In recent times, there’s been the call for Africans in the Diaspora to contribute toward the development of the continent and not leave it solely at the doorstep of the Western world and its development partners.
Elizabeth Akua-Nyarko Patterson, the founder and executive director of Girls Education Initiative of Ghana (GEIG), agrees with this call to action, saying, “I fully support Ghanaians/Africans living outside helping to develop our countries and continent.
“We all leave our countries for various reasons, but I believe it is important for us to have tangible connections to ensure our participation in our countries’ development even while we are away.”
Girls Education of Ghana is a nongovernmental organization whose mission is to provide academic and financial support for girls, including applicants with special needs, so they can access higher education and professional opportunities.
In a bid to aid in Ghana’s development, Patterson started GEIG, telling Face2Face Africa, “In 2006, after returning to Ghana since my family leaving in 1995, I spent about 10 months volunteering at the World Link Academy, a private school in the Ashanti Region.
“During this time, I had students with varying academic competencies and socio-economic backgrounds. One student in particular struggled compared to my other students. Her family wasn’t wealthy compared to my other students from more affluent backgrounds and with parents who had more access.
“She told me that because of her struggles in school, her parents had begun taking her to church and requesting the pastor “pray [against] the devil” that was causing her learning difficulties. Ghanaians, like many other Africans, have a tendency to resort to religion when faced with difficulty.
“In this girl’s situation, it would have been beneficial for her family to seek [a] medical [approach] for her learning differences. I began providing one-on-one tutoring for her during breaks and after school and she slowly improved. That was the beginning of GEIG.”
But it was Patterson’s trip to South Africa, where she would really find the information she needed to make GEIG come to life. During her time there, she would be able to learn about the plight of disabled students in education.
“I was further motivated to found GEIG after studying abroad in South Africa. In 2013, I researched access to education for disabled/differently abled students,” says Patterson. “In this research, I learned that education was inaccessible to disabled/differently abled students in South Africa.
“These students are often not thought as equal achievers in school because of their physical, intellectual, and/or cognitive differences. Disabled/differently abled students are seen as not capable of attaining higher education and professional excellence because of their limitations out of the [more than] 20 individuals interviewed for my research — only one disabled/differently abled person had been reported as holding a government appointment.”
Patterson particularly empathizes with many of the students she has come in contact with due to her own personal challenges, “GEIG stems from my personal story also. As a woman born with able bodied and with full cognitive abilities, I could relate to the aforementioned Ghanaian student and from the ‘special’ students in my South Africa research in 2013, [because] I was in a car accident that left me hemiplegic and affected [my] cognitive and learning abilities.
[Therefore,] I empathize with both. Following the research, I have found similarities in my findings in South Africa and Ghana. Students with more access tend to do better in school. Additionally, disabled/differently abled students have the ability to thrive in school and society given the appropriate accommodations.”
From Patterson’s experience, when a child needing assistance is a girl child, the challenges increase. “Almost serendipitously since arriving in Ghana to work for GEIG, I‘ve met and spoke to at least three families with girl children who have disabilities/different abilities. The families are often hesitant to appear in public with the children or even speak about their conditions. These meetings affirm the narrative that a girl born in a developing country is a second-class citizen and girl with disability/different ability is invisible or not regarded.”
However, Patterson’s organization seeks to be a solution to the challenges girls with disabilities face. “GEIG seeks to be the institution that will encourage young girls and girls with ‘special needs’ that they have a place in education and society as a whole.”
”We all know the narrative that girls/women are underrepresented in developing societies while some may argue the story is changing and it is true in some realms girls/women achieve more than boys/men, unequal access to education especially at the secondary and higher education level still persists in traditionally patriarchal countries like Ghana and those of many African countries.”
Data from Education Management Information System (EMIS) of the Ghana Ministry of Education report on Basic Statistics and Planning Parameters for the Basic Education in Ghana published in May 2013 jibes with Patterson’s observations of unequal access to education between girls and boys.
“The net admission of rate of all students in primary schools has decreased by 9.6 percent from 2012 to 2013. At the primary level, the percentage of girls enrolled marginally increased from 48.68 percentage to 49.83 percent. However at the junior high school level, the ratio of boys to girls decreased compared to boys enrollment of girls in Junior High School Schools (JHS) decreased by 1.2% from 20122- 2013.
“Completion rates for JHS suffered a significant decrease in 2009/2010 after having reached a peak of 75 in 2008/09. The completion rate is far short of the target acquired to achieve Universal Basic Education by 2015, and Ghana does not appear likely to reach this target based on historical trends in JHS and current completion rates for Primary, which will feed into JHS.
“Worth noting is the date from underserved communities. In underserved districts, the completion rate is 13 percentage points lower at 57.0. This suggests that the gap in access between the deprived and non-deprived districts increases over the course of JHS.
“The above data shows that Ghana’s educational system is suffering overall. However many times over, parents in rural communities have a tendency to advance their male children educationally, which invariably leads to professional access for them. Specific to our population of girls with learning differences, the perception around disabilities/different abilities in Ghana are so dire that I on behalf of GEIG hope to challenge and change people’s views and build strong support for our students and others within our partner schools and communities.”
GEIG was founded in 2006 and officially registered as an NGO in January 2014. It currently provides academic support, leadership, development/mentorship, and public service for a total of 13 girls: seven from the Ashanti and six from the Greater Accra regions. The organization also supports its students by buying their textbooks and other school supplies for the school term.
But with every establishment, there are challenges, and GEIG is no different: it lacks the human capacity to support its work and funding, so a large portion of its funding comes from the Patterson’s personal savings as well as from a network of supporters based in the United States. Still, the bureaucracy in the system has made it difficult to finalize the registration process, which would allow for soliciting local funding.
Despite the challenges, Patterson is determined to ensure that the vision of GEIG is met. Additional staff have been hired to work on programs in regions that aren’t accessible to the founder because the organization’s headquarters and office is in Kumasi.
The organization has also begun discussions with universities and institutions of higher learning to build volunteer/internship programs to support GEIG’s programs and administrative needs.
A partnership with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, KNUST Patriots student group is already in place. It has also leveraged the Ahaspora database, which is a database of Ghanaians/African returnees to Ghana to seek volunteers for the organization.
As for what lays ahead, Patterson is hopeful that will be a prime avenue for ensuring that girls grow up into tomorrow’s leaders.
”GEIG will enable generations of girls and women to be educated, become successful professionals, and serve as active members of civil society.
“Our vision is that the girls and women can support the country in poverty alleviation and overall development.”
Prior to her work with GEIG, she served as the director of communications and marketing for the Council of Young African Leaders (CYAL) and communications and marketing associate at Junior Achievement of New York.
Patterson is a Ghanaian-American who holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science and Business Management and a Master’s in Public Administration from NYU Wagner School of Public Service, where she specialized in nonprofit management.