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Basarwa and their Tswana Kinsmen: A Tale of Persecution (1)

In this tale about the horrors of history in Kalahari country, Botswana novelist, poet, historian, essayist, biographer, writer of short stories and travelogue, and human rights campaigner, Teedzani Thapelo*, looks hard at Tswana imperial dominion over Basarwa nation in the last one hundred years, and wonders what it is that makes people who profess to be civilised to behave in such a cold and cruel manner towards others. Is this a matter of race? Is it a question of cultural arrogance? Is it a simple matter of unmitigated human savagery? Is there something barbarian about our national character? Does our vulgar, pretentious, fake significance and brazen philistinism augur well for the future of this country? Is there a value to be derived from this violent mess? Do we derive pleasure from their loathsome miserableness? Is there an ideology and process to promote this violence that some of us don’t know about? What continues to promote this violence? What continues to radicalize the perpetrators of this violence? Is this thing a political proposition? Is it an economic necessity? Where do the perpetrators get their operational instructions, how and why? We need, Thapelo argues, answers to these questions so that when finally the hand of justice comes knocking at the door, bearing on the right a solemn Lady Justice, we should know where to point our fingers. This, he says, is a national duty if we have any conscience at all.

I took the trouble to go through extant historical sources these past three weeks with one object in mind; to explore relations between Basarwa and Batswana in the past hundred years. I just don’t really know where I should begin relating this story. One thing though is certain: throughout this period the life of a Mosarwa has been a theatre of unmitigated calamity and that of his Tswana kinsman a journey of remarkable progress and social transformation, at least by the miserable standards they set for themselves. By some unwritten law of God, oppressors, it would appear rarely ever truly prosper for long.

Anyway, throughout this period Basarwa have bore the brunt of Tswana tyranny and to this day they still find it hard to escape the vigilance of this relentless political despotism. Batswana have shown themselves to be inaccessible to entreaties and virulently determined to visit this spectre of terror upon their neighbours with a commitment so worrisome I doubt any people have ever suffered so much persecution in recent African history, and that is a subject I happen to know very well.

Yes, 800 000 innocent souls died in Rwanda in 100 days while the world watched and partied but the dead do not shed tears; and in some wretched but calm way they lie in the bosom of God: the ultimate author of all things, great and small. Basarwa are still with us, and their blood and tears mingle with the air that we breathe, and their mangled voices, the tolling bells of our cathedrals-the strangest thing for people who live in a democratic society.

We all agree, I think, it’s a terrible thing for the lives of others, their very welfare and happiness, to be victims of such tyrannical vigilance. I shall return to the issue of justice later. But what really happened to evoke such a vexing conclusion on my part? Well, the incidents of horror are well documented. We shall mention some of them by way of illustration. What I find most shocking is the form and shape this mode of persecution has taken in these years.

The toils of persecution are things so loathsome they scar not only individuals but the entire project of human civilization. We should never take such things lightly. The tyrant, however, is an animal too difficult to appease so that even as I write I know this brief memoir will do nothing to divert the deplorableness of this situation. But common decency demands that we record these blood spots in the annals of national history.

Our children may, with the help of God, and a much firmer grasp of civilised conduct, do something about them in the future. Yes, I do have faint hope posterity may by their own means and convictions feel it necessary to render justice which my contemporaries refuse. That’s one of the reasons I am writing this article.

The trouble with horrific national history is the difficulty of locating the sources of political depravity. So I’m not going to try. It’s always better to appeal to justice than address the sources of malady, something that is very difficult for a historian to do. But I’ll try. It’s important I set these parameters least I be accused of intellectual levity. My discovery is that this tale of persecution operates by supplying means and resources for destruction and refusing opportunities for conquering difficulties, a most singular thing.

The spring of action is political greed. Acts of insult and injury, of which there are far too many, are camouflaged with the cartel of honour, and violent effort is employed to engender hesitated confusion and irresolute answers. Simple scenes of revelry and mirth are contrived to divert the unhappiness of tortured minds, and these are also camouflaged by the episodic benevolence of superior actions that call upon the garb of veneration even under the deep groans of intolerable anguish. Colonialism was not this perverse. Nor apartheid.

These were elaborate political machines that did not shy away from what they intended to accomplish. What’s happening in Botswana is terribly disturbing. The whole train of life of a Mosarwa is continually subjected to a deserted situation of political terror that is hasty, peevish and tyrannical. It’s like living with and serving a mentally deranged political master; a master whose disturbance and inflammation of the mind is characterised by brief and pale rhapsodies of visionary honour. Tried as I can I just could not give perspicuity to this horrible series of events.

