“I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table.”

Winner of Best Business Idea at this year’s Pioneer Awards, Hetty Bonney-Mercer shares how she plans to empower women in Ghana with her business, FemInStyle Africa.

Picture of Hetty Bonner Mercer

A great business idea begins when someone identifies a problem that needs solving. Sometimes, these are problems you never knew you had, as the buyers of products like these will testify.

In Hetty Bonney-Mercer’s case, however, the business idea came from a problem she found impossible to ignore. Taking home the Best Business Idea prize at this year’s Pioneer awards, it looks like the judging panel agreed.

FemInStyle Africa is a magazine for women, by women, encouraging them to live their lives to their full potential. The idea for the magazine came from a desire to present an alternative narrative for women in Ghana.

As Hetty explains, “I first had the idea when I was part of a group of women whose gender activism took Ghana by storm in 2017.” The group wanted to flip the script on toxic gender narratives, but they weren’t able to do so without resistance: “The more politicised we became, the more backlash we received. Despite being a population with an equal gender split, the idea of women occupying media spaces was unacceptable.

“In Ghana, the traditional view that the role of women is to keep the home still persists. Just 13% of national politicians are female, and when a woman is given a platform on events such as International Women’s Day, it is always a certain type of narrative being pushed; that keeping a home and a husband is the most important thing, no matter what a woman has achieved. On International Menstrual Hygiene Day, the topic was discussed by an all-male panel!

“My co-founder and I realised that we needed to create a space where we could amplify the voices and experiences of women exclusively. We wanted to change a narrative that is harming future generations of girls.”

Hetty had been working on the early stages of her business idea when she saw an email from Birkbeck about the Pioneer programme.

“I thought that this was the opportunity I needed to develop the business. I sent it to my co-founder and she encouraged me to go for it.

“I gained so much from the programme: I made some really great friends and received incredible support from the speakers and fellow students. It was amazing to be in a room filled with so much passion: everyone there had a problem to solve. Coming from a background in Politics and International Relations, I learned the practicalities of running a business from some amazing female entrepreneurs who spoke on the programme.”

The FemInStyle Africa magazine website is currently under construction and will feature five columns: politics, gender activism, working women, financial advice and travel and style. The target readership is women aged 16-45, although Hetty wants the magazine to be read as widely as possible: “We want sixteen-year-olds to read the politics column or our profile of working women and see women who they’ll aspire to be like. For more mature readers, we want them to read something and see their own experience and values reflected. We want young people to see the possibilities of what could be, despite the societal pressures around them.”

The online magazine is a starting point, but Hetty’s vision for FemInStyle Africa extends much further. “We’ve set ourselves a six-month deadline to produce the magazine in print as well. In Ghana, data is a matter of class. Not everyone can afford to be online. We’re hoping to make the magazine free to reach as many people as we can.”

There are also plans in place to establish a mentoring programme alongside the magazine, providing further opportunities to empower young Ghanaian women. It is a project close to Hetty’s heart: “I cannot stress enough how important it is to get women a seat at the table. We want women to come on this journey with us and see that their futures are not pre-determined.”

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The Hissène Habré trial: a triumph for victims and civil society

This post was contributed by Marie Gibert, an associate lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. This post was originally published by the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Nearly 26 years after he was forced out of power, former Chadian president Hissène Habré has been found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture (including sexual violence) and crimes of war committed under his rule from 1982 to 1990. He has been condemned to life imprisonment by the judges of theExtraordinary African Chambers (EACs), a court specially created by Senegal upon the request of the African Union (AU). This was the first trial of its kind on the continent and years of lobbying were necessary to convince the AU and Senegal to proceed with it. In pushing Africa to bring Habré to justice, the victims and the international coalition of non-governmental organisations that have supported them have shown that Africa’s relationship to international criminal justice is far more open than the statements of some African leaders might suggest. Africa’s people demand such justice, and will pull all the necessary levers to obtain it.

