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Zikomo, Malawi

  By: Julia Bellehumeur

 

Working in Malawi as an intern for the Equality Effect was an amazing experience.  It felt like three months flew by so quickly, yet I was there long enough to develop a strong connection to the country and the people.

Small town at the bottom of our Mt Mulanje hike

 

Poster created for the conference

As noted in my previous blog, one of the main projects I worked on in Malawi was organizing a conference, or as we called it: A capacity building workshop on challenging the corroboration rule for rape.  Quick recap: this “Corroboration Rule” is a discriminatory, colonial rule requiring women and girls to provide additional evidence specifically in cases of rape or defilement. Myself and my co-intern developed the framework for the workshop based on interviews we held with community members involved in sexual offence cases and their perspectives regarding access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, and how the Corroboration Rule factors in.

Following the creation of that framework, I started coordinating every aspect of the conference, including speakers, guests, funding, and logistics.  I learned a lot of unexpected ways to adapt my work habits to be more compatible in Malawi.  For example, Wi-Fi access in Malawi is extremely limited, and scheduling meetings that actually happen even close to on time is very unlikely. It became essential to find new methods of communication so that our work did not remain stagnant.  Instead of sending emails to judges or police officers, I would contact them via WhatsApp, or just simply show up at their offices where we were always warmly greeted.  Once I figured that out, each week I started to plan which days I would devote to taking mini-buses across the city and tracking down everyone with whom I needed to meet.

A few mini-buses driving through Blantyre

Post-yoga morning coffee

In addition to not having Wi-Fi, my office frequently experienced power outages, which meant that I would have to work from home in the evenings to have access to the free (but shoddy) Wi-Fi after 6pm.  Although this seemed like a burden at first, I eventually adapted my schedule to start some work days later after enjoying a morning coffee and a self-directed yoga session in the sun.  I would instead work later into the evening long past the 5pm sunset (until mid-July when evening-long power outages became the norm between 4pm and 9pm).  In Malawi, it became quickly apparent how important (and even sometimes enjoyable!) it is to step outside of my comfort zone and try different strategies when working on any given task.

Working from our Malawian home

The day to day of the “event planning” was so distant from my expectations of what “human rights work” would look like that after getting the hang of things in preparation for the conference, I began to question many aspects of my role.  I never expected to be running around the city between various stationary shops hunting for basic products like nametags, or finding myself negotiating printing prices in the small dingy office of a back-alley building.  I also never expected to be the person meeting one-on-one with young male lawyers who may want to fund our project, or may really just want to chat for a few hours to learn about Canada. And I definitely never expected to be taking the lead on a project as big as organizing this conference for so many people in positions of authority and power in Malawi.  When I was told I’d be heading to Malawi instead of Kenya, I thought I’d be sitting inside at a desk all day researching cases on my laptop with an embarrassing amount of google chrome tabs open. . .   The work I did instead was exciting, but confusing for reasons that I could not understand throughout the rush of it all.

High Court judges among other guests at the conference

On the day of the conference, high court judges, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, social workers, survivors, community members, legal experts, police officers, a psychologist, and a poet all gathered at the Malawi High Court to discuss the Corroboration Rule.  After each local expert’s presentation, I observed engaging group discussions that highlighted the complexities of the topic.  What struck me most was how these conversations evolved from initial discomfort and frustration between sectors, to each sector coming up with creative ways to improve access to justice for survivors of sexual violence in their own respective fields.  This interdisciplinary conversation allowed me to experience how a holistic approach can generate new strategies and perspectives to tackle complex issues.

(See the following link for a local newspaper’s perspective on the conference: http://mwnation.com/challenging-corroboration-rule/ )

Upon further reflection, I began to understand the bigger picture of what I had learned through my internship and my role in planning and attending this conference.  The people of Malawi helped me understand the importance of all the practical aspects, big and small, that go into making legal change relevant in the real world.  Finding ways to engage the community in supporting and understanding any given issue is a huge component of legal change.  Sometimes, that means printing flyers, ordering donuts, and setting up tables.  Other times, it means social workers giving presentations at a school, or to government officials.  But even once the law is changed, there is still a tremendous amount of work that goes into changing community practices and enforcing those laws.  I saw this to be particularly true in the recent banning of child marriages. The constitutional claim my organization is working on needs things like conferences and workshops, education programs, funding, and so much more for the written laws and legal arguments to have any real impact.  We need doctors, police officers, and judges alike to be on board with seeing the law evolve.  By observing the discussions at this conference, I finally understood my role in the project, the skills I developed, and the outcome of my work.

Me and my best Malawian pal, Chimz

While the culture in Malawi is so different from Canada, I realized that the principles of change in this area of law are still very applicable.  Rape myths, social stigmas, and systemic legal barriers are not all that different, although they may be on a different scale. Being open to trying new things and taking a holistic approach to human rights issues through interdisciplinary strategies is also equally important at home.

My experience on this internship was so multifaceted that I’ve been finding it hard to articulate exactly what it is that made it so special.  It’s almost overwhelming to try to dissect and identify the various elements to what I learned and what I am taking away.  I can say, however, that I have never questioned so many things in my life as when I was in Malawi; yet, I have never been so sure that this was exactly where I wanted to be in that moment.  Things came together in a chaotic but ultimately beautiful and satisfying way and I genuinely wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Zikomo & tionana, Malawi <3

 

 

Defining Equality: Namibia’s Supreme Court and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

By Kevin Lee Pinkoski

Equality in Namibia and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

A young country – with a new constitution – needs an active judiciary that takes every opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of its constitutional principles. This is the context of Namibia, a country that, in 1990, won independence from South Africa after years of racial division implemented by apartheid, and, in the same year, adopted a new constitution. But many terms in this new constitution have yet to be comprehensively nuanced and defined through jurisprudence. As the case Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others shows, Namibia’s judiciary continues to miss opportunities to describe both the nuances of equality as the term is present in the constitution and its relationship to the rights of persons with disability.

