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

 

 

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