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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Injustice in the Malawian justice system and the objectification of victims

2013 Silvia Neagu 100x150By Silvia Neagu

While I’ve spent a substantial portion of my time so far doing legal research at the university, I also attended court to watch the proceedings of defilement cases. The difference between the Canadian justice system and the Malawian system was shocking at first.

Firstly, the magistrate met with us in his chambers before the hearing, discussed the case openly and made no effort to at least appear impartial. He commented that “you can tell a guilty conscience” because the defendant was not asking a lot of questions. During the proceedings, you could hear the magistrate’s phone vibrating and he also once interrupted a sentencing (before revealing the sentence) to have a  5-minute phone conversation. During the same sentencing, the magistrate wanted to make a point of how lenient he was being, so he passed around bits of paper to everyone in the room and asked us to write down what we thought the sentence should be. Although Alison and I tried to say everything to get out of it, he insisted we take part in the exercise and assured us this would not change the sentence.

The most shocking fact was that the accused was unrepresented and was expected to lead his own defence, despite a lack of basic education. The defendant’s questions to the prosecution’s witness were completely off-target and made the whole process feel like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Because the accused leads his own defence, this also means that he or she is expected to cross-examine the victim when he/she testifies, which is understandably hugely traumatizing for victims. However, in this particular case, the three-year old victim had testified at an earlier date and the accused had not asked any questions. The defendant’s complete lack of understanding of the justice system also meant that the magistrate further compromised his appearance of impartiality. At one point the magistrate was suggesting possible issues that the defendant could raise.

The court room at the Magistrate Court in Zomba, Malawi.

The court room at the Magistrate Court in Zomba, Malawi.

Our meeting with the magistrate and some police prosecutors was also revealing of some of the subversive attitudes towards sexual assault victims and women in general. When discussing the issue of consent, the magistrate explained that they would expect a woman to show evidence of her lack of consent, depending on the relative sizes of the accused and the victim. To illustrate this point, the magistrate then began suggesting that I, for example, would not necessarily be able to accuse one of the thinner police officers in the room of assault. When I looked incredulously at him, he then took the female prosecutor in the room as an example and someone joked about her “huge” size. The magistrate and some of the prosecutors’ attitudes toward victims of defilement also varied with the victim’s age: the older the victim, the less sympathetic they appeared to be.

When discussing the case that day, everyone repeatedly praised how clever the 3-year old victim was and what a shame it was that we had not been present during her testimony. The magistrate and police repeatedly offered to have us meet the girl, which we declined, explaining that we did not wish to trouble her further, even more so because she did not speak English. Despite our refusal, the next time Alison and I were in court, they brought the victim to meet us. It was very awkward and extremely uncomfortable to watch the magistrate question the victim for our benefit – and it was frustrating to realize that there was nothing we could do to stop it. The child was confused as to why two “azungus” (term for white people/foreigners) were there and apparently thought we were adopting her.  When we told this story to our director, Fiona Sampson, she commented that this was an “objectification of the victim”, which is a fitting description.

Another issue that was troubling us was the influence of our physical presence in the court room. When we tried to sit at the back of the court, the magistrate immediately motioned for us to come to the front. In fact, when the magistrate was reading out his judgement at the end of the trial, his judgment included a reference to “our guests from abroad.”

On another occasion, we had informed the prosecutor the particular day that we would be attending court. When we arrived, a clerk told us that the cases were cancelled that day because the President was in Zomba and all the police officers and vehicles were therefore busy. As we walked back to our hostel, we ran into the police prosecutors on the road, who were bringing the accused to the court house specifically because they knew we would be there that day. So Alison and I walked with three accused, two police officers (and the dog from our hostel that was following us around) back to the court house. We were quite the sight !

The Precariousness of academics in Malawi and adventures in legal research

2013 Silvia Neagu 100x150By Silvia Neagu

Muli Bwanji ! Greetings from Malawi!

I’ve been in Malawi for over a month now.  My host organization, the equality effect, is a Toronto-based organization which uses the law to enforce the rights of African women and girls. The organization is starting a new project in Malawi, focusing on the legal treatment of defilement, the legal term for rape of girl children. The organization sent a University of Toronto intern and I to the University of Malawi in Zomba for the first half of our internship.  Zomba was previously the capital city under Malawi’s first president, but is now best described as simply a “big village”.  It is now surpassed in size and importance by the capital, Lilongwe, and the business capital, Blantyre. The town is overlooked by the mountainous area of the Zomba plateau, which makes the town breathtakingly beautiful.