The nuance that is lacking from Namibian jurisprudence on equality is if the term is only limited to formal equality, where the law treats all individuals equally, or if it includes substantive equality, where the law recognizes individual differences in order to make everyone equal. Namibia’s constitution prioritizes equality, yet Namibia’s Supreme Court has failed to provide an accurate explanation of what is meant by the term in the constitution — if it is limited to just formal equality, or if it can be expanded to substantive equality. The judiciary must play an active role in addressing these ambiguities. Consequently, disabled individuals in Namibia are left without true equality.

Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others:

The Alfred Mew Visser case is about the rights of persons with disabilities. Alfred Visser was in a severe car accident and, as a result of his injuries, he was blinded in both his eyes. Because of Namibia’s no fault insurance scheme, he was awarded damages according to The Motor Vehicles Accident FundThe Fund sets caps for damages, and Alfred Visser challenged these caps under the claim that they do not adequately provide the financial support necessary for him to live with a permanent disability. The Supreme Court did not find the case in his favour because of the financial implications of going beyond the caps established in The Fund.

Alfred Mew Visser characterizes a clear problem in the Namibian judiciary; the term equality in the Namibian constitution has not been accurately defined by Namibian jurisprudence. Yet the Supreme Court’s response inAlfred Mew Visser, ignorant of this problem, focuses only on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicles Accident Fund. My criticism is that, regardless of the outcome of the case, the Supreme Court needs to actively seek out opportunities to elaborate and clarify Namibia’s constitutional principles. Because of this, the Supreme Court’s judgment in Alfred Mew Visser is a missed opportunity to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality – this is detrimental to Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Equality in the Namibian Constitution:

Strong memories of the heroes of the liberation struggle, such as Toivo ya Toivo, continue to inspire Namibians like Fazilla to fight for equality.

Reflective of years of apartheid – when inequality between race was implemented by law – Namibia’s new constitution prioritizes equality for all its citizens. The preamble to the constitution sets this mandate, affirming that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is indispensable for freedom, justice and peace.” Namibia, as a new country, founded itself on the principle of equality.

Namibia’s standard of equal rights for all is expanded upon in Art. 8: Human Dignity and Art. 10: Equality and Freedom from Discrimination of the Constitution. Art.8(1) states: “The dignity of all persons shall be inviolable”, and Art. 8(2)(a) elaborates: “In any judicial proceedings… before any organ of the State… respect for human dignity shall be guaranteed.” Art.10(1) reads: “All persons shall be equal before the law,” and Art.10(2) continues: “No persons may be discriminated against on grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or social status.”

The constitution and current government policy indicate an ambiguity between formal and substantive equality in Namibia. While Art. 10(1) establishes the terms of formal equality before the law, Art. 10(2) creates the potential to use the law to make all individuals equal through substantive equality.  Art 10(2) indicates the potential for substantive equality as it would be discrimination not to make individuals equal who suffer under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art 10(2). The emphasis on equality in both the preamble of the constitution and in Art. 8 show Namibia’s prioritization of equality for anyone within Namibia’s borders. Furthermore, Namibia has embarked on clear projects to create substantive equality for marginalized populations, such as economic empowerment initiatives and gender equality programs. There is a clear ambiguity in what is meant by equality that must be addressed by Namibia’s Supreme Court.

Neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality. Because of this, Namibia’s lower courts have been limited to an understanding of equality that only evaluates the formal equality of all individuals before the law, not the substantive equality necessary to make all individuals equal. Furthermore, as Alfred Mew Visser shows, the Supreme Court has failed to take any opportunity to define any nuances to what is meant by equality as it is presented in the Namibian constitution. Because of this, Namibia has yet to create an environment of true equality for persons with disabilities.

Disability in Namibia and Alfred Mew Visser:

Although empty on the weekend, the Katatura Disability Plaza houses numerous organizations that promote equality for people with disabilities.

Namibian law defines disability as “a physical, mental or sensory impairment that alone, or in combination with social or environmental barriers, affects the ability of the person concerned to take part in education, vocational, or recreational activities.” This definition is elaborated upon to include the “loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on equal level with others due to physical or social barriers.”

The Namibian constitution does not list disability as a prohibited ground for discrimination in Art. 10(2). Thus, for disability to be adequately recognized or discussed in terms of equality, the Namibian judiciary must establish that disability is included under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art. 10(2).

Disability has a clear consequence on an individual’s ability to participate in society, it has a detrimental effect on the following grounds prohibited by Art. 10(2) of the constitution: social status, economic opportunity, and personal prosperity. The statistics are clear: 17.7% of urban disable persons do not attend school, 82.3% of rural disabled persons do not attend school, 42.5% of disabled persons work in agriculture and fishers, with 14.6% in elementary occupations. 70% of disabled persons live in homes without a mortgage. The reality is explicit – being disabled in Namibia is a limit on the potential of an individual to achieve success and prosperity.

In the example of Alfred Mew Visser, Alfred Visser has suffered a permanent disability because of the accident: he is blind in both eyes; he has a physical impairment that will impede his potential to participate in everyday activities and in work opportunities; he will need to learn a new system of reading. He is likely to be to be limited, as Art 10(2) of the constitution explains, to a “social status” because of his disability.

