Interview with Akosua Darkwah

Akosua Darkwah is the Director of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA) at the University of Ghana at Legon. CEGENSA is working with FUNDAR in Mexico, researching Domestic Violence (DV). Both countries passed DV laws in 2007 but the laws and implementation have differed. In the ELLA programme, the two research centres are looking at how DV survivors experience the services and support that they receive, with aview to learning lessons from each other. Akosua was recently interviewed by PAC’s Andrea Baertl on how she sees the ELLA programme.

Andrea: What do you think of the objective of the ELLA programme – that countries learn from the development experiences of countries in another continent?

Akosua: I think that one of the best things about the ELLA Project is the idea that it offers African countries that are mostly English, French or Portuguese speaking, an opportunity to learn from a largely Spanish speaking continent.

Andrea: And what is it that you hope to have the opportunity to learn about?

Akosua: Well, the countries have different histories obviously, but in each of the continents the specific problems that we are encountering are being addressed in different ways. So this allows us to look at the ways in which Latin America resolves issues that may be similar in the African context, and we can figure out whether the options that they provide are better options to those we have thought about.

Andrea: Is knowledge context specific? What role does context play in your research?

Akosua: Knowledge is definitely context specific. Your colonial history, your contact with different migrant groups, the number of different ethnic groups in a country, issues around language and religion and so on – these definitely shape the extent to which certain things can or cannot be done in different contexts. So you can’t ignore context. Having said that, there are some things that are universal. In all continents we have families. We have families that are surviving and thriving, and families that are not. And in each continent there’s an understanding of a thriving family or a non thriving family. And so, how do you ensure a thriving family? That’s something that we can look to other continents for ideas about and recognize that some things that the other countries have to offer might not work because the context is different but other things might translate quite successfully.

Andrea: And, is there a way to bridge the specificity of contexts?

Akosua: I think that the importance of regional context specificity varies for different issues. For some issues it’s fairly simple. If you want to develop legislation, the kinds of government systems that you have in place determine how much room you have and the process by which you develop the law. So you just can’t pick up one process and dump it in another country. The context is different. It doesn’t work. But if you are doing an educational program – where some systems have a 13-year program, and others a 12-year program – you can implement lessons by figuring out how to fit the education into a 12-year process.

Andrea: What lessons do you think Latin America may have to share with African countries on domestic violence, and vice versa?

Akosua: There are lots of lessons but, because I am specifically working with Mexico, I will speak to that,  and the lessons I am taking away is that they have got a more human-rights approach; we have got a more ecological approach (legal, medical, psychological) . This offers us an opportunity to investigate the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches.

Andrea: So how does research fit into this lesson learning between continents? What does research need to look out for?

Akosua: The research has to be rigorous in both continents, for example on issues of language. We speak English and local languages, they speak Spanish. We have to make sure for example that we are translating meaning, and not just words. And ensure that the research we are doing is rigorous and answers the same questions in both parts of the world. With rigorous research we can make claims based on the findings that we’ve got from the research. Good research is crucial.

Andrea: You mention the importance of rigorous research. Why is rigorous research so important in this context?

Akosua: If we don’t have rigorous research then people are going to say this is just a personal perspective on issues, right? Just because I like Mexico doesn’t mean that what Mexico has to offer to us Ghanaians is good. I have to be able to show why I’m saying it is good based on evidence, on the ground.

Andrea: What do you think are or will be the main challenges in comparative research? And how do you intend to address these challenges?

Akosua: Most of the challenges have revolved around communication. We are in different parts of the world with different time zones, internet access can be a challenge sometimes. So we have to be flexible. Sometimes, we have meetings when it’s 9 pm in Ghana because that’s when it’s 4 or 3 pm in Mexico. But so far, that’s, I think, the biggest challenge, trying to make sure that we overcome the constraints of time and space.

Andrea: What about the research by itself – the comparative aspects of the research? What will be the challenges of that?

