The formidable Queen Mothers of Ghana: 10,000 amazing women who are taking back their power and driving change

by Veronique Mistiaen, journalist
Friday, 18 December 2015 10:24 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Before, women were not included in any decisions, now they are listened to”

In Ghana, some 10,000 Queen Mothers are taking back their ancestral power - bringing social and economic changes to women and children across the country and the continent. It is a remarkable, but surprisingly little known institution.

Each town and village in the country has a 'royal family’ descending from the first family who settled there. Selected from these families, Queen Mothers are the custodians of the cultural traditions and are mostly responsible for looking after women and children in their communities.  “We are called Queen Mothers because as Queens we are partners to the chiefs and as Mothers, we are looking after the whole community,” one of them explains.

In the south of Ghana, as well as in other African countries, this tradition has existed for centuries, along with chieftaincy, the pre-colonial institution of governance. Queen Mothers were respected and powerful. Colonialists, however, by-passed women leaders, negotiating only with chiefs, so their influence dwindled. After independence in 1957, the new government didn’t include Queen Mothers in the institutions representing the regions, and their role became mostly ceremonial. Chiefs, on the other hand, retained tremendous social, political and economic clout.

Recently, as they are becoming better educated and connected, Queen Mothers have started to reclaim their traditional role – and modernise it. They are learning new skills and networking with their counterparts in other African countries. Together, they are playing an increasingly important role in the continent’s battle for girls’ education and against female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage, poverty and other issues.

We decided to go to Lawra Traditional Area in the upper western corner of Ghana to see how Queen Mothers (or Pognamine as they are called there) work at grassroots level.  It is a vast, poor, rural region with little infrastructure, where men own the land and take all the decisions.

“Our main challenge is poverty, especially among women,” says Dogkudome Tegzuylle I, a midwife in Lawra town and the Pognaa (Queen Mother) of Lyssah – a village of thatched mud huts and simple concrete houses, home to some 1,200 people.  “Our men are difficult. They don’t support their women.” It is the same state of affairs in other communities.  “Look around you, women are the vast majority in our villages,” says Maabuora Sanduo I, the Pognaa of Nanyaare, a nearby community. “Many of our men die young because they drink and don’t look after themselves, leaving widows; others leave the women and children to fend for themselves.”

To help their women support themselves, Queen Mothers have created small income-generating projects based on their community’s natural resources, such as shea butter. They have initiated soap making, beekeeping and hairdressing groups, as well as informal savings and loan clubs called susus. “Pognaa initiated the susu because we cannot wait for donors or government’s help. She paid for me to go to Canada to learn leadership, communication and health impact assessment. In turn, I now train other women,” says Anita Sutha, a junior high school teacher.

“Before, women depended on their husbands for everything. Now, women can earn a living and some money for their children. They gain self-confidence and respect from their husbands. Before, women were not included in any decisions, now they are listened to.”

Tegzuylle I is determined to engage men in community affairs. “I say that everyone has to come to the meetings and get involved – women, men children - and they start to come. Gradually, we are seeing a change: an understanding that men and women can interact and exchange ideas. Things are slowly improving.”

Each Queen Mother has her own vision and priorities for her community.  In the villages we have visited, we have seen programmes on everything from climate change, girls’ education and teenage pregnancy to sanitation, HIV, income generation and more.

“I grew up here,” says Tegzuylle I with a sweeping gesture embracing her village and the tidy fields surrounding it.  “I know most of the women and I know their problems. I want to make a difference. I want to be a real leader.”   

To find out more about the formidable Queen Mother of Ghana, you can watch our multimedia here:

Reporting for this article was funded by a European Journalism Centre (ECJ)’s Innovation in Development Reporting Grant (IDR)

Veronique Mistiaen is a journalist writing about international development, social affairs, human rights and the environment.