Art. 8 and Art. 10 of the Namibian constitution ensure a conducive environment to the full and equal participation for all in society, including those with disabilities. But, as was previously alluded to, because neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a comprehensive definition of what is implied by equality, the Supreme Court is required to give such an interpretation. The Alfred Mew Visser case is a clear example of a missed opportunity to give a more nuanced explanation of what is meant by equality, a missed opportunity that will be detrimental to disabled people – one of Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Formal Equality – Equality as applied by the Supreme Court:

Namibia’s clear wealth disparity, apparent in the village of Hoachana, is continually being addressed in the pursuit of equality.

Namibian jurisprudence has yet to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution. The problem is that, because of the limited wording of the Namibian constitution, there is no need for courts to expand beyond an understanding of equality that is restricted to formal equality. Formal equality is established only by equality before the law. It applies blind rules to every situation, no matter what social differences may be involved. If the Namibian constitution ensures only formal equality, the Namibian Supreme Court should define that distinction. While it is possible to develop the language of formal equality in Alfred Mew Visser, it is important to recognize that the case turns on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and not the issue of equality.

In Alfred Mew Visser, the court employs a view of formal equality before the law, as all claimants are held to the same limits of compensation, regardless of either their individual characteristics or the consequences of an accident. Alfred Visser’s disability can only be taken into account provided it falls under the limits of the caps established in The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and it cannot be adjusted to take into account the particular needs of certain claims. The caps employ the same legal equality to all — the same formal equality before the law — and thus the court can resolve that “No distinction is made between claimants at all” since “all claimants are in the same position when it comes to the capping of their claims and are thus equal before the law.” No differentiation is made between individuals and their needs. If this is what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution, the Supreme Court should define equality in this way in its decision.

Formal equality could, however, provide the means to address the necessary compensation required to ensure equality for disabled individuals. Since, to establish formal equality, the court adheres to “equality before the law,” it is the actual law itself that would have to change. The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund would have to be amended to provide for a recalculation of damages for disability, for injuries that cannot be recovered from and that requires an individual to live their life in a different way. In this way, the court could still employ formal equality before the law, but the law itself would have to be expanded to provide for the necessary compensation to an individual who has been affected to a new “social status” (as Art. 10(2) of the constitution establishes) as a result of an accident. The Namibian constitution could imply formal equality in this way, but the distinction would have to be made by the Supreme Court.

The Potential for Substantive Equality in Namibia:

The Katatura Hospital is one of many public hospitals that provides medical services to Namibians.

In Alfred Mew Visser, substantive equality would imply that, because Visser has been placed in a different social status as a result of the disability incurred in the accident, the court could employ a definition of equality that allows for increased compensation. While the court establishes that The Motor Vehicle Fund ensures that “equally positioned persons are treated equally”, it fails to consider that some individuals will require more support in order to be treated equally. The reality is, as substantive equality reminds us, that the results of an accident do not leave all individuals “equal”, and that some, especially those with long term disabilities, will require more compensation. If the court had chosen to establish substantive equality as a part of the Constitution’s definition of equality, the court would allow for the law to be adapted to Alfred Visser’s specific case.

Furthermore, the court would establish the necessary precedent to employ substantive equality when necessary to ensure that the law can be adapted to provide what is needed for any individual to achieve equality. This is the missed opportunity of the Supreme Court, they failed to recognize the reality that equality before the law does not ensure that the law has equal effects on all individuals. Consequently, in order for the law to allow that all individuals can achieve equality as a result of the law, a substantive understanding of equality should be employed. Here, the Supreme Court has failed to provide for a more nuanced, and more just, understanding of equality that takes into account an individual’s unique needs. Alfred Mew Visser is thus a missed opportunity to define equality.

Conclusion:

Namibians, especially Namibia’s most vulnerable population, must again wait for the Supreme Court to develop a nuanced understanding of equality. Namibians are left with ambiguity as to if equality goes beyond formal equality to address substantive equality, thus allowing for the prohibitions on discrimination in Art. 10(2) to be extended to unlisted ground. It is, as Art. 10(1) reminds us, that “all persons shall be equal before the law” – so why stop short of protecting Namibia’s vulnerable populations?

The Supreme Court should be capable of providing the necessary jurisprudence to clarify and develop the constitution. The Supreme Court cannot be limited by state resources or policy in its decisions, it must be capable of balancing these limitations with the necessity of equality. The nuances in the term equality have yet to be defined by Namibia’s Supreme Court, and the Court continues to miss opportunities to add the necessary nuances. Defining these nuances is, after all, the role of the judiciary.

 

Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.

   

The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

I came to Uganda this summer to work as an intern for the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development in the city of Kampala. I want to use this post to focus mostly on one aspect if the work that I have done here, and will likely use the next to write more generally about life in Kampala (which, spoiler alert, has been pretty amazing and an incredible experience of self-growth).

The Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development is an organization comprising about thirty employees. Most of them are lawyers, although vital members of the organization also include administrators, research officers, communications officers, and accountants. CEHURD has three programs which generally function separately from one another, though they are intentionally and intrinsically interlinked. They are Community Empowerment; Research, Documentation, & Advocacy; and Strategic Litigation. In Ugandan NGO terms, I have come to understand that CEHURD is a rather well-known name, despite it being a young organization of only about seven years.

