Holding Space for Consent Among the Youth in Ghana: A Drama Queens Story

A yellow stranger creeps through the bars of my window
Reaching corners yet unknown to this poet
The refrigerator hums a dirge somewhere
But this one’s back is to me, and I am reminded
Of the weight of old souls in old skins or his breath
on a stretched skin like mine

The global discourse on consent continues to deepen the understandings of other violations of personal space and forms of sexual violence previously ignored by legal statutes and sociocultural constructs that underpin rape and domestic violence.

Beyond its importance as a key conceptual learning tool for teaching sexual reproductive rights, consent affirms the dignity of all human beings especially to young people who continue to be affected by the lack of safe spaces to ask key life questions about their bodies and to learn ways of enhancing the quality of their “current and future” sex lives.

In Ghana, the discourse on comprehensive sexual (or sexuality) education has been met with overt reproach reverberated throughout the media from political and religious groups that moralise the initiative as ‘unsafe’ for adolescents and youth. They have claimed that such an education in self-awareness of their reproductive rights will gravely corrupt. However, this claim is disproved as Ms Hilda Mensah, a child protection specialist, shares in a 2021 interview that from the beginning of the year, one in five girls between 15 and 19 had reported experiencing at least one act of sexual violence in Ghana.

It is in this same thought tradition that teenage mothers are often blamed for their predicament for being “too fast”, more often than not ignoring the adult male perpetrator whose abuse of power in family or other relations with the victim has directly caused said predicament. The world reality of the youth is that issues about consent, bodily autonomy and sex are discussed by young people aged 13 – 18 both locally and globally through social media. Beyond such paternalistic assumptions by some adults, young people have some things to say about this and if their voices are centred in more policy approaches on sexual reproductive rights provisioning, some more effective training and learning can be achieved for transformational generational change.

Let’s Talk Consent is the brainchild of Drama Queens Ghana and was the main focal point for the trained volunteers and staff of the collective in 2017. Upon the request of various universities and high schools, the Let’s Talk Consent team offered a structured program on consent tailored to various groups of young people to hold space to discuss their concerns with some openness. What has been most enriching for our team, is learning what the general discourse is among some young people. Understanding the narratives that already persist among them, not only gave us a glimpse into the need for such conversation spaces to be held but also allowed us to tailor the workshops more specifically to address these areas.

For the young people who normally attended our sessions, we often got feedback about how they appreciated the space to talk freely and debunk the various myths they grew up hearing from their peers and society.

One noteworthy example, is a word exercise facilitated by our team that attempts to get young people to share some of the vocabulary with which they discuss sex and consent. Among some classes of teenage boys this referent language tended to be either blatantly violent or implied that one party was lessened by the experience and that was usually the girls involved. A male student once said “women who expose their body call for sexual attention” during the session in a bid to try and wrap his mind around what we were teaching and what he had learned from society.

The very aesthetes of consent when understood only through the lens of cis-hetero-patriarchal rape culture by young people especially those in high school, directly produces other instances of abuse and sexual violence. The normalised use of violent references for sex among young boys defies consent in circumstances especially where some activities are consented to and others are not, as we try to teach is the right of each party involved. By inviting young people to consider these are axioms, we attempt to demonstrate with the pyramid of sexual violence how micro-aggressions as subtle as benevolent sexism and harassment to overt actions such as obscene locker room talk, gradually builds a culture of acceptance and social approval which exposes mostly young girls and women to increased risk of violence and harm. Young people are constantly transforming into their fullest potential as adults, while being defined by and belonging to various communities with shared identities through whom they self-identify. These aspects of being, becoming and belonging are part of a childish-approach to children and youth policy studies. This considers the connections between key learnings in youth that affect later behaviour focusing on the perspectives of young people in discourse on their representations in policy frameworks.

Drama Queens’ work, at the very heart of it, attempts to address and combat societal ills; in this case, sexual violence, through varying approaches. These approaches can be through preventative activism, unlearning forums, or healing spaces. The Let’s Talk Consent branch of our work seeks to focus on preventative activism by encouraging people, most often the youth, to properly process human dignity, space and rights. In our sessions, we invite the participants to consider all the applications of consent in day-to-day life. The long-term goal, besides drastically reducing and possibly ending instances of sexual violence, is to make consent and its acknowledgement and acceptance, a default state of being for everybody.

