Horizon Scholarship winner aims to create change for women in Ghana

NOTE: This is one in a series of stories on Brock’s inaugural Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship recipients. To read other stories in the series, click here.

As a young girl growing up in Ghana, Helena Tizaa had the odds stacked against her.

She lived in an impoverished area, attended what she describes as “one of the poorest public schools” in the West African nation and faced heavy gender stereotypes that implied she should spend her time raising a family rather than learning in a classroom.

There are widespread gender disparities in access to education, especially in the northern part of Ghana, where I come from,” says Tizaa, who is now a Critical Sociology master’s student at Brock University. “Women and girls face several barriers that hinder their active participation in education and growing up as a female in Ghana from a low socioeconomic background made me vulnerable to them all.”

Unwilling to settle into the role society had laid out for her, Tizaa saw only one way to achieve her dreams: education.

She put all her energy into excelling in school — a goal that came with its own set of obstacles.

A lack of funding meant students had to attend her grade school in shifts, learning in class for only four hours a day and, at times, studying subjects such as math on their own because there were no teachers to guide them.

Determined to succeed, Tizaa pushed past every challenge in her path, further enhancing her love of education at every step. This led to her ultimately earning an undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Ghana in 2018 before pursuing her master’s at Brock.

Tizaa’s commitment to her studies in Canada saw her recognized earlier this year as one of 20 inaugural winners of the Brock Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship. The scholarship fund will provide $1 million over the next 10 years to high-achieving graduate students from Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and other under-represented groups, with 20 students from research-based programs chosen each year to receive a one-time award of $5,000.

Tizaa calls the honour a “lifesaver” that has had tremendous impact.

“It granted me life-changing support,” she says. “The scholarship came at the lowest point of my life. I was facing severe financial instability due to the pandemic and loss of my father to cancer, so the scholarship came through as a solution to my financial challenges.”

Tizaa says the scholarship not only reduced her financial burdens, but “served as a relief to the psychological and emotional distress I was going through then.”

“It gave me the freedom to pursue my academic goal,” she says. “I was able to clear my outstanding fees, buy books for my major research project and most importantly, reduce my working hours to focus more on my academic work.”

Through her research, Tizaa is now focused on making a difference in the lives of marginalized women. She hopes to help break down barriers facing women in Ghana in particular.

She has conducted research that investigates the experiences of Ghanaian women engaged in commercial sex work and has also taken part in research that investigates the experiences of marginalized international students and young Black mothers in Canada.

An aspiring social sciences researcher, Tizaa hopes her work will someday be used to create policy interventions to make a difference in the lives of others.

Her major research project, which is currently underway, examines how the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment policies exacerbate maternal health conditions in Ghana, including malnutrition, maternal and infant morbidity, and mortality in women, and argues these harms are criminal.

Tizaa’s time at Brock has allowed her to develop the critical lens and approach to examining social issues that are so key to her research, she says.

“Brock’s pedagogy has equipped me to be a critical thinker and creative,” she says. “In my two years at the University, I have acquired more relevant skills and learned a lot more than I have learned in my whole life.”

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