I began my time at CEHURD by attending a court session regarding Ugandan tobacco laws with the Strategic Litigation team, but was soon after incorporated into a project with the Community Empowerment program. This will be a two-year long project supported by The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CEHURD’s project is under a PEPFAR partnership with the DREAMS project, which stands for “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe Women.” The DREAMS goal is to create country-owned and country-driven sustainable programs to address the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa. The vision is to combine evidence-based approaches with regards to the structural drivers that directly affect adolescent girls and young women in their risk of contracting HIV. This is where CEHURD comes in. CEHURD’s fieldwork on the DREAMS project involves going into villages to interview adolescent girls and young women as well as a variety of stakeholders. The work is focused predominantly on access to HIV services and the legal and societal context surrounding sexual assault. Due to the societal framework and corresponding views prevalent in rural Uganda, young women who are village dwellers are heavily susceptible to sexual assault. This, in turn, drastically heightens their risk of contracting HIV.

My work on this project began in the Kampala office, where I wrote a literature review for the Community Empowerment team. I researched past work that had been done on this topic, and noted the successes, failures, and recommendations that came out of those studies. This helped to shape and inform the fieldwork. I was also involved in editing and writing many of the research tools for the interviews we conducted in the field. Once the surveys were completed and the stakeholders had been mobilized, I joined the team to spend a week in the district of Gomba, about three and a half hours outside of Kampala. We visited three villages where we interviewed adolescent girls and young women, as well as various stakeholders, including police officers, parole officers, healthcare providers, NGO officers, and various members of local government. I had the opportunity to engage both with the stakeholders and women alike.

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

sitions in local government. In relative terms, these interviews were relatively encouraging experiences. Most spoke English very well, and they were all quite highly educated. They were also all quite familiar with the prevalence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in their district, and seemed to have been very aware the structural drivers that perpetuate the problem. They shared with me their plans and programs that are being developed to address the problem, and all of them seemed serious and committed to the work. I am confident that CEHURD will be able to work with them toward the implementation of programs that will improve upon this situation in a significant way.

Health Facility Assessment

On my last day, I conducted a facility assessment, which took the form of an interview with the in-charge at a health facility in the village of Mamba. Luckily, I had been given a detailed assessment tool, because if I had been told to assess this facility according to my own standards, I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. The health facility does not have a doctor. From what I understood, the in-charge is trained in nursing, and, occasionally, they have a midwife come by. The facility has no electricity, no bathrooms, no running water, and had run out of stock on about half of its medication. Unfortunately, CEHURD’s area of expertise does not lie directly in facility improvement. From what I understand, it is the government that is responsible for that.

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

In total, I surveyed 17 girls. 15 of them were transactional sex workers, all of whom were in relationships, some of whom were married, and all of whom had been tested and were HIV negative. I asked them questions about their experiences with gender-based violence, ranging from verbal abuse to being violently forced into sex using a weapon. Only one of the 17 told me she had never experienced any abuse, and the translator seemed to think that she wasn’t telling the truth. One of the girls, after I asked her whether her husband insults her and humiliates her in public, looked deeply confused, and then replied, “Of course.” Others laughed when I asked whether or not their partners had ever slammed them against the wall as if to say, “What kind of a question is that? Doesn’t that happen to everyone?”
To say the least, it was a lot to process.

One main issue that revealed itself from the interview responses we received is the lack of access to justice and the necessary HIV services in cases of sexual assault. The problems that amount to this issue are extensive and interlinked. Girls are very often married off at a young age in order to bring money to their families. If a girl has been sexually assaulted, she may be considered impure and possibly not suitable for marriage. Therein lies the first problem. Next, there is a 72-hour window in which a person can visit a clinic after sex in order to get the medication that would prevent HIV had they contracted it. However, since many girls are too afraid to tell anybody when they have been assaulted, and are also unaware of the 72-hour window, many do not receive the proper preventative care. Furthermore, most of the women with whom I spoke told me that they were too afraid to tell police officers about their experiences with sexual assault. They fear not being believed, being stigmatized, and having to face the anger of their perpetrator and/or their families. Furthermore, often, private negotiations will take place between the victim’s family and the perpetrator, and so the perpetrator is rarely formally punished. Beyond this, even if a victim does go through with the process of successfully filing a police report, there are two related access to justice problems that lie beyond that. The first is that the only court that hears those cases is quite a significant distance away from the village, and transport is both inconvenient and costly. The second is that the law states that the health worker who examines the victim after the assault took place must testify at the hearing. However, there exists no means of compensation for the worker’s time or transportation. Therefore, the large majority of the time, the health worker simply does not show up. When this happens, the case is thrown out.

***

On a more personal note, I have to say that as emotionally challenging as it was, speaking with these girls and women was a humbling privilege. Despite the hardships they shared with me, I sensed nothing but kindness and positivity radiating from them.


I sincerely hope that the empowerment programs that CEHURD implements will effect real change in the lives of these girls and women. Given the passion, focus, and dedication of the Community Empowerment team, I have faith that they just might.

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Updates from Malawi

  By Julia Bellehumeur

The Surprise Internship:

On May 10th I arrived in Blantyre, Malawi to work with the Equality Effect and the local organization WLSA (Women and the Law in Southern Africa).  Although I had been preparing for months to travel to Africa to work with this organization, this internship came to me by surprise.

My original placement with the Equality Effect was in Meru, Kenya.  A few days before my departure I got an email informing me that my internship in Kenya was cancelled due to concerns about the political climate.  My Equality Effect director and McGill’s IHRP director worked very quickly to arrange my new internship placement and a few days later, I was leaving for Blantyre, Malawi.  I knew very little about Malawi and I knew even less about what I would be working on, or where I would be living.  But I accepted the placement, trusting that this would be an adventure at the very least.