The years that have passed seem to have reinforced the determination of the surviving victims, the victims’ families and the civil society organisations (CSOs) that have accompanied them – from the Chadian Association of Victims of Crimes and Political Repression (AVCRP) to the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (ATPDH) to the Dakar-based based African Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights (RADDHO) to the international Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In the absence of a straightforward legal path – it was evident from early on that the Chadian justice system would not request Habré’s extradition from Senegal to prosecute him, and the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction does not cover crimes committed before 2002 – they have, over the years, knocked on all doors. This has included calling on Senegalese justice, of course, but also on the UN Committee against Torture, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Belgium’s universal jurisdiction provisions, and the International Court of Justice, but also defending their case before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), (of which Senegal is a member) that had been seized by Habré’s supporters and lawyers.

The campaign for the Habré trial has also successfully drawn on previous cases, and on the expertise that has now accumulated across the world on cases of mass human rights abuses. Argentinian forensics experts, with similar experience in their own country, were thus called upon to analyse Chad’s mass graves and testify in the trial. The courts’ name also naturally draws on the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, set up to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. It provided an initial legal template when Senegal was asked to create an ad hoc tribunal to try the former Chadian president.

The campaign, however, has not just been a legal one. In the absence of a guarantee that the trial would take place one day, the surviving victims have been keen to publish their testimonies. This has taken many forms, from the more traditional bibliographic account written by Souleymane Guengueng, to video testimonies gathered on HRW’s website or in documentary films such as Klaartje Quirijns’ The Dictator Hunter, Isabel Coixet’s Parler de Rose, or Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Hissein Habre: a Chadian Tragedy. There are also written testimonies in civil society publications – in 2013 HRW published The Plain of the Dead, a 714-page account of the Habré repression system in great part based on victims’ testimonies – and interventions in the media. In so doing, the survivors have not only made sure their testimonies would be available beyond their own deaths, but also helped to publicise the Habré affair and gave it a very human face. Some of them have equally been present throughout the trial, delivering most of the witness testimonies in an attempt to represent as best as they could all victims, alive and dead.

Img habre Oueddei peace treay cc Ammagina

Chad’s Government of National Unity, headed by Goukouni Ooueddei (left), was created on 23 March 1979 in an attempt to end the civil war. Hissène Habré (right) was Minister of Defence until his loyalists overthrew the government in 1982, ushering in a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990. Photo (c)Ammagina, CC BY-SA 4.0

As with many such international justice prosecutions, Habré’s trial has taken place many thousands of kilometres away from most of his victims and the places where his secret police’s crimes took place. While some observers note that geographic distance, in some cases, may contribute to greater judicial serenity, most commentators state that it also means that justice remains out of reach for many victims and most of the population, and that the national judiciary is unable to strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. These are obvious shortcomings in the Habré affair, although the Chadian justice system prosecuted and condemned 20 Habré regime officials in 2015, in an obvious effort to show that justice could also be served in Chad.

Here, too, the steady involvement of the victims and CSOs has had an important effect on reducing the distance. They, and a number of initiatives launched by volunteers and legal professionals, have also made creative use of new technologies to promote the trial, record it and reach out to Chadians.Websites and Twitter have served as platforms to post regular updates on the proceedings whileYouTube has hosted all trial recordings posted by the EACs’ interactive forum. Outreach activities in Chad are on-going and have notably included public screenings of extracts of the trial, and debates and dialogues with local inhabitants throughout the country.

Paradoxically, the victims’ long wait for a trial may well have increased the quality of the evidence presented before the EACs. It has had an obvious impact, first, on the quality of the documentary evidence used in the trial. The EAC investigators were thus able to use documents from the Direction de la documentation et de la sécurité (DDS), Habré’s political police, found by HRW investigators in 2001, as well as the testimonies gathered by CSOs and evidence collected by Belgian Judge Fransen, who investigated the case in 2001-2005 (at a time when it looked like Belgium, rather than Senegal, would prosecute Habré). Moreover, not only has the time elapsed had no adverse effect on the victims’ determination to testify, it may even have given them a greater freedom to do so. The trial thus uncovered a hitherto little-known aspect of Habré’s rule: the extent to which sexual violence was used by its repressive system (a crime now specifically acknowledged in the verdict although the EAC judges had initially refused to add it to the charges). This discovery was only possible thanks to the testimonies of a number of now middle-aged women who testified about the violence and abuses to which they were subjected with an incredible dignity and great clarity, looking Habré in the eye. It is not likely that they would have felt able, and free, to do so publicly twenty years ago, as younger women. The Habré trial has thus successfully overcome one of the main challenges in the prosecution of grave crimes, that of gathering enough high quality evidence and witness statements – something the ICC has been struggling to do, notably with regards to the Kenyan case.

