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What We Take for Granted…

By Leila Alfaro

The beautiful Andes, somewhere south of Mendoza

July 22nd, 2019

This is my last week in Mar del Plata. The last month has been tough for my family and me, as we have struggled with maintaining our Argentinian routine, so different from our regular one, and have been feeling homesick, missing our family and friends. I am very excited to head back home, but I am also very thankful for my time here, for the encounters I have had, the things I have learned, the places I have visited and the memories I have made. As the weeks progressed, I often had to fight the disconcerting thought that my presence here would ultimately prove to be useless and that in the end, I would realize just how little I had accomplished this summer.  I partly blame this on the slow pace of life here but these fears, certainly, were also anchored on the notion of just how complex issues pertaining to disability rights are, and that there is no single way of tackling them without eventually uncovering further underlying issues of a more complex nature. Exploring the field of disability rights, namely in a country with a fragile economy, proved to be beyond frustrating at times. A cloud of helplessness and desolation was hanging constantly over my head, as I had to come to terms with the extent to which ableism is embedded in the structures of society and just how limited the impact of rights and laws on paper can be, when there is simply so much that has to change in order to guarantee a dignified life for members of such marginalized group.

While I had no experience whatsoever in the field, especially in the Argentinian context, I found myself learning so much, so quickly. By learning from the situation in this foreign country, I inevitably felt the urge to find out more about the reality back in Canada. One of the most interesting moments in the context of the workshops with people with disabilities was when I was able to present a brief overview of how Canada approaches voting rights for people with disabilities. By communicating the reality of my country, I was able to share interesting links, like how the issue of an aging population has an incidence on the existing efforts of accommodation.

Curiously, when I elaborated on how there is still much to accomplish in Canada as well, I was met with what felt like skepticism. Argentinians certainly hold Canada in high regard, since they see our institutions as well-funded, efficient and “serious”. The irony is not lost in me, that as much as they admire said efficiency, they do not seem interested in a more rapidly-paced lifestyle. Indeed, such tradeoffs are inevitable, and we are not always in a position to be adequately critical of them given our own biases and perspectives which are ultimately limited by our personal realities.

Being abroad, I have mostly been able to reflect on the things I take for granted (like the people who are part of my daily life, the comfort of my home or some of my favourite foods!), but I have also learned about what people here take for granted. As I have become interested in the topic of voting rights for people with disabilities, I have begun working on a research project of my own. As I debated on which topic to present to the Centre for approval, I ultimately felt the strong urge to address the mandatory aspect of Argentinian suffrage. I found it fascinating how the people with whom I interacted could be so comfortable communicating their own frustrations regarding their system yet seemed very willing to justify it when I would question factors such as mandatory voting. I was surprised to find that virtually no literature exists on the subject in relation to disability (I was told there had been some kind of project done in another university that tackled this issue, but I have yet to learn more about it). I quickly became under the impression that, while Argentinians do recognize the particularity of their voting system in this regard (mandatory voting), they are quite satisfied with it. When it comes to discussing and promoting the ability to vote, basically no attention was brought to how the principle of mandatory voting might also impact persons with disabilities. This notion exemplifies the degree of ableism in society in terms of what the State expects from its citizens, seemingly ignoring the existing gap between those who have impairments and those who do not have any.

While I was pleased to hear that my research project relied on a novel outlook of the situation, I expect to gain more insight on the underlying ambiguities of mandatory voting, especially given the historical context of the Argentinian political scene. In elaborating on this topic, I hope to encourage other researchers and clinical workers to become more sensible to how the obstacles people with disabilities face are linked to more complex structural factors of society that we tend to take for granted.

My going-away dinner with members of the Extension Group on Voting Rights for PWD, comprised of graduate students and faculty from multiple fields

 

The last workshop in which I participated, especially tailored for people with visual impairments

Robes and Backpacks: When an International Human Rights Tribunal Goes in the Field

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

My internship took an unexpected turn when, halfway through the summer, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) announced that its next session of hearings, from August 26th to September 6th, would not take place in San José as planned. Instead, they would be a “special session” or “extraordinary session” in Barranquilla and Bogotá, Colombia.