This last-minute switch seems to have foreshadowed and prepared me for my summer in Malawi. It set the tone for the internship in that I’ve had to be very adaptable and ready to take initiative in situations of uncertainty.  The work that I am doing is very different from what I would have been doing in Kenya, and the Equality Effect projects in Malawi aren’t quite as far along as they are in Kenya. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to have been granted such a wonderful and unique opportunity in Blantyre.

 

The Projects

The Corroboration Litigation 

The Equality Effect together with WLSA has been working on a constitutional claim against the Corroboration Rule in Malawi for cases of rape and defilement (defilement is Malawi’s legal term for sexual intercourse with a child).  Corroborative evidence is defined as any independent evidence over and above the complainant’s testimony that confirms that a crime was committed and connects the accused to the crime.  The Corroboration Rule comes from Malawi’s colonial past and is based on the discriminatory assumption that women and girls tend to fabricate claims of sexual violence, and that these claims are easy to make but difficult to disprove.  An example of corroborative evidence often required is a medical examination of the victim to prove that a rape or defilement did in fact occur. . . Of course, this is often impossible to provide for countless reasons.  The Corroboration Rule requires the judge to warn him or herself about the danger of convicting on uncorroborated evidence.  You can imagine how problematic it is to impose this additional requirement on women and girls when there are already so many other barriers to access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

My co-intern Michelle and I have been going to court to try to find new claimants for the case, although the bulk of our work for the litigation will pick up near the end of our internship.

 

The Workshops

WLSA has suggested developing a legislative campaign as another route to tackle eliminating the Corroboration Rule.   They’ve suggested that a conference would be a great way to get people talking about this rule and share some of the available knowledge and information within the community.  Michelle and I have taken on organizing this conference, which has proved to be quite a challenge.  Planning these initiatives usually requires a significant amount of time and funding.  Fortunately, we have been meeting with many engaged members of the community and have been coming up with creative ways to overcome these challenges before the end of our short stay in Malawi.

 

The One Stop Centers

We have observed many barriers to access justice for survivors of sexual violence in Malawi.  For example, police corruption, inconclusive or lost medical exams, a lack of education and awareness about the laws and resources, and most notably a lack of funding for fuel and transportation to bring victims into court or to the police stations.  These barriers all contribute to a high rate of withdrawal of cases, and are exacerbated for women and girls living in rural communities.

Michelle and I attended court twice this week and witnessed how some of these challenges come into play.  For the first case, we waited an hour after its start time for the magistrate to arrive.  Once he arrived, he informed the prosecutor that we could not proceed until the victim attended court.  Earlier the prosecutor had told us that the victim could not attend court because she lived too far away and they had no way of getting her.  A couple days later we came to see another case at 10am.  There was a small 7 year old girl waiting with her mother along with a doctor who came from the hospital to testify.  We all waited for over 3 hours for the magistrate who the prosecutor claimed was stuck in traffic.  Eventually the case was rescheduled to a later date.

The Blantyre One Stop Center has stood out to me as a beacon of hope among these obstacles for survivors of sexual violence.  At the OSC, victims and their families can come and report an experience of sexual or gender-based violence.  The OSC has social workers, a police officer, a doctor, a nurse, and a counsellor available onsite. They are all very committed to helping each person get the justice they deserve and the counselling they need to move forward.  They also organize awareness-raising events in local schools.  Unfortunately, these centers do not receive any funding beyond the minimal salaries provided to them by the government.  From what we’ve seen, the work of the OSC provides the most immediate results for individual victims. If they had even slightly more funds, the OSC has the potential to create widespread change. Michelle and I hope to help them create a crowdfunding type of fundraiser, and possibly even a student legal clinic to help them reach their potential.

 

Malawi

When I was told that we would be going to Malawi instead of Kenya, I had to quickly check on a map to find exactly where this tiny country was located.  I am not sure if it would have ever crossed my radar as a place to visit in my lifetime.  Yet now, it’s starting to feel like home.

Although Malawi is one of the continent’s poorest countries, it is known as the warm heart of Africa.  This was immediately apparent, Malawians tend to be very friendly and welcoming.  We have a lot of fun with our co-workers and we’ve enjoyed immersing ourselves in the very welcoming arts community at the weekly poetry nights and at an arts festival/party.

We arrived in their winter time so the landscape is incredibly lush. The fresh air and hilly backdrop makes Malawi feel like paradise.  In our yard, there are two avocado trees from which the best avocados I’ve ever had, measuring about the size of my face, fall almost daily. At night, I could spend hours looking up at the brightest starlit sky you can imagine.  I have found inner peace in Malawi – this country is truly breath-taking.

The first half of this internship has been amazing so far and I have learned so many unexpected things.  Navigating a role where I am encouraged to take initiative in a foreign country with a colonial history can at times be very challenging.  But I have learned a lot about what it takes at the primary stages of a human rights initiative, and I am working hard to ensure that the many skills I develop are appropriately balanced with a positive and sustainable impact on the women and girls in Malawi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Hurdles in Accessing Justice

2016 Moreau AndreBy André Moreau

Over the course of my internship at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) in Kampala, I’ve witnessed some challenges with some of the cases and petitions we brought forward to the courts.

In particular, one difficulty was caused by the influx of election petitions triggered by the recent Ugandan general election, which was held on February 18, 2016. This was the 6th general election since the Uganda Bush War (1979-1986) where the National Resistance Army, led by current president Yoweri Museveni, overthrew the autocratic and militaristic regime.