In many ways, the Habré trial before the EACs and the campaign that led to it have underlined the importance of a multi-faceted approach in seeking international criminal justice. The victims and their allies have gone well beyond the obvious legal strategy to lobby the AU, Senegal and their international partners. In seeking the support of international civil society allies, drawing on existing international expertise, knocking on all institutional doors, using a wide range of media outlets, collecting, transcribing and storing evidence, and preparing for the trial and their witness statements, they have not only made sure that, in the words of one of Habré’s victims, Rose Lokissim, ‘Chad would thank [them] and History would remember [them]’, but that the long-awaited justice would be of the highest possible quality.

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A 21st century Berlin Conference on Africa

This post was contributed by Professor Patrick McAuslan, from Birkbeck’s School of Law.

In July I went to the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio on Lake Como to discuss with 19 other panjandrums the issue of why planning law reform in Africa is so difficult to achieve. Most of the experts were from Africa which certainly made a change from the Berlin Conference of 1885 but seven were, like myself, non-African although with varying degrees of ‘expertise’ in planning issues in Africa. To state the fact of the workshop however is to invite some critical reflections. Why Bellagio? If we had wanted to puzzle out why planning law reform is so difficult to achieve in Africa, wouldn’t it have been better to be somewhere in Africa – preferably in a less salubrious part of a city in Africa – than in a palatial mansion set in some 37 acres of grounds in Lake Como in north Italy? What was our authority to issue a pompous communique to the world at the end of our deliberations saying that urgent action was needed on planning law reform in Africa? Who will pay any attention to us and our proposals to divide up countries and cities in Africa as of old, via planning laws and zoning codes?

After all, as I pointed out in my introductory paper to the workshop, UN-Habitat has been based in Nairobi in Africa for over 30 years, had an excellent African Executive Director of the agency for 10 years yet when planning law reform was actually undertaken by several states in the very region where Habitat is based, not a blind bit of notice was taken of the precepts it has been urging on governments, ever since the UN City Summit of 1996, of the need for a more inclusive, open and participative planning system: the same old centralised, top-down, semi-authoritarian planning systems were provided for, which the colonial powers had introduced some 50 or more years ago. It may be, as was urged upon us at the workshop, that it is a little too facile to see the issue purely as one of the elites v the masses, as elites are not by any means all of one mind, have different interests and may differ from each other quite sharply. Nor can the masses be seen as united in their misery but such a blunt analysis is, in my view, likely to be more relevant than an over-sophisticated approach to the problem. Fear of the urban masses lay behind colonial urban planning and government: that same fear permeates the thinking of the elites that have taken over the upper income salubrious areas of cities in Africa now.

I can give one absolutely classic illustration of this. When I first went to Dar es Saalam in 1961, Selander Bridge divided the African and Asian areas of the city from the European area in Oyster Bay and was an effective barrier to movement from the former areas to the latter area. The bridge was very narrow; sea was on one side, swamp was on the other. There was talk then of the need to widen the bridge. There were no impediments in the way; no housing to remove; no people to relocate. 51 years on, nothing has changed; the old narrow bridge is still in place and still provides a bottleneck and impediment to movement from the African low-income areas of the city to the African high-income areas. Selander Bridge performs the same function today as it did all those years ago. The elites in their cars may complain about the traffic jams, the delays in commuting but if they were serious on the need to do something about the problem, the bridge would have been widened two or three decades ago. But they don’t want it widened: Oyster Bay and the newly developed areas towards the University of Dar es Salaam are in effect a gated high income community with Selander Bridge acting as the gate.

Ultimately, what’s needed is not workshops of the elite in a palace in Italy but an African urban spring with the masses coming out to dismantle the system and set about developing a fairer system of urban governance catering to the needs of the majority.

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