Background on Malawi

In case you do not know much about Malawi, here are some quick facts about “the warm heart of Africa”: the landlocked country sits at the crossroads between East Africa and Southern Africa and was formerly a British protectorate called “Nyasaland.” The country became independent in 1964, and elected its first president, Hastings Banda, whose dictatorial “one-party” reign endured until 1994. Malawi is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.  As one of the professors we met observed, “this country is run by development agencies.”

65% of Malawi’s population lives on less than 1$ a day. To put things in perspective, the head waiter at my hostel told me it took him 5 years to find his current job after being let go from a job at a bank.  The prevalence of HIV in Malawi is among the world’s highest ; 11% of the population currently lives with HIV. Malawi’s population is also very young ; 58.8% of the population is 19 and under.[1]

Working at “Chanco” during a sit-in

Our supervisor, Professor Ngeyi Kanyongolo, a legal expert in women’s rights  in Malawi, wanted us to come to Chancellor College (“Chanco”) in order to interact with students and attend some classes. Unfortunately, for the first three weeks of our stay the students were on “sit-in” (strike).  The university was pretty deserted, although we were lucky to meet some of Dr. Kanyongolo’s research assistants, who were extremely helpful in introducing us to the university and Zomba. As we soon discovered, it is not uncommon for students’ academic year to be disrupted in Malawi. When we asked students when their academic year usually begins and ends, they gave us varying dates and said it depended on the dates announced by the government.

The accounts we were given of the “sit in” were, perhaps, a good introduction to the situation of political rights in Malawi, particularly when financial aspects are at play. The students were demanding higher allowances from the government. When the sit-in was announced, the government decided to close the school, giving students only 8 hours to vacate the university (including those living in the university residences). After several weeks, the government gave the students the “choice” of returning to school if they signed a form stating that they “agreed” to the previous conditions. As any student in the world can imagine, being given the “choice” to finish a degree that you’ve almost completed is not much of a choice at all.

We were also informed that the university professors also recently protested, demanding academic freedom, after a professor’s comments in class led to him being summoned by the Inspector General for questioning. The professor had compared the precursor events of the “Arab Spring” to the fuel shortage in Malawi at the time, during a political science class. So, one of my first lessons at Chanco was that when a university is entirely government sponsored, students’ education is easily disrupted, and professors’ ability to speak their minds can be extremely fragile.

Entrance to Chanco

Banner proclaiming Academic Freedom at the entrance to Chanco

Adventures in legal research in Malawi

Doing legal research in Malawi definitely falls under the category of “Things they never teach you in law school.” Firstly, power outages can happen at any time of day and their frequency and duration are completely random. During our first week in Zomba we experienced power outages nearly every day (sometimes for almost the entire day).  In the past couple of weeks, we have been lucky to only have one or two a week. I have learned to ensure that my computer is well-charged.

Secondly, the availability and reliability of internet imposes another challenge. We are lucky that the law faculty has wifi (restricted to staff use only), but it is often slow and does not work during a power outage. We also bought “dongles” – portable internet modems- but these also often had signal problems and limit the amount of downloading/uploading you can do. Therefore, we often save our downloading and uploading for the days when the university wifi is functioning well.

Thirdly, Malawian jurisprudence is extremely hard to locate. While there is a “MalawiLii”, it currently has very few cases. There is no search engine that allows you to search for the leading cases on specific topics. Students tell us that they rely on their course reading lists and photocopies of cases passed down from upper-years to learn the main cases in a specific area of the law. My co-intern and I therefore have been relying on secondary sources to point us to some of the leading cases. We are also lucky that Edge Kanyongolo, the Malawian constitutional expert, had an office steps from us and was helpful in pointing us in the right direction.  Another challenge is that, once we do locate a case, the judge’s reasoning is often very fact-specific and lacks in critical analysis of the rights at play. This makes it difficult to anticipate how a court would interpret a right in a novel factual context.

Lastly, a large number of cases in Malawi are unreported, leaving the current realities of the Malawi justice system largely outside our reach.  For instance, all defilement cases are decided at the magistrate court level (lowest level of courts), where cases are not reported. Because the Department of Public Prosecutions essentially never appeals decisions from the magistrate courts, many acquittals are not only inaccessible to legal researchers like us, but are also shielded from revision by other courts.

University greens

View from the law faculty at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College

 


[1] “Malawi Demographic and Health Study, 2010”, Malawi National Statistics Office, 2011.

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