February’s election saw Museveni’s controversial re-election ­–his sixth consecutive term as the President of Uganda. The election results sparked protest, arrests and a series of formal election petitions. These election petitions have put much strain on the Ugandan judicial system, which has resulted in an even longer wait before Ugandans and Ugandan organizations can access justice before the court.

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court's Registrars Office

This is a photo of the Ugandan Constitutional Court’s Registrars Office– files upon files

Last week, Justice David Batema came to speak to the CEHURD’s staff about his experience working as a judge at the High Court of Uganda. He spoke about the courts’ challenge to process cases in a timely manner, especially during the post-election period.

When I asked him how the High Court prepares for the flood of election petitions, Justice Batema explained that the High Court developed a new strategy to minimize backlog. The High Court’s new strategy consisted of selecting 26 judges (almost two thirds of the High Court Judges in Uganda) and training them on best practices when dealing with the petitions.

To ensure nonpartisan decisions, the judges would then be relocated to a different district where they’d hear the petitions. This process, Batema explained, is designed to address all the submitted election petitions ­–hearing, trial, and judgement– within 60 days. This ambitious plan, however, is expected to exceed that timeframe. Further, if petitions are appealed, the process will take even longer.

Despite the Court’s effort to limit the backlog of cases, law firms, organizations such as CEHURD, and all the others parties involved are left with even more delays in their attempts to access justice.

Furthermore, Justice Batema has been vocal about the Courts being short-staffed: “we have very many cases, but we are few, we don’t want our people’s cases to delay here,” he said to one of the national newspapers, New Vision.

As CEHURD continues to fight for health and human rights in Uganda, this unfortunate influx of election petitions has created an additional hurdle in bringing forward cases and seeing them resolved.

Advocating Taboo Issues in Health and Human Rights

2016 Moreau Andre  By André Moreau

I’ve been in Uganda for a month now and I am really enjoying my experience thus far!

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is a big bustling city laid out over a series of hills and valleys on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Kampala appears to be continuously developing. The city is undergoing countless construction projects, which are improving the city’s infrastructure and the art/music/culinary scenes are becoming increasingly prominent.

My internship at the Center for Health, Human Rights & Development (CEHURD) is providing me with an opportunity to learn about some of the issues relating to health and human rights in Uganda in particular and East Africa as a whole. From visiting Uganda’s Constitutional Court, to drafting memos and conducting legal research, I have had the privilege of being exposed to some of the key initiatives of this dedicated organization.

A bird's eye view of Kampala

A view of Kampala taken from atop of the Uganda National Mosque

Recently, I was given the task of conducting research on some of the Sexual Offences Acts that have been implemented in various countries around the world. More specifically, I was asked to compare and contrast these pieces of legislation in order to find out whether the rights of sexual assault victims have been emphasized. Fortunately, of the seven pieces of legislation that I analyzed, only one jurisdiction did not make mention of the wellbeing and protection of victims within its Sexual Offences Act. The purpose of this research is clear: the Ugandan government is currently in the process of drafting its own Sexual Offences Bill and CEHURD is advocating for the inclusion of the rights of victims, notably when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The Ugandan Constitution states: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” As it stands, abortion is only permitted in Uganda when the mother’s life is in danger. As CEHURD pushes to advocate for the rights of victims of sexual assault, the organization hopes to broaden the range of exceptions to include situations of rape, incest, and/or defilement.

This is no easy task. Abortion is a topic that carries a considerable amount of weight in Ugandan society, a taboo. Even lawyers who are advocating for these changes appear to be wary of having their names ascribed to the file.

The Ugandan government made its views regarding abortion heard when it nearly rejected the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol). The product of eight years in the making, the Maputo Protocol felt strong resistance from the greater Ugandan society, namely its religious groups.  The main point of contention was subsection (2)(c) of article 14, which seeks to protect the reproductive rights of women by permitting abortion in the cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. In the end, Uganda ratified the protocol but with a reservation to subsection (2)(c).

Despite the attached stigma and legal ramifications, Ugandan women still resort to clandestine abortions. Roughly a quarter of the maternal deaths in Uganda are from unsafe abortions where roughly four women in Uganda die each day as a result. The gravity of the issue is impossible to ignore. Seeking inspiration from nearby jurisdictions such as Rwanda and South Africa, CEHURD continues to put pressure on the government to draft victim-centric legislation.

Although post-abortion care in Uganda is decriminalized, the health workers who provide medical services to abortion survivors are often persecuted. To help assure the rights of health care workers, CEHURD has formed the Legal Support Network (LSN) ­–a coalition of lawyers throughout the country to provide pro-bono services to help health workers who require legal assistance.

In a society that still presents many barriers, this is one example of how the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development has embarked on the long struggle of protecting and advocating women’s health rights and the rights of health workers throughout the country.

Dissonance, despondency, surprise – and LGBT rights in Africa

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

About a month and a half after my return from The Gambia, my thoughts about my trip are split in the most profound way. And so maybe my ruminations can only be expressed by a cliché and overused quote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

I suppose any life-changing event in a person’s life is sure to elicit these sorts of emotions. I met some people who were the most gracious and welcoming I have ever met, yet at the same time some days I couldn’t muster up the courage to leave my apartment because of the dozens of men who felt entitled to my words, my time, and my thoughts. I felt, at once, supreme isolation, and a very real connection to certain people around me. I felt pride and hope about the work I and my institution were doing, and sometimes I felt our work was so hypocritical, counterproductive, and self-congratulatory that I couldn’t believe I had ever considered it worthy of changing the world in even the smallest of ways.