Akosua: When doing comparative research, you have to make sure you are on the same page. We need to understand each other’s contexts. Not just in terms of our own countries but also the wider region. That requires a lot of asking of questions. Questions that might seem in some ways silly because you take things for granted. When somebody uses an acronym, they assume that the other person knows what it means. But if I don’t know, I should get over my embarrassment and say “Hang on, what does that mean? And what does it offer.” So that you are sure you are exactly on the same page with each other when you’re communicating.

Andrea: So how has it been to partner a research organization which is so far away? You mentioned that you’ve learned to be flexible. Is there anything else that was key in becoming good partners?

Akosua: Another key to becoming good partners is constant communication. If you are writing up the report and there’s a sentence in there that doesn’t quite make sense to you and yet you are thousands of miles away, and on different time zones, but you have email anyway and when the person gets the email, the person needs to respond quickly. So it does require a bit of work.

Andrea: How was the Design and Methods workshop and the current Regional Evidence workshop? I imagine it was helpful to meet Fundar face to face?

Akosua: Ideally face to face meetings are what you want. Because then all the communication problems are resolved. So, in the meetings both in Brighton and the meetings we had in Mexico City, one of the best things about it was the sheer fact that we were together. Over breakfast this morning, we discussed project issues. There’s nothing that can replace face to face conversations. The workshops have been extremely useful in ensuring that we are on the same page.

At this workshop in Brighton, we’ve discussed theoretical perspectives. Some of it you already know, other aspects not. And we don’t know the full extent of the literature out there, so having a thematic expert [supported by the ELLA programme] who provides that assistance is incredible. We are also dealing with methodological issues. We all have degrees, so we know a lot of methodologies but there’s nothing like a refresher course. Or sometimes it’s a new approach that you don’t quite know. So in these workshops you are learning as you go and as an academic, if you learn something new that’s always a good thing.

Andrea: Can you tell us more about the topic and the question you are researching with Fundar and why it is important.

Akosua: Ok, so Fundar and CEGENSA are looking at domestic violence laws. In both countries, we have legislation against violence. In the Mexican case, there is specific reference to women. In Ghana it’s a broader law so it applies to both men and women. In both countries the law was implemented in 2007. We are interested in understanding what the laws and their implementation mean for women who have survived domestic violence. We are specifically interested in the experiences of survivors of domestic violence who have been through the systems of service provision that each country provides – what they think about the system and their experience. So we can see to what extent the laws are doing the job for which they were created.

Andrea: Do you have an idea of the lessons that might come out of this?

Akosua: We are expecting to see that the Mexican program offers a broader set of services and is more coordinated – a more one stop  approach. Ghana has a more limited implementation of the one stop approach. So we are very keen on understanding whether a broader approach delivers more than a focused approach. We assume it will, but we are open to discovering whether that is true or not. On the other hand, one thing that the Ghanaians have which the Mexicans don’t, is the focus on mediation. We want to investigate whether or not women prefer less or more mediation, and other issues.

Andrea: Finally can I ask how have you have involved policy makers in the research topic? How have you ensured that you chose a topic that is policy relevant?

Akosua: In Ghana the law was passed in 2007, but the legislative instruments to ensure that the full modalities of the law are implemented, are still being finalised. So domestic violence is a key policy issue for the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection Affairs and we knew that this was something that the Ministry would be interested in. Other key stakeholders, mainly the implementers, but also those drafting the various legislative instruments and those who worked to get the law passed,  are also very keen to understand whether all of the efforts are worth it. So our stakeholders are very interested in how this project turns out. They’ve been very cooperative in attending meetings and if somebody shows up late because of another meeting, they’ll give comments after the meeting. They’ve definitely been very cooperative and shown a keen interest in both the process and the outcomes and findings.

Andrea: Many thanks, Akosua, and good luck with the research.

 Photo by Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam. Title: From shadow into light: in the streets of Bamako (Mali)
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