How Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings is championing women’s and children’s rights through general practice, sanitation and politics in Ghana

How Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings is championing women’s and children’s rights through general practice, sanitation and politics in Ghana
16 min read

Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings is a medical doctor, and a member of parliament for the Klottey-Korley constituency in the Greater Accra region of Ghana. She also holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict, Peace and Security.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings

She has led various initiatives championing women’s and children’s rights, and improving sanitation in Ghana – initiatives she is very passionate about.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings

Photo Credit: Courtesy Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings

Dr. Agyeman-Rawlings is the eldest daughter of the first President under the 4th Republic of Ghana – Jerry John Rawlings, and former First Lady Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings.

  • When did you realise you had an interest to go into medicine, and why?

“That must have been in primary school. I always had a First Aid Kit. I was always looking for someone who was hurt so I could put a plaster or bandage on their arm or leg. I just always had that interest, and I think it never went away. I liked the idea of people feeling and getting well. Of course, there is the real aspect of that when you get into the job. There are always a few sad stories that you have to deal with all the time. But I’d say the passion for wellness started, I think, when I was quite young in primary school.”

  • Describe a time during your education in medical school that you really enjoyed.

“I’d describe these in two parts. The first part of it would have been when we started our Anatomy course in the dissection room. It got me thinking, “this is actually a real human body and you’re actually taking it apart and learning about its different layers”. I found that interesting because I literally had to go through the whole human body – from the head down to the toes, but not in that order specifically.

The other part I enjoyed a lot was the practical aspect of medicine, especially in surgery. I often joined surgeons in operating theatres, and that for me was another interesting, and humbling experience. You’d have a human body opened up on the table with your gloved hands inside a body cavity. You can feel the person is warm. You know they are alive and you’re thinking, “my goodness, this is someone who’s alive on this table, and we are here making a difference.” You just hope, having done all you can, the person will wake up again. It is a combination of things where you know that your intervention is making a difference. But you also know that you can’t determine whether the person will actually live or die. There’s that humbling aspect of it. And personally, it has reinforced my belief in God, because you have to believe in a higher being when you see all the different processes that occur in the human body, and the miracle of how things do not go wrong as often as they could – whether it is from the stage of conception and how the body eventually differentiates into its different parts. Or how if one chemical is not produced at one stage in the embryological development of the foetus, the result is webbed fingers or even how a fault in one small gene results in severe anomalies in development or even in diseases. It is hard to not believe in a Creator when you know everything that could possibly go wrong and the fact that there are 7 billion+ people on this planet who’ve actually survived conception, gestation and birth.”

  • Why did you decide to go into politics? And what does it feel like to be a Ghanaian woman in politics?

“I suppose it was something that happened out of a desire to just support and empower communities. I grew up in a family that was political. I was born into it. But it was not an incentive.

I saw the negative aspect of it. There were times when my siblings and I actually had a lot of issues with a few of our teachers because they had issues with our parents and took it out on us. We also had situations where other students in school just didn’t like us. And it wasn’t for something that we did or didn’t do. It was because of our parents. Whenever we did something, it wasn’t simply about just “us”. It was about child of ‘so and so’. So I did get to see a lot of the negative aspects of this.

Politics wasn’t something that I aspired to do. It turned out to be a path I found myself on as I moved into environmental advocacy.

The June 3rd 2015 flood disaster in Accra, Ghana, was really the thing that actively got me involved in environmental advocacy. At the time that the disaster occurred, I was actually on my way to a conference in Brussels, where I was to do a presentation on environmental issues in Africa. I thought to myself, “why am I travelling abroad to discuss issues in Africa, when there is a real crisis occurring right here in Ghana?” I decided to stay and help in any way I could. This is how this whole journey started. Not with the intention of necessarily going into politics, but to make a difference.

One of my frustrations when I was working in General Practice was the fact that I kept seeing the tail end of problems for which, if some intervention had occurred a bit earlier on (in terms of how people perceive the link between themselves and their environment and health), perhaps the outcomes would have been different. This was another thing that sort of influenced my decision, because it was an opportunity to, perhaps, use my experiences and what I had observed in primary healthcare to help and empower communities.

What does it feel like to be a woman in politics in Ghana? It is not easy. We live in a culture where there hasn’t been enough of a paradigm shift with regards to the role of women – which is unfortunate because traditionally, in pre-colonial times, and in many of our communities, the woman’s role was very central. In some cases, if you check on the history of some of our ethnic groups, you’d actually find that the leaders in a lot of our communities were the women. During these times, the instinct was to always protect the identities of the real leaders. As colonialism became established, we had a situation where the status quo got turned on its head in some of the communities where the women had a more influential role, because there was this whole concept of “if you can distort the structure of society then you can rule it.” I think this played a huge role in where we find ourselves today, and why it is so difficult to be a woman in any field of influence in Ghana. If a man takes a position on something and he’s strong and passionate about it, it is good. But if a woman does, she is rude or arrogant. This is not encouraging, but someone has to do it. It is challenging, but it can be rewarding.