Now that I’m back and, with a bit more distance, truly reflecting on human rights work, I can’t say I’m less conflicted. But it’s important to channel that critical eye into something positive and productive, no matter how daunting that task seems to be.

One of the greatest moments of dissonance for me was hearing my colleagues speak about LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and the infamous case of the American baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. I knew going there that this was a very touchy subject – homosexuality is criminalized in The Gambia, and certain acts can land you in prison for life. Generally it’s as if it doesn’t exist there, as if the famous words of Iran’s Ahmadinejad: “We don’t have any gays in Iran” actually ring true in The Gambia. So the only time I heard anyone talk about it was when the US Supreme Court decision was published, and I heard my colleagues make some (to put it nicely) very disappointing remarks.

Just a few months earlier, the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the African Commission after a 7-year battle. When their application for Observer Status was first rejected, the Commission provided as a reason that “the activities of the said Organisation do not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter.” The reversal of opinion was promising for the possibility of countering discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in Africa as it seemed to signify that the Commission was open to recognizing that the rights of homosexuals are enshrined in the African Charter. Yet just a few months later, their observer status was rescinded. One step forward, two steps back? If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s heartening to imagine that the Commission would grant such status at all, even if just for a few months.

Yet a colleague of mine was there during the debates at the Commission. He told me he heard some prominent human rights activists referring to ‘gays’ as rats or vermin – I’m not sure on the exact terminology he related, but it was something equally vile. He heard some of the most educated and progressive lawyers fight to deny even the rights to life and to be free from torture based on a person’s sexual orientation. A respected friend of mine said some equally hateful things. This dissonance was striking, but I was used to it at this point.

So in my eternal naiveté and hope, when my Institution tasked me with drawing up an internal memo on litigating sexual and reproductive rights, I decided that this was my prime opportunity to argue that we should be litigating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The arguments are solid – it would make a great case. Do I think they are ever going to do it? No, not in the foreseeable future. In fact I’m not sure my arguments and research will lead to anything positive at all because they seemed to fall on deaf ears. But I’m glad I tried.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but the hate I encountered left too bitter a taste in my mouth. Maybe the silver lining can be found in my surprise at my colleagues’ responses to the issue – that in almost every other way, their dedication to human rights, openness and tolerance taught me many things.

I suppose I think it’s unfortunate more than anything. At the very least, if my colleagues worked on such a case, I think their minds would be changed. I think they would be less apt to dehumanize gay people and others ostracized, beaten, and killed for their sexual orientation or gender identity on a regular basis. But maybe that would be too difficult to them – it’s hard to step out of your comfort zone, after all.

Travailler de concert

Par Michel Bélanger-Roy

Liste de choses que je ne m’attendais pas à faire lors d’un stage en droits humains au Cameroun :

#1 – Organiser un concert

Oh, je vois que vous froncez déjà les sourcils. Pas de problème, je prends les questions.

@FanDuCameroun : Mais Michel, pourquoi un concert? Je croyais que tu travaillais avec une organisation pour les droits des femmes.

#Action2015

#action2015

–       Bonne question, @FanDuCameroun. Mon organisation participe à une campagne mondiale intitulée Action/2015. Dans le but d’attirer l’attention sur une importante conférence de l’ONU, différents événements étaient organisés partout à travers le monde le 11 juillet dernier. L’idée était d’exposer le soutien populaire à un meilleur financement pour le développement international. Un concert avec des artistes « engagés » était une façon pour nous de rejoindre un large public de façon agréable tout en faisant passer notre message. En effet, il y avait aussi une portion du concert dédiée à discuter avec le public de thèmes chers à Women for a Change, comme la santé sexuelle et reproductive des femmes.

@PetitMalin : Le titre du billet est un jeu de mots?

–       Oui, @PetitMalin. Mes excuses.

@jaimelamusique : Comment on fait pour organiser un concert quand on est dans un nouveau pays et que notre organisation n’a jamais tenu un tel événement?

–       Tu vois juste @jaimelamusique : c’est un défi! Il faut trouver des artistes, des musiciens, une salle de spectacle, de l’équipement de scène, un technicien de son, des bénévoles. Et en quelques semaines seulement. On trouve peu d’information sur internet, alors on utilise le bon vieux « bouche à oreille ». On dit à tous ceux qu’on connaît qu’on veut faire un concert, puis par contacts interposés on fait beaucoup de rencontres jusqu’à trouver les bons partenaires.

@SRHR237 : Et pour la promotion?

–       Même chose! On a été très actifs sur les médias sociaux, mais on est aussi allé rencontrer les gens directement : sur le campus universitaire et même à la messe du dimanche!

@Africaincoquin : Épatant! Et vous aviez de bons artistes?

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent "We Must Survive"

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent “We Must Survive”

–       Oui, excellents! Tiens, @Africaincoquin, écoutes par toi-même leurs vidéoclips:

Dr Sley & The Green Soljas

Mr Leo

Ils sont bien connus dans la région pour leurs chansons qui dénoncent la guerre ou la corruption. C’était donc des choix naturels pour nous. Ils ont même écrit une chanson thème spécialement pour l’événement! Ça s’appelle « We Must Survive ».
(AJOUT : Cliquez sur le lien pour voir un extrait filmé lors du spectacle)

@Junglegirl8 : La soirée a été un succès?

