BBC World Service's new series The Conversation is just what women want

This is no cosy Woman's Hour-type programme, says Fiona Sturges

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The Independent Culture

I cheered out loud when I first heard about the BBC World Service's new series, The Conversation, the tagline of which is "about women, by women, for everyone."

It's such a simple concept, but it's one that seems to elude commissioning editors at networks such as Radio 2 and 5 Live.

When women aren't getting the airtime that is due to them, and when, in mainstream radio they are frequently relegated to the role of sidekick, it's more important than ever for them to find a space that is entirely theirs.

The World Service's record on diversity, both in terms of gender and ethnicity, is strong compared to most BBC networks. Even so, that those in charge have given the green light to a series that exclusively covers female experience and the pressing issues facing women across the globe shows a fearlessness and foresight that is depressingly rare, even in 2014.

The Conversation was no cosy Woman's Hour-type programme that, in between the more politically charged segments, had gentle cooking demonstrations and reflections on why we love to buy shoes. While the premise – that two women engaged in particular roles in different parts of the world talk about their experiences – was celebratory, the contents of the first episode were, at times, unflinchingly brutal.

Presented by the BBC Africa journalist Kim Chakanetsa, it featured Judge Khalida Rashid Khan, Pakistan's first female judge, who is currently presiding over the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Hague, and Justice Mandisa Maya, the first black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa. These were two women who had risen high in their field, and had overcome enormous obstacles and opposition in order to do it. In the process, they had made history.

When Maya started out in a South African court she was frog-marched to the back entrance, because until then the only women who had been allowed into the court were cleaners. Meanwhile, Khan was once informed by the accused: "I don't mind getting the death sentence. I was killed the day I first appeared before a female."

Both women were undeterred, their missions personal and political. Both talked about the reluctance of women to testify in an all-male court. "I have observed," said Maya, "that women are more comfortable when there is another woman on the bench, somebody who, to put it crudely, understands their anatomy and can relate to their experience."

Some of the accounts of violence that they had heard were beyond comprehension. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Khan heard from a woman who was made to watch while her six children, aged between two months and eight years, were killed with a machete; and from another who had been raped while heavily pregnant. Her attacker then cut open her stomach and murdered her baby. These testimonies, Khan said, were so horrifying that for a long time she could not sleep at night.

And yet, while both women struggled daily with the extent of human cruelty, they talked about the satisfaction that came from the knowledge that they were calling individuals to account and dispensing justice. They hadn't met before but there was a familial quality in how they related to one another, an audible bond born from extraordinary shared experience.

The Conversation was enormously affecting, not just because of the harrowing nature of its contents, but because these are voices that we rarely hear in the West. This was important radio made without fuss or melodrama. Everyone, man or woman, should hear it.

Twitter.com/FionaSturges

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