International Women’s Day: womanism, activism and higher education

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, convened the recent Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education: the politics of representation and community activism conference – the first of its kind at Birkbeck.

Over 200 women attended Birkbeck’s first Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education conference, which drew together black women activists and academics from various parts of the United Kingdom, across Europe, South Africa and the United States. A further 210 women, who were unable to be allocated tickets, were invited to watch the live stream of the keynote speeches.

At Birkbeck, we already know about the ‘feminist emergency,’ but our conference demonstrates a burning ‘womanist emergency’! The scale of interest in the black woman’s desire to take charge of a lost agenda cannot be underestimated. Such a desire has reached fever levels. Quite frankly, as black women, we are fed up with other’s speaking on our behalf. We are hungry for genuine representation. Finally, we are seeing black sisters speaking our language, standing up for us, taking charge and ownership of our agenda for change.

This conference of black women activists working alongside their black sisters in HE is long overdue and I am happy that Birkbeck is the first higher education establishment to allow this Womanist platform to emerge.  We have a lot to say and a great deal to achieve.

On the day of the conference, a clear message emerged for the urgent need for the black woman in HE to play her part in promoting collaborative, activists’ links in order to prioritise the movement for a free, decolonised education system. The lively, vociferous workshops revealed the reasons for such high levels of interest in the conference.

In a platform presentation entitled: ‘Young womanist voices: our mother’s legacy’, young black feminists: Nombuso Methibela, Dolly Ogunrinde and Jenna Davis spoke on ‘the silencing of black women’s activist’s voices; the power of language to promote activism and the significance of passing on experience steeped in activist’s struggle’.

Nombuso Methibela, an activist and educational researcher from South Africa, talked passionately on the silencing of the voices of black women activists, like African nationalist and grassroots political organiser Hannah Kudjoe, who played a formidable role in Ghana’s struggle for independence.  She stressed: “In the recollection of Ghana’s independence history we rarely hear of her contributions. Kudjoe’s disappearance from public memory and her un-naming have been a focal point of the anti-colonial movement.”

Through her South African experience, Nombuso suggested that: “Black women’s political representation has come out of the collective desire to recognise the experiences of Black women who fought against marginalisation in national liberation movements and black consciousness movements despite their collective disappearance from popular history”.

Dolly Ogunrinde, an outreach worker for an educational charity, highlighted the importance of language and how we share concepts and ideas across generations.

She said: “As an educator, I find my students are very much aware of issues surrounding race and the notion of an intersectional struggle that occurs between race and gender. However, what they don’t have is the language to express that. With the concept of womanism, I was able to finally find a word which encapsulates the ideas that my mother had passed down to me.

“‘Womanism’ is a concept that is now engaging young black women all over the country. And I don’t necessarily think the answer lies in teaching young people about womanism in the sphere of formal education. Instead, I think the answer lies in informal education. We, all of us in this room are informal educators to the young women in our lives.  It is important we share oral histories and popularise terms like ‘womanism’ to provide the next generation of womanist activists the power in language to express their ideas.”

Jenna Davis, a parliamentary assistant, politics student and community worker spoke on the legacy of black women activists, trade unionist and elected officials. “They have left us young black women like me, a huge legacy. Their achievements and sacrifices have made it possible for my generation to believe it’s possible to enter the political sector. They have prepared us for the fight ahead and have shown us how to confront and deal with misogynoir, colourism, oppression and so much else. They have shown us that Black women can come from different walks of life and educational backgrounds and achieve.

“As a young black woman in the political field, my mother has taught me that education is a key that opens many doors. She wasn’t just talking about academia. She was also talking about the power of life experiences. That is why I use my story and experiences to empower other young people about the importance of community activism and encourage them to participate and work for change”.

One participant said: “This day is a cause for celebration because we can see positive role models from across the Higher Education sector who are committed to working with us.  These black sisters are demonstrating their potential to change our lives, remove the oppressive white curriculums and speak to our history.”

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Celebrating the cinematic richness of Belgium

Vladimir Seput, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Film Programming and Curating, discusses a recent event looking at Belgian cinema. 

On Wednesday 21 February, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image was once again filled with people. This time, BIMI hosted Belgian film lovers (and those who might become ones) who came to watch and listen about the latest trends in Belgian cinema in a special, introductory event to the programme, Focus on Belgian Cinema. With the support of Wallonie-Bruxelles International and Flanders House, film critic and author Louis Danvers and Wouter Hessels, the film lecturer and cinema programmer at the Brussels Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound travelled across the Channel to give talks on the state of contemporary Belgian Cinema.