–       Tout à fait! @Junglegirl8, tu peux imaginer qu’avec de tels artistes,  la salle s’est vite réchauffée et le public a beaucoup apprécié. La portion « séminaire » a provoqué de fructueux échanges sur le développement du Cameroun. Je crois que mon organisation a pu rejoindre un nouveau public et passer son message. Et on a terminé la soirée en dansant sur scène avec les musiciens!

@Fascinee : Fascinant! Et quelle a été la clef de ce succès, selon toi?

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

–       Le travail d’équipe! Même si Women For A Change n’avait jamais organisé de concert, mes collègues se sont lancées dans l’aventure et ont fait un travail formidable. Les artistes, les musiciens et l’animateur ont été d’une grande générosité. De nombreux partenaires nous ont aidé à faire la promotion du spectacle. Les déléguées régionales du ministère de la promotion de la femme et de la culture ont assisté et soutenu l’événement. Nous avions une superbe équipe de jeunes bénévoles, les « Iam15 ambassadors » et le public a participé activement au succès de la soirée.

@PetitMalin : Bon, au moins ton jeu de mots avait un véritable double sens alors.

–       Ce n’est pas une question @PetitMalin. Mais merci pour le commentaire. Je travaille fort sur mes jeux de mots, ça fait chaud au cœur.

C’est ce qui clôt la période de questions. Merci et à bientôt!

Cameroun : Parmi les inégalités

2015 Belanger Roy MichelBy Michel Bélanger-Roy

Bien sûr, la différence frappe. Avant même d’atterrir, en voyant par le hublot les banlieues délabrées de Douala, on comprend qu’on n’est plus en Occident. Puis, une fois au sol, le choc s’amplifie. La saleté. Le bruit incessant des klaxons. Chaque première expérience est une surprise : s’entasser avec 6 inconnus dans un taxi collectif (Ah, le siège prend 2 passagers? Bien sûr, assoyez-vous sur mes genoux); faire son marché (Les œufs ne sont pas au froid? Ah tiens, la viande non plus); chercher un appartement (Il n’y a pas d’adresses? Ah bon, les rues n’ont pas de nom). Parlant de rue, la traverser entre taxis et motos qui ne s’arrêtent pas demeure une frayeur quotidienne

Mais on s’habitue. Un peu. Et on découvre les différences qu’on apprécie : la nourriture de rue délicieuse et abordable; la musique africaine; les fruits savoureux; les paysages verdoyants; l’attitude décontractée; la générosité. Je me suis même surpris à souhaiter voir des taxis collectifs à Montréal.

Et au fil des jours, c’est autre chose qui m’a frappé : l’ampleur des inégalités. Il faut dire que mes rencontres sont variées. Entre un repas cuit sur le feu d’une femme de campagne et un scotch versé sur le minibar d’un riche avocat, je fais connaissance avec des gens qui eux ne se côtoient pas. Le mur encadrant la villa de l’avocat y est peut-être pour quelque chose.

Inégalités socio-économiques donc, d’abord. Ici, les Mercedes roulent en bordure des bidonvilles. Comme ailleurs, on affiche sa richesse comme gage de réussite. Mais dans un pays du tiers-monde, le contraste impressionne particulièrement.

Atelier sur les droits des femmes à Mudeka

Atelier sur les droits des femmes à Mudeka

Inégalités de genre ou condition féminine, le thème de mon stage avec Women for a Change Cameroon. Au Cameroun, la loi limite encore l’égalité, notamment en criminalisant l’avortement (Code pénal du Cameroun, Article 337). Plus encore, ce sont des normes culturelles qui perpétuent les inégalités. Le harcèlement de rue demeure pratique courante. Et le passage aux toilettes d’un bar ou d’un restaurant (souvent 3 simples panneaux de tôle dans une cour) rappelle que ces lieux sont conçus pour les hommes. Par ailleurs, inégalités sexuelles et économiques restent intimement liées, les femmes ne possédant que 2% des terres au Cameroun (Cameroon Gender Equality Network, 2011).

Inégalités linguistiques, ensuite. Pour un Québécois, il est fascinant de se retrouver en région anglophone au Cameroun. En effet, la minorité anglophone camerounaise défend fermement ses droits linguistiques face à une parfois oppressante majorité…francophone. Elle revendique même la protection de son système juridique distinct (de Common Law). À part l’inversion des rôles, rien de très dépaysant. Cependant, avec plus de 250 langues locales et dialectes parlés au pays, le portrait linguistique demeure autrement complexe.

Parmi les autres vecteurs d’inégalités, quelques uns sont plus encourageants. Malgré une diversité impressionnante, le Cameroun connaît peu de tensions ethniques ou religieuses et reste très tolérant à ces égards. En revanche, l’état des droits LGBT demeure déplorable.

Finalement, inégalité… internationale. Celle qu’illustre ma présence. Étant l’un des rares « blancs » (mon bronzage impressionne peu) en ville, j’attire forcément les regards. Outre quelques rares remarques moqueuses et des prix parfois gonflés, je n’ai vraiment pas à m’en plaindre. Mais en parlant du Canada avec des Camerounais, je sens bien leur envie. Légitime. Et je constate que même si on les déplore, notre système de santé, nos infrastructures et notre système d’éducation sont autant d’immenses privilèges.

Ce « privilège occidental », facile à oublier à Montréal, est ici exposé aux regards par la couleur de ma peau. Et forcément, ça confronte. Quoi faire avec ce privilège?

À cet égard, une femme demandait récemment à ma collègue ce que je faisais ici.

–       « A human rights internship »

–       « How long? »

–       « 3 months »

–       « And after that…? »

Bonne question, Madame. Bonne question. And after that…?

 

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