I would like to believe that I have a slightly different approach. There are certain things I would think about or be better suited to do because I am a woman and a mother. So instinctively when I go into a community, there are certain things I take notice of. Instinctively, there are some things that would just come to me. And this is not a political thing. If you can develop tough skin, and try not to let the negativity break you down, you will be fine.

When men take on a position, whether it is in politics or a public role, and they mess up, it is just about their performance in that role. On the other hand, when a woman sets a foot wrong, it becomes about everything but her competence. I think that’s a discourse that needs to change. This is something I think the media should play a very crucial role in. For instance, if you have media houses that will not entertain people using certain types of derogatory language or certain ways of talking about women, on their programmes for example, I think it will force people to speak differently with regards to how they refer to people in general. Don’t forget, our children are listening and learning from us.”

  • In what way has your STEM background enhanced your career in politics?

“I would say the ability to get to the root of problems has helped a lot. As a scientist, you are taught the scientific method, and as a doctor you are thought how to take history from a patient. And the history taking process is really meant to get to the root of a problem so that you are not merely treating symptoms, but actually trying to find out the “why of the why”. You either treat it or you manage it. But you need to know the aetiology. And I would say that probably helped me quite a lot in my approach to challenges and problems I’ve encountered to date.”

  • Health care is expensive, and our health systems fall short of meeting desired health outcomes. In your opinion as a member of parliament, how do you think we should reassess the impact of healthcare spending in tandem with public healthcare policies on these desired health outcomes in Ghana?

“By and large, whether it is healthcare or something else, we need to shy away from populist policies. If we really want to progress as a country, we need to have a national vision, and every party’s manifesto must be in line with this national vision. This national vision must not be changed simply based on regime change. We may tweak it here and there, but it must not be something that is subjected to somebody’s populist agenda. This is one of the aspects of policy making we keep falling short in.

When we come up with different policies, it should be with the clear understanding of the context we live in. If you are going to implement something because it worked in, say Denmark, for example; that’s a totally different society, with a totally different system, needs and mindsets. Understanding what our context is helps us to develop the appropriate policies we need. We can’t develop policies in isolation, because then nothing ever works. We have all these great ideas but the implementation is always a challenge. Is it an issue because we don’t have the people who are well enough trained, or is it because we don’t have everything fitting together properly within the context that we live in in this country?

With regards to what we can do, we need to critically analyse our situation and apply a holistic approach that keeps the long term vision at the centre of what we do. We cannot examine the healthcare sector in isolation when developing policies. For far too long as a country, we have compartmentalised our various Ministries, Departments and Agencies so much that we are not integrating to fit into the bigger picture. Healthcare touches on the environment, and it touches on education, security, the economy etc. In other words, how do our policies satisfy the SDGs?

If access to good healthcare is on the basis of one’s socio-economic level, then we are failing our people. In general, we have so many policies. Implementation tends to be our Achilles heel.”

  • The Ghanaian government – as part of its educational reforms, is to implement policies and programmes to strengthen and upscale the study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), especially from the basic level. How feasible do you think this will be to achieve gender equality in the study of STEM, while tackling unconscious biases when it comes to STEM education in Ghana?

“Before we even get into gender equality in STEM; how many children in school can read and write proficiently at the basic level? I think STEM education for both girls and boys is a great thing, but are we approaching it holistically? What is the bigger picture? Are we placing enough emphasis on eco-friendly technology? On guiding more children towards the ecological sciences? Are we sensitising our teachers to make sure they are all aligned with the concept of gender mainstreaming and equality in STEM? Unless we address the cultural biases that we have and actively tackle these in all aspects of education, and at a very early stage with the involvement of parents and guardians, we will struggle to achieve the objective of gender equality in STEM.”

  • What influences your passion as an MP to champion women’s and children’s rights in Ghana?

“Who are the ones that are nurturing our children in communities? Mostly, it is the women. How are the women getting empowered to do so? The women are the backbone of our society, therefore to ensure true and sustainable progress and development is to empower the women in all aspects, especially personally and economically. How are we making sure that our children are protected from horrid experiences like child smuggling or being preyed upon by paedophiles. How are we ensuring that our children are properly educated beyond reading and writing? Understanding their civic duty, appreciating the value of critical thinking and patriotism and honest work. We cannot just leave society to be splintered the way it is at present. It is in knowing very well the central role women play in every community, and knowing very well that children are our future, that drives my passion.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Dr. Zanetor Agyeman-Rawlings

  • Do you have final words or advice for young Africans looking up to you?

“Look in the mirror and see yourself for all God made you to be. We all have something we can contribute towards the elevation of our communities. It does not have to be something so big. It can be small and still make a difference. It does not have to be something that makes a difference to the entire country. It can be something that makes a difference in your neighbourhood. Never look and say someone else can do it. Look in the mirror and say, “what can I also do to make a difference?” In the words of Ghandi, “Be the change you want to see.””