As a child I found the ordinary Motswana possessed of an air of uncommon dignity, a dignity heightened by an expression of frankness, kindness and unreserved enthusiasm; a terribly charming fellow. I found the ordinary Motswana a creature almost encumbered with reflection, sensibility and an amazing good taste that never lost sight of humanity.

Now I am no longer so sure. I wonder what happened to the genuine hilarity of the heart. We have never been a brilliant and scholarly people but we always counted on our good manners to stand us good in all company and conversations. But no longer so. We have changed radically. We are no longer superior to suspicion. Is what I see today our true character coming out? Is what I read in the annals of our history our true character as a nation and a people?

I invite the reader to travel with me through Kalahari country and survey for themselves the criticalness of this situation. The tragic irony of the horror that separates a Mosarwa from his Motswana kinsman is that this same loathsomeness seems, in many instances, to be predicated on the fear for the progress that each party might have made in the affection of the other.

Both are aware of the dangers of this relationship. Both are exhausted by the endless rancour and blood-letting but this they choose, in the majority of cases, to endure with apathy; the Mosarwa because he’s powerless and helpless, his kinsman, because the very things that feed his frenzied gormandising; land, labour and the body of the victim, are not seen as finite resources.

In short there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The Mosarwa must become accustomed to tormented submission and deference, and his kinsman to his imperious manners and the superior resentment of insolent questioning of his political privilege. The oppressor is always drunk with choler, and will not, under any circumstances, listen to a word that tends to check the impetuosity of his actions.

The victim traverses the land of Kalahari, no, his entire life span, with grievously perturbed steps, foaming with anguish, fury and rage. The oppressor has the honour of choosing any scene of action that pleases his diabolical fancy, the victim always has considerable difficulty appeasing the indignation of the master and the rapacious calling of his raw appetites.

Rarely are peaceful means employed to disarm the stateliness of these opposed resentments and nothing is ever done to effect even the smallest moments of mutual cordiality and happiness, and yet both these antagonists live in a democratic society, and often copulate sufficiently well to bring children in this land of plunder and agony.

The reputation of the tyrant’s courageous brutality is already so well established it cannot allow itself to be exposed to impeachment. The Mosarwa, it would appear, has little courage to subdue its imperial arrogance and unstoppable imprudence-and everybody calls Botswana a democratic society, how amazing!

What, I wonder, makes human beings to behave like this towards each other? Does this simply signify the weakness of human nature? Does it signify the weakness of society, its laws and political institutions? Is it always necessary to expiable haste and indiscretion with blood and sworn hate? Is such an unmitigated persecution of a malignant destiny a pleasant feature of democratic society? What happened to the fields of utility and distinction so well spelled out in parts of our constitution?

Why should one nation give accommodation and advantage to another in this way, a way that can only result in it rusting and rotting in the dungeons of oblivion? Why do some people think the world is made for them, and not others? How does a man explain this malignant contagious distemper in democratic society? I am not a philosopher, and the world, I know, is not governed by words. But these things haunt me like a demon.

I cannot wake, but I think of them. My friends at Government Enclave, I know, don’t care. Their attitude is simple: as we brew, we must bake, and life goes on. But this I think is the wrong attitude to take. Let me explain.

A little over a hundred years ago the traveller J.C. Chapman, met a group of Basarwa. He says in his book they called themselves dogs, pack oxen and horses of Sekomi (sic) the Ngwato chief. Asked if they wanted to do anything better than be slaves of this monarch they said they never thought of aspiring to any other position in life.

They called themselves dogs because they hunted and killed game for their master, pack oxen because they had to carry home the proceeds of their hunts for hundreds of miles, and horses because they had to act as his spies throughout his kingdom and run from one post to another with the least information so the man could always rest at peace knowing all was well.

In short, they fed his family, provided secret security services for his kingdom, without asking for millions of money like the DIS, made sure his authority was not challenged, and got nothing in return for their work. We may suspect they got some food but that is only conjecture.

At about the same time David Livingstone, a great humanitarian, died in central Africa fighting to stop slavery and the abomination of slave-trading. America was still smarting from a civil war to end slavery in that great republic, a war that cost millions in human lives and property just to procure the freedom and human dignity of hapless black souls who had hitherto remained tied to the mainstream society by denigrating and dehumanizing bonds of blood, sweat and tears. But in Botswana, a country that had just run 5000 miles across the sea to ask for protection from an old woman in Britain, slavery continued to flourish.