One frequent comment we get during sessions is “But most girls (or people) mean yes when they say no to some advances?” (It is important to note that this question refers to instances where young girls and women, even though genuinely interested, are encouraged to appear coy and demure in a bid to not seem too eager by society). When this question is posed, we usually get a resounding affirmative feedback from the audience. This shows us that the issue of consent, just like almost all other societal structures, is very tightly-wound around sexism. Our response to this query is a firm, “Take a yes as a yes. And a no as a no.” We go on to explain that through no fault of their own, women (and “Assigned Female At Birth” AFAB folk) are taught to mirror a certain image in order to appeal to the male gaze. These instructions were received in various aspects of women’s lives; from their homes, religious involvement, romantic and platonic partnerships, to academic participation and self-image. In our work, we have come to realise that this may account for instances where women try to cover their interest with disinterest. All to project a sense of rareness and self-value. The very idea that women are made to tie their self-worth to such responses and behaviours is the very bedrock of objectification and we at Drama Queens are determined to let women (and AFAB) people know that they are worthy, they have the right to be their authentic selves and they are highly valued. By setting and creating a firm “yes is yes and no is no” culture, people, especially young people will take the first steps in thoroughly instilling a sense of candidness to self that helps to shed the toxic institutions women (and AFAB people) are brought up with.

Creating a safe space is at times underestimated, even by institutions who seek to have “modes of redress” integrated into their current systems and ways of operating. Unclear paths to proper justice for victims and “strict and unyielding” persons in redress systems, create an innate distrust for the systems” ability to properly address instances of abuse. In high schools for instance, in a bid to cut costs, institutions such as schools, place disciplinary-centred and hyper-critical teachers and staff in positions to hear student complaints and to act as guidance counsellors. The reasoning for this, aside from the aforementioned, could be that they trust such individuals to maintain the schools’ interest while basing their ability to adequately perform the tasks on their high “disciplinary rate” often obtained through harsh and insensitive means. This leads to students feeling distrustful and unsure of their institutions’ redress systems in the face of sexual assault / harassment. At Drama Queens, we understand the need for creating a safe space and we show this by asking our participants to put down rules that they would like implemented in their session to facilitate a safe space for them. In a safe space, participants may feel more inclined to share and have less fear of judgment for their thoughts, opinions and unlearning journeys (if they have their opinions on a certain topic, change during the session). This leads to altogether more productive sessions where participants feel more inclined to share and learn. Some of the rules participants come up with may include;

  • No talking over others
  • Do not make fun of peoples’ opinions
  • No authority figures in the room
  • Constructive criticism only

The vocalisation of these rules helps to shift uneasy dynamics in a session and could lead to students feeling safe with sharing their opinions and experiences, as well as being more conducive to take feedback and relearn ideas and concepts.

Our work spans various formats and we are dedicated to facilitating our activism through the various avenues we are granted. For the purpose of reaching larger audiences of different age groups and demographics in Ghana on the issue of sexual consent and everyday manifestations of patriarchal gendered norms, the stage play adaptations “For Coloured Girls: Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” and “Until Someone Wakes Up”, both attempt to stimulate thinking around these still taboo topics. In the former, funded by the African Women’s Development Fund and staged in the AWDF Sauti Centre, a select audience were thrilled to view a riveting show by our performers through monologues and live music on healing from the trauma of sexual violence. In the latter, staged on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2019 at the request of the Alliance Française and French Embassy as part of their fleet of activities for that period, our performers once again used thrilling scenes and dialogues to illustrate our stance on consent and sexual assault.

In breathing, existing, learning, being, people have been taught from very formative points in time to suit the norm. Our culture, as it stands now, is rife with rape culture. Existing within this current norm means to be complicit. Existing within this current norm is to choose easy. Doing the work to unlearn is hard. Unlearning and helping others to unlearn is also hard. However, what is activism if not passion in the face of difficulty? Drama Queens is committed to ensuring that we change the narrative. We are dedicated to the goal of progress, joy and mutual respect. Consent colours aspects of our existence beyond the sexual element and to understand consent is to understand respect. With constant thought analyses and constant unlearning, we can collectively ensure a better world that works for people especially for the most marginalised folks who have for so long been the victims of its continued existence.

We have unwound our wounds to become choruses- a vast sea swallowing the spaces between
where our stories sit in memory
Rainbow sheep who gnaw the thighs of the shepherd- our eyes hold ember
rechristened our fists into seedlings
Is this extracted from somewhere?

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