Mr Danvers talked about French-speaking films from Wallonia and Brussels and the often paradoxical situation that they are facing, namely because they cannot reach large audiences even though they regularly win numerous major awards at international film festivals. For example, the Dardenne brothers still hold the record, among a few others, of the highest number of precious Cannes’ Palme(s) D’Or. Even so, their movies often struggle with reaching a significant amount of audiences. Unfortunately, the reasons for such a poor result on the domestic market are, as often, multiple and complex. Besides the fact that the subject of those works is often the gloomy topic of social injustice, which is hardly a crowd-pleaser anywhere, French-speaking Belgian cinema lacks infrastructure that would help in the promotion of films outside their habitual audience. Such infrastructure exists in Flanders, Mr Danvers said, and it would be beneficial to have it in the French part as well. As a result, in 2016 the most successful Flemish film in terms of audience attendance did 15 times better than the most popular French one. However, French-speaking Belgian cinema is a prolific creative industry of a rich documentary tradition and often surreal fiction films, with the latest trend in making films inspired by true events, such as A Wedding (Noces) from 2016, also part of this year’s festival.

Genre cinema is often a key to success if a film wants to reach a large audience and Flemish filmmakers know that quite well. Under the title Belgian Cinema: Made in Flanders Wouter Hessels presented the Flemish film wave which started in 2002 and the conditions that preceded it. Mr. Hessels emphasized five key elements of success of Flemish films in recent years: founding of the autonomous Flemish Film Fund (VAN) in 2002, introduction of the tax shelter in 2003, the project Faits divers by Flemish commercial television VTM, numerous international film festivals in Flanders like Ghent, Ostend and Leuven and the increase in quality of student films realized at five different schools in Flanders. Some of those conditions resulted in commercial and/or artistic successes through the works of filmmakers like Felix van Groeningen, Fien Troch and Erik van Looy, whose film The Loft from 2008 holds the record for the most popular Flemish film (more than one million tickets sold).

After the presentations on French-speaking and Flemish Belgian Cinema, BIMI screened the film King of the Belgians from 2016 made by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth. The film presents a new direction for Brosens and Woodworth who were, prior to this film known primarily as documentary filmmakers. In this satire, they tackled the issue of a Belgian division in an almost farcical way, inspired by the Belgian mockumentary tradition of comedy making, best known from the cult Belgian film Man Bites Dog from 1992. Along with the five latest titles from the Belgian film factory, Man Bites Dog will be shown at the French Institute as a part of Focus on Belgian Cinema.

The event was concluded by a discussion chaired by Janet McCabe, director of the Film Programming and Curating MA at Birkbeck in which Mr Danvers and Mr Hessels talked about different aspects of the creation behind co-existence and shared with the audience their thoughts on encounters between identities, cultures and languages.

Focus on Belgian Cinema runs at the French Institute from 22-25 February.

For more on Belgian cinema, see Wouter Hessels’ choice of most representative Belgian films.

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Constitutions, committees and campaigns: an evening at the Birkbeck Students’ Union AGM

Sean Fitzpatrick, Communications Coordinator for Birkbeck’s Students’ Union, gives a run-down of the most recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and invites current students to stand in the elections as Liberation Officers and Student Leaders.

A lot has been going on across the Students’ Union this academic year – so much, in fact, we had to have two Annual General Meetings.

Every Birkbeck Student is welcome to come along to our AGM. Everyone is welcome to vote on any issues that arise at the meeting. This is one of the many ways that we make sure everything we do is informed by what students tell us they want.

With one of the largest attendances of the past decade, we settled down for an evening of discussion on all things Birkbeck. First up was officer accountability, where attendees were invited to grill the elected Student Leaders and Liberation Officers on their work, poring over their officer reports and manifestos to make sure they’re doing everything that they said they’d do!

Incidentally, we’re looking for people who would be interested in being one of our paid Liberation Officers and Student Leaders for the 2018/19 academic year. If you’re interested – you can read more about our elections and put your name forward on our website.

We then had a brief run through the current financial state of the Students’ Union, where students can see where our funding comes from and how we’re spending it – it’s important for us to be transparent. We then ran through changes to our constitution, the core document that defines the Union’s ethos and purpose. All of the changes were put to the room, and students voted either in favour or against each proposed change. Once that was done, we continued our discussions at the George Bar on the fourth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, right next to the Students’ Union offices.

Our AGMs are a great introduction to how the Students’ Union works and how we can work to support Birkbeck students. They also give you an opportunity to vote on how the Students’ Union uses its resources and to bring any issues you feel are affecting students to our attention.

If you have anything you feel the Students’ Union can help you with, please contact us! We’re here to help you make the most of your time at Birkbeck. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing us at

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Female imprisonment worldwide

Catherine Heard reflects on Female Imprisonment Worldwide, a recent event organised by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Listen to highlights from the speakers’ presentations on Birkbeck’s podcast.

Why this event? A rapidly increasing global female prison population

At ICPR we compile and host the World Prison Brief, a unique online resource that provides free access to the best available data on prisoner numbers in almost every country on the globe. This gives us a bird’s eye view of important trends in world prisoner numbers, which have been rising steadily in recent decades – particularly the numbers of women prisoners, as our World Female Imprisonment List (4th Edition) shows.

Numbers of women prisoners are rising in every continent, with significant increases reported in developed as well as less developed countries. This matters, not least because of the very high levels of vulnerability we know exist among women who get caught up in criminal justice processes. Women and girls in prison usually come from backgrounds of disadvantage and are likely to have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or mental ill health before their imprisonment.

This event brought together experts in female imprisonment from around the world to discuss some of the causes and consequences of rising female prisoner numbers.

The scale and profile of female prison populations

Our keynote speaker was prison philanthropist Lady Edwina Grosvenor. Edwina has worked in criminal justice reform for more than 20 years. Perhaps her most ground-breaking contribution has been to advance the field of trauma-informed practice in the women’s custodial system in the UK.

Next, we heard from Roy Walmsley, who founded the World Prison Brief in 2000 and who compiles the population lists. Roy presented key data from the fourth edition of ICPR’s World Female Imprisonment List. There followed a presentation from Olivia Rope of Penal Reform International, an organisation that has contributed much to creating and promoting basic standards of decent, humane treatment for women and girls in custody. Olivia talked about some of the most common characteristics of women prisoners and explained why gender-informed approaches to women in criminal justice systems are so important.

Over-incarceration of women: drivers, harms and solutions
Marie Nougier from the International Drugs Policy Consortium then presented on the work they and members of their network have been doing to change the conversation around female drug offending, a major driver of the rapid rise in women prisoner numbers. View slide presentation here. 

Our next speaker, Teresa Njoroge had just given a TED talk in the United States, so we were all the more honoured to welcome her. Teresa heads up the NGO, Clean Start Kenya, which works with women and girls in Kenyan prisons. Teresa shared with us her own experience as an inmate in a Kenyan prison, spending a year in horrendous and needlessly humiliating conditions. She said many women never fully recover from the experience of prison in Kenya and in that sense their punishment lasts much longer than the term of custody they are sentenced to serve. View slide presentation here.

We then welcomed Madhurima Dhanuka from the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute in India. Madhurima’s presentation brought into sharp focus one hugely avoidable cause of high prisoner numbers – that is, the overuse of pre-trial imprisonment, a major problem in India. Madhurima also described the psychological damage prison causes many women, with awful conditions of custody followed too often by social isolation on release when their families abandon women due to the shame they are seen to have brought. View slide presentation here. 

Our last speaker was Jo Peden from the health and justice team at Public Health England. Jo has been working on a project to develop woman centred standards of health-care for female prisoners, something that is sadly lacking in too many prisons today. Jo’s presentation shed light on the alarmingly high rates of suicide and self-harm seen among women prisoners and the underlying vulnerabilities that they bring with them into custody. View slide presentation here. 

After the presentations, we had an open discussion with our audience. We were lucky enough to have Juliet Lyon CBE with us to chair this session. Juliet is now a visiting professor at Birkbeck. Prior to this, she was for many years the director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has long promoted better understanding of the needs of women prisoners and advocated to downsize the female prison population. Juliet reflected with honesty and a sense of sadness about the distance there remains to travel in achieving justice for women affected by the criminal justice system. If you listen to my podcast on the event, you can hear Juliet’s concluding thoughts on the presentations.

Where does female imprisonment fit within our world prison research programme?

Women prisoners are predominantly incarcerated for minor, non-violent, property or drug-related crimes, and are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits. That should prompt us to look more carefully at whom we imprison and ask, in every case, why we imprison and what we expect prison to achieve.

Our prisons research at ICPR aims to do just this. It seeks to bring about a deeper understanding of the many interwoven factors that combine to drive up prisoner numbers. We are doing this so that we can come up with some concrete, practical solutions to these harmful and unsustainable increases in the imprisonment levels of recent decades. We know that in order to do this, we must provide a better account of who it is that our states choose to imprison, and why.

This is a key goal of our current project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment worldwide. The project entails an in-depth exploration of imprisonment in ten jurisdictions across all five continents. Those countries are: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the United States, India, Thailand, England & Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. Among these are countries with some of the largest prison populations in the world: the USA, Brazil, India and Thailand are all in the top six globally. Most of these countries have seen very significant increases in their female prison populations since 2000. You can learn more about the project here.

  • Catherine Heard is director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme. Catherine has also recorded a podcast on the event, with audio content from each of the speakers’ presentations.
  • Speakers’ short biographical details can be found here. 
  • ICPR would like to thank all our speakers for their contributions to this event.
  • We are grateful to Clifford Chance for their generosity in hosting the event.
  • ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme is funded by Open Society Foundations.
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