By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK
When I heard on my DAB radio early Sunday morning BBC World Service news that, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the then Head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been arrested by the New York Police for an alleged sexual offence on a chamber maid in a New York hotel, I could not believe my ears. What, a sexual attack on a hotel chamber maid by the IMF boss? The man who is expected to be a presidential candidate in France? Is that really true? All sorts of questions were running through my brain but could not find any answers. Finally, I asked. Could this be a conspiracy by his political opponents or just sheer stupidity on his part? Still, no reasonable answers were forth coming. After BBC World Service gave further details on the hour and interviewed an officer from the New York Police Department (NYPD), more questions came to my mind. Who must have been this chamber maid? She must be very pretty to attract the attention of such a VIP guest. Finally, my inquisitive mind switched its focus onto other important issues such as men, power, sex and sexual abuse of women, gender equality, human rights, the effectiveness of institutions of law and order, etc.
Having struggled to find answers to the volcanic eruption of questions in my brain, I asked myself, could the arrest of such a high profile, powerful and global personality be possible had the alleged crime taken place in a developing country, particularly in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean? Could the arrest have taken place in other European countries such as France, where DSK would have become a presidential candidate? Now my brain started working full moon by answering some of the questions. I concluded without hesitation that, the authorities in developing countries are too weak and timid to even contemplate arresting him and could not have arrested DSK on such a serious allegation. Indeed, the alleged victim or complainant would have been ordered to shut up at best or be detained for attempting to disgrace the state. I was not sure if United Kingdom law enforcement agencies would have acted the way the NYPD did, especially, when the Justice Secretary (minister) shamelessly attempted to suggest that date rape is less serious than other forms of rape. However, I was certain that the man would have gone scot free in France because the victim would not have had the courage to report the incident. Again, the authorities would have been cautious to arrest DSK for fear of being accused of conspiracy against his presidential ambitions. The arrest would have been seen as politically motivated and unadvisable and potentially damaging to the French President (his potential opponent in the presidential race).
Still unsatisfied I imagined the scenario in Ghana. How would such incident have been handled had it occurred in Ghana? Where, Ghana? My brain suddenly went into reverse mode and recollected some incidents of alleged sexual assaults on women by men in positions of authority in Ghana and how they were dealt with. I remembered some recent incidents that were reported in the Ghanaian media. These included the incident involving a member of parliament and a woman who claimed the “honourable” MP had sex with her under duress. Then the case of a private school owner who was decorated with Honour by the last government for his services to education but who had a sex relationship with one of the female pupils in his school, the Asante regional head of the National Health Insurance Scheme who was alleged to have demanded sexual favour from one of the female employees and last but certainly not the least, the ongoing case of the district head of the National Disaster Management in the Volta region who was reported to have sexually harassed a female employee. What came out of all these sexual predatory behaviour in Ghana? So far, I am aware that the last case is before Ghana’s Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ).
Sadly and shamefully, the victim in the National Disaster Management incident has lost her job whilst the perpetrator is still at his post after investigations by the National Disaster Management. The disappointing aspect of the case is the way CHRAJ is handling the complaint by the victim. According recent reports in the Ghanaian media, a letter from CHARJ to the victim for a meeting did not reach her until after the date of the expected meeting. It is shocking that, the letter was addressed to the victim at her former workplace when it had been reported that she had been dismissed from her employment. The irony of this saga is that it is alleged by the woman (the victim) that her former boss (the perpetrator) received the letter from CHARJ and delivered it to the district office of CHRAJ after the date of the expected meeting. The CHRAJ district office then passed the letter onto her. The victim further claimed the letter had been opened when she received it and she suspected that it was opened by the same man she had complained about the alleged sexual harassment. What sort of justice or injustice is this?
When Obama addressed Ghana’s Parliament on his historic visit, he advised that “Africa did not need strong men but strong institutions”. Since then, I believe Ghanaian institutions have in fact, become weaker by either incompetence or political interference. How can CHRAJ justify the way the victim’s complaint is being handled is a matter that beats my imagination. Even if the complainant gave her office address at the time of her originating complaint, are the employees of CHRAJ pretending that they were oblivious to the fact that she had been sacked and no longer worked at the district office? I accept that, it is the responsibility of the complainant to inform CHRAJ of any changes in her contact details but is equally the duty of CHRAJ to ensure that correspondence with its clients reached the appropriate and intended recipients, especially, the importance of maintaining client confidentiality in such sensitive matters.