Day 1 of the IACtHR’s Special Session in Barranquilla, Colombia

Interns are allowed to attend the extraordinary sessions of the Court, they often don’t because they must undertake all the travel planning and expenses themselves. Coincidentally, I had happened to book a holiday to Colombia to visit family after my internship before the extraordinary session in Colombia was even announced. The dates coincided perfectly, so I decided to take advantage of the chance to see what happens when an international human rights tribunal goes in the field.

The Court holds hearings four times per year on-site in San José (called “ordinary sessions”) but since 2005 it sometimes adds sessions on-location in countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (these are called “extraordinary” or “special” sessions). You can see the list of past sessions here. Unusually, there weren’t any ordinary sessions scheduled during my internship at the Court. This was why I made the effort to go to Colombia: I wanted to see the Court in action!

 

The Role of the IACtHR in Guaranteeing Human Rights in the Hemisphere

Colombia’s President, Iván Duque, makes a speech at the inauguration of the Special Session.

The hearings in Barranquilla were open to the public and held in a university, the Universidad del Norte. The first day, August 26th, consisted of the inauguration ceremony for the special session and a one-day seminar on the role of the Court in guaranteeing human rights in this hemisphere. When I arrived, I noticed that security was tight. There were a lot of police officers and each guest had to present identification. When I got into the auditorium where the sessions would be held, I was very impressed: the room was huge! There must have been 1000 seats and they were all full. I soon found out the reason for the extra-tight security as well. Colombian president Iván Duque had made the trip to Barranquilla to deliver a speech and open the session. Before President Duque, Adolfo Meisel, the Rector of the Universidad del Norte and Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor, the President (Chief Justice) of the Court gave their remarks.

I was really inspired by Justice Ferrer’s remarks, in which he named what he sees as today’s most significant challenges to human rights:

  1. Persistent poverty, especially considering that Latin America is the most unequal region of the world;
  2. Discrimination and violence against women, as well as the exclusion of women from decision-making;
  3. Migration crises (specifically in Venezuela and Central America), where we face a crisis of migration as well as solidarity;
  4. Climate change and its specific impact on the most vulnerable populations;
  5. Organized crime and violence which are an increasingly large threat to the region; and
  6. Authoritarianism, and discourse that aims to restrict rights and freedoms, recognizing that democracy requires a diverse range of views, but cannot exist when certain groups are labelled enemies of the state or when we allow hate speech.

Justice Ferrer also explained the purpose of the Court’s special sessions, of which 30 have taken place in 19 different countries. Colombia is the country who has hosted the largest number of special sessions: 5 in total (two in Bogotá, one in Medellín, one in Cartagena, and now in Barranquilla and Bogotá again). He said the special sessions are important because it facilitates the work of the Court, both by bringing the system closer to the victims of human rights violations (such as when the court holds hearings to monitor a state’s compliance with its previous decisions), but also brings people closer to the system, facilitating a useful dialogue between the Court, governments, and civil society.

Here you can see the size of the audience at the Court’s inauguration.

In the first panel discussion, a reflection on 40 years of interpretation and application of the American Convention on Human Rights by the Court, Professor Mariela Morales from the Max Planck Institute gave a very interesting overview of the history of the Court and its unique contributions to the development of international human rights law. She mentioned that the Court is unique because it is a “Corte de toga y mochila” (a Court with robes and backpacks), as it travels to member states to hold hearings, echoing the comments of Justice Ferrer. She explained how the Court was born from the aftermath of the wave of military dictatorships in Latin America around the 1970s and 1980s, and how due to this history, one of its first contributions to international human rights law was developing a legal framework on how states must respond to forced disappearances.

Indeed, I noticed a strong thread of public legal education throughout the sessions. A printed program on each seat in the auditorium included the “ABC’s of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights”, a short guide to the structure and purpose of the Court. The whole first day was geared towards people who maybe didn’t have a 100% familiarity with the system, complete with explanations of the purpose and history of the Inter-American Human Rights System. You can see video recordings of all the seminars and public hearings here. As the sessions took place on a university campus, I noticed groups of students wandering in and out of the auditorium to listen to the seminars and hearings between their classes.

Justice Odio Benito speaking about the 25th anniversary of the Belem do Pará Convention.

My favourite panel was reflecting on 25 years since the ratification of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (also known as the Belem do Pará Convention). It was moderated by Justice Elizabeth Odio Benito, the only woman judge currently sitting on the IACtHR. Justice Odio’s opening remarks touched on how much progress has been made in terms of women’s rights in the past 25 years, but also that we have a long way to go.

The first speaker was Julissa Mantilla, a commissioner-elect of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). She spoke about the need to develop a further framework to look at the presence and impact of sexual violence specifically as a part of forced disappearance and in truth commissions. She raised 5 important points when it comes to women’s rights in the Americas: 1) we must always use a differentiated analysis consider the specific impact on women in human rights issues; 2) it is important to note the impacts of intergenerational trauma; 3) violence against women is seriously under-reported; 4) the IACHR now has more women than men serving as commissioners, but we still need to make progress in the representation of women as decision-makers; 5) femicide (intentional murder of women) is still a huge problem in society, and in order to tackle it we need to remember that it is not a women’s issue, but rather a human rights issue that is a problem for everyone.

I was also really interested in the talk by María Paulina Riveros Dueñas, who was until recently the Deputy Attorney General of Colombia. She talked about how gender issues were incorporated into the negotiations of Colombia’s historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended more than 50 years of war in the country (the peace agreement has hit a big bump in the road this week, after Ms. Riveros’s talk). Ms. Riveros that the peace agreement was revolutionary for the way it gave women’s groups and victims’ representatives a seat at the table. She pointed out three significant developments related to gender that came out of the agreement: 1) it underlined the importance of helping victims heal and move beyond the state of being a victim in transitions from war to peace; 2) the Truth Commission created by the agreement has a specific working group charged with completing a gender-differentiated analysis of the conflict; and 3) the agreement created a gender research group as part of Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which is a special tribunal created to implement transitional justice in Colombia.

 

Azul Rojas Marín vs. Perú

I sat with the Court’s Registrar (Secretario), Pablo Saavedra, and my supervisor to assist with the hearing of Rojas Marín vs. Perú.

On August 27th I had the chance to help out with the morning and afternoon hearings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case Azul Rojas Marín vs. Perú. I was a little more involved in helping out with this particular case as my supervising lawyer was the Court’s point-person on this file. The case is about violence motivated by discrimination against a member of the LGBT community, and also questions how we define torture in international law. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) considered that Peru had violated its obligation to protect victims of sexual violence, with the aggravating factor of prejudice against members of the LGBT community.

I had learned a lot about the Court and how it functions over the course of my internship, but it was definitely a different experience to see a hearing in person. One thing that really stood out to me was how the Court hearings involve three parties: the State, the victims and their legal representatives, and the Inter-American Commission. It makes a big difference to be in a courtroom with three parties instead of just two, as I am used to seeing in Canada.

If you’re familiar with the procedure of the IACtHR, you know that victims cannot present complaints directly to the Court. Rather, they must first approach the Commission. The Commission will make a determination of whether the State was in violation of its regional obligations and make recommendations. Then, if necessary, it will refer the matter to the Court for a binding ruling.

As such, in hearings of the Court, the Commission is the first of the parties to speak, presenting a summary of the case. Then the victims’ representatives and the State make their oral arguments. Finally, all three parties have the chance to make final statements and respond to the arguments of the other parties. The judges have a chance to ask questions to the lawyers after each party’s allotted time. I didn’t observe judges interrupting lawyers with questions as often happens in Canadian courts: rather, they hold their questions until the end.

 

A successful innovation

The Special Session was highly publicized on social media, with this logo.

In 2009, Pablo Saavedra, the Court’s registrar, and Gabriela Pacheco, a former lawyer for the Court, wrote that Special Sessions “have been the most innovative and successful initiatives created by the Court” (my translation). The primary benefit they site of these sessions is that they facilitate the work of the Court. On the one hand, they permit the Court to hold more hearings per year and process more cases. On the other hand, they permit the Court to interact with internal state organs of the countries concerned, which fits with the Court’s belief that respect for human rights is primarily an obligation internal to States. Finally, they are accompanies by training and education in human rights for state agents and civil society, as I experienced in Barranquilla, which empower individuals to use the Inter-American Human Rights System.

Overall, I count myself extremely lucky to have had the chance to travel to Colombia to observe what happens when an international human rights tribunal packs up its robes and heads into the field. Having seen the Court in action, I am convinced that its special sessions are an important part of its work, as they bring the Court closer to the communities it serves and give the legal community and the general public the opportunity to learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System. Because of the Special Sessions, it is truly a corte de ciudadanas y ciudadanos (a court of the people).

Living my best student life while grabbing lunch on campus at the Universidad del Norte, where the Special Session took place.

On Electra & Venezuela

By Natalia Koper

Electra was an angry daughter. No wonder, her mother Clytemnestra, in a vengeful act, had killed her father Agamemnon after he had sacrificed his eldest daughter, the innocent Iphigenia on the altar of war. Being a daughter of a murdered father and a mother-murderer has marked Electra’s identity throughout literary history.

The story of Electra has been recounted many times partly because it exposes the complexity of human suffering; partly because the ease of reproducing violence resonates with our experiences and histories. Electra individualizes and humanizes the different facets of pain: her tragedy in the midst of the Trojan War is not discarded as one of many. At the same time, Electra’s struggle touches on some (perhaps) universally pertinent dilemmas. How to break with the cycle of violence? Where is the line between vengeance and justice? How does an ‘after’ for a survivor of violence even look like?

This year, I experienced this famous product of Greek mythology from a completely unexpected angle. In Lima’s Teatro la Plaza, a group of Venezuelan actors relived Electra’s story, adding to it that of their nation.

Poster, source: Larcomar <larcomar.com/electra-de-sofocles-a-clavier-de-grecia-a-venezuela/electra>

The actors signalled their message early on: the play began by the actors approaching the edge of the stage, introducing themselves, and explaining how long they have lived in Peru. Peru has observed a consistent increase of people arriving from Venezuela since the living conditions there began to deteriorate drastically in 2017. Currently, the country is the second-largest recipient of Venezuelans fleeing the violence of the Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Out of more than 800,000 Venezuelans residing in Peru, about 80 percent – including the actors in front of me – sought refuge in Lima.

The play, however, took us to the modern-day Caracas. It revolved around a family gathering, celebrating the birthday of Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. It was a glimpse into a fallen kingdom of prosperity. “Soon there will be nothing left to sell from this beautiful villa,” noticed one of the party invitees. (Actually, the comment served also as a meta-joke on the minimalist scenography). The purchase of birthday balloons, forming into Aegisthus’s name, met with Electra’s disapproval too.

The scenography

In this reality, Electra’s resentment towards the impunity of her father’s death gets mixed up with quarrels over a chicken missing from the fridge. Not so surprisingly, these two dimensions of the quarrel belong together here. In Venezuela, the aggravation of the institutional order, the restraints on civil rights, and extrajudicial killings go in pair with the economic crisis, extreme hyperinflation, and the consequent lack of access to basic social services. The economic fiasco of Maduro’s politics fuels the public discontent, which, in a strong democracy, would force him out of power. To hold on to his seat, Maduro resorts to the militarization of the public “safety” and the criminalization of the opposition. Extreme poverty also affects crime rates. All these factors combined push people to leaving the country, which further contributes to limiting access to social services and shortages of food and medical supplies. For example, by 2017, more than 40 percent of doctors who have graduated in the last decade decided to emigrate. Of those who remained in Venezuela, 75 percent still intend to leave. In short, Electra’s family perpetual cycle of violence coincides with what Venezuelans experience in real life.

In the play, the Caracas of 2019 finds itself contrasted with other moments from the 20th-century history. In particular, this Greek royal family holds on to the memory of better days, manifested in the abundance of everyday resources and the right to manage them in a carefree, wasteful manner. It’s not exactly clear whether that refers to the 1980s when Venezuela’s elite thrived on U.S-backed oil deals or to the more recent social welfare project of Hugo Chávez. Both of these “happy times” remind us, however, about the unstable foundation of the Venezuelan economy. By relying almost entirely on oil exports, the country is susceptible to economic collapse every time the oil market prices drop significantly. Economists call this phenomenon a natural resource curse, which again brings back the ancient Greek notions of fate and doom.

Electra didn’t manage to escape her family’s cycle of pain. Instead of joining her brother Orestes in Peru and leaving her fate behind in Venezuela, she completes the cycle the moment we hear behind-the-scene shots. Vengeance for her father’s death is executed, turning Electra into yet another murderer. What will be of Venezuela now?

 

Live-in Workers

By Tessa Martin

I would like to dedicate my last blog to discussing worker’s rights. More specifically, I wish to briefly discuss workers who live where they work. That is to say, workers who are housed on their employer’s property. My question is the following: Can it ever be ethical?

I will focus on two types of workers: live-in domestic workers and plantation workers living on estates. The majority of my time interning at the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Sri Lanka was spent researching the laws and policies surrounding Sri Lankan plantation workers living on large-scale tea and rubber estates. Meanwhile, I came across various situations with live-in domestic workers, seen as common place in this part of the world. Something about both of these forms of work felt inherently wrong to me, but it took me some time to figure out why, or what, felt so off-putting.

Much like live-in domestic workers, plantation workers in Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber estates face a lack of separation between their work and their private life. Their time and the spaces they inhabit are highly regulated, allowing employers to exert full control over their lives. This thereby creates the perfect conditions for a system resembling what one may call ‘modern slavery’. The International Labour Organization’s notes on the concept of vulnerability state that “forced labour is also more likely in cases of multiple dependency on the employer, such as when the worker depends on the employer not only for his or her job but also for housing, food, etc.”

Plantation workers live on the estates, far away from everything, secluded, left out of sight and out of mind. They are trapped in the space of their employers 24/7. Outsiders are denied entry to the estates since it is considered the private property of Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs). This made it nearly impossible for me to meet with plantation workers themselves throughout my research, relying instead on the experience of professors and NGOs. In fact, as a result, plantation workers are largely denied the opportunity to become their own agents of change and I question their ability to express their own narratives. This was a huge issue brought up to me by an activist who was highly engaged in the “1000 Rupee movement” (meant to increase plantation worker’s minimum wage), who spoke to me about the issues of creating a movement which largely excludes and is far removed from the people it is meant to impact.

The distinction between public versus private property is also used to exclude plantation workers from local governance. For example, the Pradeshiya Sabha Act excludes the estates from receiving public services provided for by Pradeshiya Sabhas (Divisional Councils). These public services include, but are not limited to, public health services, road maintenance and construction, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, garbage disposal, maternity care, pre-school and child welfare services. Moreover, as expressed in the preamble of the PS Act, the PSs are meant to “provide greater opportunities for people to participate effectively in decision making process relating to administrative and development activities at a local level.” The Pradeshiya Sabha Act has therefore served to ensure that plantation workers in Sri Lanka continue to be governed by companies rather than the state, thereby effectively excluding them from participating in democratic forms of governance.

This level of control is especially problematic given the gendered aspect of plantation and domestic work. The majority of plantation and domestic workers are women, therefore allowing for the continuity of control over women’s lives. If one is to abide by Amartya Sen’s understanding of human rights as freedom, and one is to see control and freedom as inherently opposed, then this form of work fits the very definition of the denial of human rights.

So, can a system wherein workers live where they work ever be ethical?  

Well, in some rare cases yes, but it depends entirely on the individual employers. This is to say the workers are placed at the mercy of their employers so called “benevolence.”

Of course, whether this means that these forms of work should not exist is an entirely different question. The reality of the situation is that this allows many people, especially women, to survive, and at times even to break out of the cycle of poverty. It would be far too naïve to call for the abolition of all forms of ‘live-in’ work. However, it is still worth reflecting on the inherent problems of such a system, and to start thinking of ways to further monitor the circumstances and to limit the power exerted by employers over workers.

 

Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

At the UN for the first time! Notice the giant smile on my face.

A highlight of my summer internship with Human Rights Watch was being invited to attend conferences and meetings held at the UN Headquarters. Sure, anyone can sign up for a tour of the UN and visit the building. But there is something about showing up in a suit, ID card in hand, that feels different than visiting as tourist wearing shorts and a fanny-pack (okay, I’m playing up the stereotype here). Beyond the initial awe of walking through the building and sitting in on meetings, going to the UN was a stand-out experience for me because it was there that I received my first big lesson in advocacy this summer.

On July 17th, the World Day for International Justice, I attended a conference about why #JusticeMatters.

It was at the UN that my supervisor showed me the importance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. After the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, my supervisor instructed me and a fellow intern to follow her down the stairs to where journalists sometimes wait to interview the Prosecutor. We hovered in a corner. Now, a little known fact about me is that I hate breaking rules. I get so nervous about breaking rules that I don’t even like doing something that could potentially be breaking a rule. This means that I am not usually a hoverer or a loiterer, because I’m always too nervous that some security guard will nicely tell me to please move along. Despite my natural instincts not to hover, I followed my supervisor’s lead, and she eventually caught the attention of a journalist. They made small talk for a bit, and then the journalist asked my supervisor if she had anything she’d like to say about the briefing. Leaning confidently into the tape recorder, my supervisor delivered a concise and clear comment on the briefing. As we walked away, she shrugged “maybe the journalist will use that quote.” Sure enough, the next day my supervisor’s statement was included in the news article. By placing herself in the journalist’s path, my supervisor was able to make her voice heard.

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

All second-year students at McGill are required to take a course called “Advocacy”. We learn about many different ways to advocate for a client: demand letters, mediation, and oral advocacy at a mock trial. These lessons were interesting and helpful, and I will carry those skills with me into my career. The advocacy lessons I learned at Human Rights Watch were a bit different, but equally as important. At Human Rights Watch, I learned about the power of using other people to get your message heard. A newspaper picking up a story with a well-placed quote may reach a broader audience than an organization could reach on its own. An idea being pushed forward by one person may go further than if that idea is pushed by another person. My advocacy course taught me how to be a better advocate when I’m the one at the table. But my impromptu advocacy lessons this summer taught me how to be a better advocate behind the scenes. I learned that sometimes being an advocate means getting the ball rolling and letting someone else run with it. Or in some cases, rolling the ball directly into someone else’s path so that they have no choice but to run with it.

I was lucky to work with two fantastic fellow interns this summer. We all agreed that it was pretty awesome to go to the UN.

The Privilege of “Uncomplicated” Culture Shock

By Kirstie Russell

In preparation for international internships like this one, students are often warned about a phenomenon known as “culture shock.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know.”(1)  Interns are told, or we read, that upon arrival in a new place, especially somewhere as far away as “Africa” that we will be exposed to new sights, new smells, new social cues and new foods that will likely cause us to miss or even mourn home – what the literature on culture shock calls our “abandoned culture” (2).  I won’t lie, I did feel a certain element of shock upon arriving in Uganda. The most intense period probably lasted about two or three weeks, but to be honest, the lingering discomforts and confusion remained until my last days in the country.

