory was a significant achievement, but it does not reflect a broader shift in the attitudes towards women in politics, within the citizenry and major political parties, but rather underscored a deeper problem within Ghana's political culture. Contrary to the celebratory newspaper headlines, the event demonstrated that the political sphere continues to be the dominion of men.
In Ghanaian politics women are perceived as trespassers, decoration, or as supporters of the actions of men who sit higher up in the political establishment (often brought out to win votes for them during campaigning.) Rather than showing us how far women had come, Samia's victory illustrated the extent to which Ghanaian women are lagging behind their counterparts in South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda, nations that have implemented affirmative action policies to increase women's participation in parliament.
Samia's position has also been undermined by a deep split within the party caused by suspicions that she is preparing to run as the presidential candidate in 2016 (chairpersons usually do not run as presidential candidates).
CPP stalwart and 2008 presidential candidate Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom quit the CPP because the party was not going to put forth a presidential candidate for 2012, and would instead focus on increasing its numbers in parliament. Nduom has announced he is forming his own political party, leaving the CPP fractured and Samia's leadership and power within the party tenuous.
Samia's predicament, coupled with the low numbers of women in Ghana's parliament and cabinet, demonstrate the broader challenges women face in the political arena in Ghana and West Africa as a whole. The thrashing former first lady Nana Agyemang Konadu Rawling's received during the ruling National Democratic Congress party's primaries last year illustrated that Ghana is a long way off electing a female president, let alone considering a female presidential candidate.
Women to sit at the sidelines in 2012
Recently Ghana has been stamped and approved as an exemplary model of democracy in the west African region by many analysts whose reference points are post-conflict countries recovering from decades of civil war and authoritarian or repressive governments.
Ghana's democracy is far from perfect, but it has shown the rest of the world that West African nations are capable of democratic governance and more sophisticated forms of political organization.
However, Ghana's political system and culture has failed to develop when it comes to the inclusion of women. Currently a mere eight percent of parliamentarians are women, which translates into 19 out of 230 parliamentarians and four out of 19 cabinet ministers.
With the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) to conduct its primaries for its safe seats shortly and the opposition National Patriotic Party (NPP) only increasing its female candidates marginally up to 24, women's rights groups say they expect little to change in this year's elections. Some even argue that we could see fewer women elected than in previous years.
Why West Africa is lagging behind
One could easily assume that women are fast gaining in the political sphere in Ghana and West Africa.
A number of women hold some of the most prominent leadership positions in the region and on the continent. Liberia is home to two female Nobel Peace Prize winners and Africa's first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is entering her second term.
The former managing director of the World Bank Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala currently holds one of the most powerful political positions in Nigeria, that of the Minister of Finance, and Fatou Bensouda, of Gambia is now the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
There is no doubt these women are powerful and remarkably accomplished, however, the political power they hold within their nations and international bodies does not represent the situation for women in parliaments and local assemblies within West Africa at large.
No West African nations have passed affirmative action policies and, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, West African nations rank among the lowest when it comes to women's representation.
Some women in Ghana do hold prominent official positions. Justice Georgina Wood was appointed as the Chief Justice by the Kufour administration in 2007, Lauretta Vivian Lamptey was sworn in as the new Commissioner for the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) last July, and four women hold ministerial positions in a cabinet made up of 19 (one of them being the Minister for Women and Children).
But these positions are appointments and do not reflect the wider faith of the demos in women's leadership. The reality is that most Ghanaians do not see women as worthy and capable leaders.
West Africa still steeped in traditional gender roles
Many women's rights activists and women's wing representatives in the major parties say that tradition continues to be a major obstacle for women in the political sphere.
Afua Ansre the Coordinator of the United Nations Women in Ghana said that part of the reason why West Africa has not advanced in women's representation and participation in formal politics is because the traditional gender roles remain deeply entrenched.
"West Africa is not doing well at all in comparison with other parts of Africa," said Ansre, referring to Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, nations where women's political representation was significantly higher. "Traditionally women are decision makers in homes and they don't come out to talk in public. Culturally women are homemakers and the community is for males."
In traditional Ghanaian culture, Queen mothers wield a significant amount of power within the community, but often are subordinate to chiefs and traditional male leaders.
But most African and Sub-Saharan African nations are still very traditional and gender roles are deeply entrenched, yet women's political participation is higher, largely due to the use of affirmative action policies and strategies to cultivate women politicians and help them get elected.
The need for affirmative action
Women's rights groups and leaders of women's wings in both major political parties argue that an affirmative action policy is the only way forward if women are to have a real influence in the political sphere.
Rwanda's Affirmative Action Policy demands 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women and saw 56 percent of seats won by women in the 2008 elections, making Rwanda the nation with the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world. This success has inspired women's rights campaigners in Ghana.
The Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs has been conducting public consultations across the country in recent months and is looking at developing Ghana's own affirmative action policy to ensure that more women have a greater chance of being elected in 2016.
Affirmative action is controversial in most parts of the world because it challenges the notion of a merit-based system. Within the framework of representative democracy it is seen to pose limits and restrictions on the ability of the demos to elect their own leaders.
But in a game where women are not given support within their own parties, nor offered sufficient financing and the means to campaign and make themselves visible, they are losers before the match starts.
When the playing field is tilted in favour of a dominant group, namely men, measures need to be taken until the field levels and both parties can compete on equal footing.
In a culture where many people still cannot understand why female leaders might be desirable or necessary, or even imagine them in leadership roles, society and the government must be compelled through law to make this a reality.
The notion of representative democracy is underpinned by an idea that politicians represent our needs desires and aspirations.
With women, or any group absent from the picture, the democracy becomes hollow and simply a reflection of the will of the dominant group.