The gospel fact is that, Ghanaian authorities and law enforcement agencies (most, if not all) do not take sexual crimes by men against women serious. Men in positions of trust, authority and power consider it appropriate to receive sexual favours from women. I am not trying to claim that such degrading and inhuman behaviour by men is peculiar to Ghanaian men. In fact, it is a societal problem and it occurs in all societies. However, in some democratic societies when the abuse of position, trust and authority is reported, appropriate action is taken to address the problem and to seek justice for the victim. From the DSK case and how the NYPD has acted so far, the position of the alleged perpetrator should be irrelevant in taking whatever appropriate action is required. It does not matter whether the perpetrator is “deputy God” on earth, the law must take its natural course. Crime is crime but sexual crime is a very serious crime that has far reaching consequences on their victims who are mostly women. Sexual abuse of women is degrading, inhuman treatment and a violation of their fundamental human rights and should be treated as such.
Can Ghana learn from this case and should this be a lesson for Ghanaian men, especially those in positions of trust, authority and power, including religious men? How many Ghanaian politicians or public officers have been arrested, dismissed or even resigned from their positions as a result of such allegations?
Back to the DSK episode (if I can describe so, without playing down the seriousness of the allegation). As time went by and more details of the case appeared on the air waves, on television and in the print media, it became clear to me that there could be no conspiracy. I arrived at this conclusion particularly when it was reported that the alleged victim is of West African origin and moreover, the nature of the coverage by the French media, which to me was, to say the least, racist. Then, the recrimination between the US and French commentators as well as an open war between the US and French media regarding the coverage and treatment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn made me rule out any conspiracy theory. What disturbed me most was the fact that, whilst the French media respected the privacy of DSK (under French law) by not even showing him in handcuffs on television, they named the victim and published her photo. For example, I totally agree with the US media criticism that the French media showed more compassion for Strauss-Kahn than for the alleged sexual attack victim, whose identity some French media organisations published. I also fully support the feminist French lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who praised the US justice system, for “protected women's dignity”. She was of the same view as me that, she was convinced that “if the alleged crime had taken place in France, we would never have heard anything about it".
When it was reported that the victim is a 23-year old immigrant from Guinea my first reaction was, I was right that the woman must be very pretty because such a hotel would only engage beautiful women (my apology if I sound sexist and stereotypical). Lo and behold, when I saw her photo on Joy FM website, I was not wrong (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder). My brain started reacting to the double standards by the French media and the questions began again. Why did the French media identify her by publishing her name and photo? Did the privacy law no longer apply and if so why? Was it because she is African and black? Would they have identified her if she was a French citizen, American or European and white? Is the French privacy law only applicable to the rich, famous and powerful or just French citizens?, etc.
I am yet to find answers to the above questions but there is no doubt in my mind that by the definition of race discrimination here in the UK, their behaviour is nothing but racist. I am persuaded that the French media are behaving this way because she is not only black but also from a former colony in Africa. She is from a weak state that the authorities would not even dare to complain to the French authorities about the invasion of the privacy of their national by the French media. I am not even sure if the Guinea Ambassador or representatives in the US have offered any assistance to their national who finds herself in a foreign land in the midst of a global drama of politics, power and sex. Is the French media angry at her for reporting the alleged sexual attack on her and in so doing possibly ending the career and political ambition of an alleged sexual predator that could be a danger to women and society? Should any anger not be directed at first at the man who might have caused the drama in the first place? Could the US authorities also be accused of racism by the French? In other words, would DSK have been treated favourably had he been a US citizen?
My other worry about the case is, could this case dramatically change course as it unfolds and turn into a circus against the alleged victim for immigration reasons? That is, could the risk of the immigration status of the victim to be brought into the case? May God forbid but should it be unearthed that the victim is an illegal immigrant, what would be the outcome of the case? I have prepared my mind for any outcome because in this global power of sex and politics, one should not underestimate the influence of forces that be, to turn the wheels of justice in favour of the rich, famous and powerful even in the US. As I write this piece, I can assure readers that interested parties are behind the scenes on some fishing expedition to reveal the background of the victim, including her immigration status. My prayers are that she is lawfully resident in the US with the right to take employment. I have no doubt that whatever her immigration status in the US, the alleged offence of sexual attack and attempted rape are so serious that, even if she was in the US and working illegally, the law would take its natural course. Would she be prosecuted for breaking US immigration legislation if my fears become a reality? This is a million and one question I cannot answer but I am hopeful that, if the case against DSK is proven in court, the trauma and the impact of the case on her would not justify any legal action against her by the US authorities. I do not believe that it would be in the public interest to prosecute her for any immigration offence. At the moment, what she needs is her privacy and ongoing support as an alleged victim of sexual attack and attempted rape.
I am fully aware that DSK is innocent until proven otherwise. There is more to this case than meets the eye. In other words and in my own inquisitive mind, there are too many questions left unanswered by both the alleged perpetrator and the victim. As the case is still pending before the court, I reserve the right not to ask those questions now and hope that they would be answered at the court. Whatever the outcome of this case, I hope that women groups in the US will offer support to the victim and men all over the world, especially Ghanaian men at home and in the diaspora as well as the authorities will learn lessons from it.
By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK