“Age is just a number – but studying keeps the mind active”

Ghana born Anthony Mensah is graduating with an LLM Human Rights aged 78, and plans to devote his time and energy to fighting Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM) in sub-Saharan Africa.

Anthony with Professor Bill Bowring

I am originally from Ghana but came to the UK in 1966 as a trainee accountant, and am now a British citizen.

Sometime in 2011, I saw a newspaper advert for Birkbeck for a two year diploma course in Law. I applied, and was sent a problem question in the post to answer. I answered it to the best of my ability, and was invited to interview at the School of Law by the Dean at the time, Professor Patricia Tuitt. She was impressed with my performance, and I was thrilled when she invited me to enrol on the LLB course instead of the diploma.

My first and second years were a bit of a struggle, and a stark contrast between my professional accountancy course. Patricia Costall, an Academic Support Tutor, helped me understand how to write an academic essay and properly reference my work – I am very grateful for her help during my course and I know a lot of other students will agree with me that she was very helpful. I really enjoyed the lectures from most of my tutors; Fred Cowell, Piyel Halder, Adam Gearey, Leslie Moran and Patricia Tuitt, to name a few; and I had good relationships with my classmates.

My wife, Emma, was very excited for me throughout my studies. She gave me lots of good advice and encouragement.  I owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude for the support and encouragement she has given me. Without her, I don’t think I would have got the marks in my LLB that I needed to proceed onto my LLM in Human Rights.

I decided to enrol on the LLM because I am passionate about tackling the complex Human Rights issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, where I am from. In particular, in the future I intend to lead a crusade against Female Genital Mutilation which is common practice in almost all countries on the continent.

I didn’t think about my age when I was applying. Age is just a number. However studying later in life is good for exercising the brain. So I would advise anyone thinking about starting a degree to start looking into it and making enquiries. You will feel so confident in yourself when you complete it.

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“The more I learn, the more I want to learn” – from ‘left behind’ to law degree

Firhana wasn’t sent to school as a child and only learnt to read and write at 15. With years of hard work, persistence and dedication, she’s achieved the extraordinary feat of gaining a master’s degree in Law – and now has plans for a PhD.

Growing up, the idea of studying for a degree wasn’t even on Firhana’s radar. She was raised in Oxford with her parents and five siblings but was never enrolled in school – something that only came to light when a doctor made a home visit and found that at 12 years old, Firhana wasn’t able to write a simple sentence. When asked why they didn’t send their daughter to school, her parents said, “in our culture, the daughters get married, have children, and run the household.”

She strongly believes her parents did their best for her within the cultural context that they knew, but going to school for the first time was very difficult. “I was quite severely bullied because I didn’t know how to read and write,” Firhana remembers. “A lot of the children at school obviously thought that if I was born in England, why couldn’t I read or write? Eventually I had a one-to-one tutor who went through letters and phonics with me. I mastered my alphabet at the age of 15, and slowly learnt how to read and write.”

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really understand what I was reading at first. I used to look at the pictures and try to make out the story as I was going along. I didn’t really try to help myself because I had missed so much so I thought there was no point. Eventually, when I was about 19, I finished the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was my favourite book.”

After she had her own daughters in her twenties, she knew she wanted to get a proper education to help her children get ahead in life. Today, after years of hard work and close, careful guidance from dedicated teachers, she is graduating with a master’s degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London with merit, after gaining a 2.1 in her bachelor’s degree in 2012. Next, she plans to apply for a PhD looking into sexual violence in Asian communities. “Who would have thought there was going to be degree after degree for a typical Pakistani housewife who missed out on most of her primary and secondary education?!” she laughed.

Firhana is a passionate advocate for women and girls in Asian communities, and wrote her master’s dissertation on the grooming gangs in Cowley, Oxford where she grew up. “If I had any power,” she says, “I would ask the government to look at legislation which deals with violence towards women, especially women of colour. I feel like there’s not enough said or done because people are culture sensitive. I think the government should also aim to get women over 30 or 40 back into education. I think a lot of women in my era missed out and they feel like they don’t have the opportunities.”

Birkbeck’s evening study model suited Firhana, who was able to combine her studies with working and family life. Her daughter, Aisha, was starting her A levels at the same time as Firhana started university – “we were study buddies!” she said. “Today my daughter is an A level teacher in a really good school, and she’s also doing her master’s at Birkbeck. My other daughter is studying English Literature and Creative Writing, and my son’s at grammar school preparing for his GCSEs. He plans to go on and study Medicine.”

“Birkbeck has changed my life and my family’s life for the better. It has just had such a massive impact. What we show our children is what they will follow. I showed mine love for books and education because my teachers showed me their love for books. Now I feel like I have been empowered with the gift of knowledge. I am on a journey of learning more and more every day, because the more I learn the more I want to learn.”

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LLM students through to semi-finals of prestigious Moot competition

Two Birkbeck LLM students are set to compete in the semi-finals of one of the most prestigious and popular mooting competitions in the UK, led by Mooting Co-Ordinator Jonathan Thorpe from the School of Law.

Lewis Aldous (pictured, right) and Daniel Cullen (left), both post-graduates on the LLM Qualifying Law degree programme, are through to the semi-finals of the Oxford University Press (OUP) and Inns of Court College of Advocacy National Mooting Competition.

Moot competitions are an ancient method of training lawyers in the art of advocacy, an essential skill for those wishing to practise law. Moots involve two teams, competing in a fictitious appeal case, but in front of a real judge. Teams are scored under several headings – on their ability to interpret and use the law, their skill in presenting legal arguments, and how they deal with questions from the judge during the moot.

Birkbeck Law School runs its own moot training programme each academic year. from which students are selected to compete externally, against other universities, in the major UK moots.

Over the past few years, Birkbeck Law School has had considerable success in the national moots, but LLM students Lewis and Daniel have done exceptionally well this year, beating three highly reputable law schools in legal problems ranging over criminal law, contract law and contempt of court, to reach the semi-finals of OUP.

Further congratulations are due to Lewis, who was recently awarded a full scholarship by Inner Temple Inn of Court to study to be a barrister.

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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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