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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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