As the elections took center stage in Ghana over the last several months, Amujae Leader Yawa Hansen-Quao has been working behind the scenes on two critical issues essential to a well-functioning democracy: strengthening the civil service and educating voters so they can hold government to account.
In her work as Executive Director of Emerging Public Leaders (EPL), Yawa works to strengthen EPL’s organizational development and expand its network of country-led programs. Through its Public Service Fellowship, EPL aims to build a stronger civil service from the bottom up, by recruiting promising young leaders to the civil service so that they can improve systems from within.
While many have been focused on the recent presidential election, Yawa noted that it is the civil service that carries much of the load to keep governments moving. By creating a merit-based pathway for talented future leaders to work in government, EPL is helping to strengthen the civil service and bolster development and economic growth.
Through her work, Yawa has also gained a strong understanding of the many layers of government in Ghana. As with many political systems, the relationships between different levels and branches of government in the country are complex. The result for many voters is confusion about how to hold representatives accountable for the issues that matter to them. In an election year—made more complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic—that’s a problem that is crucial to overcome in order to ensure that the electoral process is inclusive.
“Until recently, even I hadn’t fully understood the relationship between the local, district, and national assembly, and how it connects to the parliamentary system,” says Yawa, “so I knew there was an opportunity to make a difference when we were looking for ideas to sensitize women voters and help them to make their voices heard.”
At the inaugural Amujae Leadership Forum, Yawa was challenged by former Malawian President and Amujae Coach, Joyce Banda, to think about new ways to reconnect with and serve her community.
In the lead up to the elections that took place in Ghana in December, Yawa saw an opportunity to help first-time voters in her community, and young women voters in particular, understand the electoral process and make decisions based on policies and actions, rather than simply on which politician had visited their town or village most recently. In her spare time, she fulfils a duty and calling to help amplify women’s voices, and pay forward the sisterhood she has found through the Amujae Initiative:
“We wanted to demystify and simplify the process, and also combat what I think is a really deep apathy among young people—there is a sense of demoralization about government, and whether it even matters at all. However, there is also a generation of women who are discerning, and want to understand who to hold accountable without being told who to vote for.”
To enable this education process, Yawa and her team of fellow volunteers have delivered three information sessions to date—two virtual sessions and one in-person meeting—giving young women the chance to learn more about the electoral systems in Ghana. Feedback from participants so far has been overwhelmingly positive as they begin to understand how they as the electorate have power over the people they vote for.
“We want to teach them how to hold people accountable and channel their grievances. With issues of violence against women and sexual assaults in schools high on their agendas, as well as concerns about healthcare and infrastructure, it’s important that voters know what the obligations of their representatives are to help them. Otherwise when issues go unresolved, they can crush a person’s soul.”
Ahead of the recent general elections in Ghana and senatorial elections in Liberia, EPL also hosted a webinar, “What’s at Stake?: A Virtual Conversation on Upcoming Ghana & Liberia Elections.” During the event, panellists discussed the importance of engaging young people in politics and the role civil servants play in protecting the electoral process and delivering government services. The discussion was moderated by Yawa, and the panel included Assistant Budget Analyst at the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Ghana and EPL Fellow, Esther Spio, Hh K. Zaizay, Executive Director of the President’s Young Professionals Program (PYPP), and Elizabeth Horace Kwemi, Technical Assistant to the Deputy Minister for Health Services at the Ministry of Health in Liberia and PYPP Alumnus.
The voter-education program has been delivered against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic—when the need to hold leaders accountable has become even more important as people face concerns about their livelihoods and health. While speaking to people and distributing face masks in her community, Yawa has been able to understand their concerns and the roots of their apathy:
“There is a sense that, come January when the elections are over, things will go back to the way they were before: business as usual.”
Yawa has also been using a book she wrote several years ago to help women understand the power that they can hold when they make their voices heard. It is a retelling of a bible story in which five sisters appeal to Moses for their right to their father’s inheritance after he passes away:
“Among too many people there is a sense that you need to let things go and you shouldn’t fight the power. But this story is a powerful reference point that there is nothing ungodly about holding a leader to account.”
Yawa recognizes that now is an important moment for Ghanaians. “By using my own voice in an influential way, I am able to help other women understand how they can use theirs.”