In the 1930s the writer Diana Wyle estimated that Tshekedi Khama owned 300 000 herd of cattle and 3000 Basarwa. This translates to one Mosarwa looking after 100 cows. Bangwato are what they are today because of Basarwa. I could quote many similar data for relations between these suffering people and Bakwena, Bangwaketse, and other tribes.

The tragic plight of Basarwa is a matter of recorded history. The blight of their lives has always been, and remains to date, a function of Tswana prosperity. For centuries they remained the backbone of the country’s transport network, serving wealthy Tswana tribesman as porters, postmen, messengers, and the historical record shows they could even be used to convey their masters and trading goods on their bare backs for hundreds of miles.

Basarwa have always been, and remain to date, master trackers. It is an open secret that it was these much oppressed and maligned people who opened the odiously exacting hinterland of the great Kalahari Desert for commercial exploitation, scientific investigation and tourist marvel and adventure.

For ages they lived in this enchanting paradise with poets, philosophers, scientists, artists, geologists, film makers, intrepid and wayward missionaries, adventurers, celebrities and all sorts of lost human souls from all parts of the world.

Today these great pioneers, these quiet, unassuming, hospitable, and humble souls have been reduced to mere objects of exploitation and tourist fascination. They are outsiders in a land they conquered through great spiritual contemplation and compassionate communing with nature and beasts. The uncontaminated Mosarwa is by nature and philosophical disposition a mystic and wanderer.

He tames first his passions and excesses, and then next tries the best he can to live with his known world-a world of immanent human experience. The way Batswana treat Basarwa today is appallingly disturbing and morally reprehensible principally because it is a horrendous violation of the law of human hospitality-a principle that has been the hallmark of all great civilisations since time immemorial. It is the worst case of bestial internal colonialism ever recorded in human history.

The greatest shame is that it is precisely because of the way we treat these hapless people that the civilised world is beginning to use our oppressive interactions with them as a yardstick to measure our humanity. What a shame! What a horrible fate! What a scandalous self-denigrating proposition! The tragedy is that we do this horrible thing for the simplest reason in the world-we want to be rich. We want to be affluent. We want to be big men and women. The tragedy is that we call this wholesale dispossession and exploitation of fellow citizens civilised behaviour.

The world is laughing at us. It has a right to. The opprobrium of decent voices is engulfing the very soul and spirit of the nation. Rightly so. I just wonder when we’ll tire of this dishonour, humiliation and ignominy. It is a tragedy of our own making. The land claims, legal disputes, intellectual contestations, constitutional determinations, international outcries, activist social science, anthropological anger and discontent, and Basarwa nationalisms and liberation struggles that have characterised ideological, political, moral and legal discourses and actions in Botswana between the first constitutional intervention and pronouncement in 1978 and the sustained High Court battles in the recent past all arise from these historical injustices.

To this day Basarwa struggle for freedom rages on. As I said, the tragic development biography of Basarwa has already become the greatest feature of our definition as nation. There is no worse affront to the magnificence of the human estate than the deliberate vehemence of brutality against others in modern society. The history of Basarwa in Botswana occupies prime position in university bookshelves around the world in all written languages.

There’s hardly any leading anthropologist at the world’s top hundred universities who has not written about Basarwa in the last hundred years. The story of Basarwa has appeared in all leading newspapers of the world. It has been debated in the House of Commons in Britain from as far back as the 1880s and as I write that august house is still open to such debates; its hansards a record of our great folly as a nation.

This story has been the subject of congressional lobbying in America. No leading global television network has not covered this story. No prestigious international magazine has not featured it. This story has featured in films, documentaries, academic conferences and remains the subject of animated discussions in classrooms and private homes in just about every part of the world.

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Botswana to Become a Vaccinated Nation: Pandemic Anxiety Over?

30th March 2021


This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.

The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.

The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.

Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.

We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.

More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.

The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the  market.

Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.

We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us  succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?

Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?

Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?

They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?

What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?

They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?

We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?

To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?

Batswana must be made aware that the  end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.

For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with  the arduous imperative of  analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.

Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.

Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the  mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute  in Botswana is overdue.

If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.

Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.

*Oscar Motsumi:

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The women you see in the news matter. Here’s why

9th March 2021
Jane Godia

Jane Godia

Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.

Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are
Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication

Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.

Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.

Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.

Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.

The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.

So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.

The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.

We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.

They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.

As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.

Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme.  
WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media.

Jane Godia, Director, Africa, Women in News

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Why is the media so afraid to talk about sexual harassment?

9th March 2021


The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.

As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.

I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.

I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?

Counting the cost of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.

It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.

Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.

The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.

Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.

By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.

Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media.

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