For me, the shock of being in a new place did not present itself in the “typical” ways, or at least not in the ways that I was expecting. What I mean by that is that it was not the food or the lack of sidewalks or the religious prayers before each work meeting that were the most difficult aspects for me to adjust to. Yes, I faced challenges with some foods, especially as a vegetarian, and yes, I certainly found it claustrophobic not being able to walk around my neighbourhood alone (particularly at night). For me, the biggest challenge I felt in terms of “culture shock” was my inability to even remotely understand the lived experiences of the many people I met, and most especially the people with whom I worked – both clients and colleagues.

The Gender and Sexuality program at Refugee Law Project (RLP) assists refugees who have experienced sexual violence and sexual torture and helps connect them to medical and other support services. As an intern, I interviewed clients about their history and what in particular was bringing them in that day. The stories I heard are, I would imagine, for most people born and raised in Canada probably unimaginable. It was utterly disturbing to hear about what instability, war and conflict allows human beings to do to one another. What was equally disturbing, however, was the lack of awareness about some of what is currently going on in areas of conflict – for example, the perpetration of sexual violence and sexual torture against men,  a current focus of RLP’s. During these sessions, I could nod my head and listen actively to the best of my ability, but I knew that at the end of the day, there was nothing I could personally do to help the client’s situation. I couldn’t heal their wounds, give them money for their children’s school fees, or as some people requested, bring them to Canada for a better life. I could only take down notes and hopefully give them a referral to a doctor, but even that depended on what funding was available and whether it applied to that individual and their particular circumstances. At the end of the day, I would pack up my Macbook Air, fill up my S’well water bottle, pull out my cellphone and call an Uber to my secure compound after stopping by the grocery store, all the while knowing that the client I saw that day was starving themselves to save up enough money to send their child to private school so that they can get a decent education (several people have told me that in Uganda, if you send your child to public school, the children are so unsupervised that most come back unable to read and write and many girls in particular end up ditching school entirely in order to make money engaging in prostitution) . This, for me, was the most intense form of shock or confusion I experienced in Uganda. I felt shocked and confused by the deck of cards I have been dealt compared to others; shocked and confused by my privilege and all that my peers and I consider “basic needs;” shocked and confused by the things I have taken for granted. I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for those complicated feelings of horror, shame, guilt and sadness. I was nothing short of smacked in the face by the fact that my quality of life is so much better than someone else’s for no reason at all, except that I were born in a different place – a place free of conflict and instability – under entirely different circumstances. When that reality is staring you in the face, it really is nothing less than shocking and, for better or for worse, it is the type of shock that doesn’t really go away.

However, as I write this blog post, I can’t help but feel guilty (or at least some complex version of guilt) for spending 1000 words talking about my experiences with “culture shock” during my McGill University human rights internship in Uganda. After working at RLP with individuals who have been forced to flee their home for unimaginable reasons, I realize that the idea of feeling culture shocked is a privilege in and of itself. Indeed, most of the individuals I have been working with at RLP have experienced such horrific things that they do not have the time or the wherewithal to feel culture shocked, despite the fact that they are in a new country, generally living in slums with people they have never met, often separated from family and friends for an indefinite amount of time. This is in contrast to me, a law student who is in Uganda by choice for a limited amount of time, fully aware that I will be returning to my peaceful and stable home where I will be greeted by my family. Unlike me, the migrants I have met at RLP do not have time to feel culture shocked. No; they are far too busy focusing on how to seek treatment for their wounds from torture, how to pay for their children’s school fees and in some cases, how to locate family members, even children, from whom they have been separated for many months, if not years. My “culture shock,” which the literature aptly calls uncomplicated culture shock is, I have come to realize, one of the most significant forms of privilege I have encountered during my time in Uganda (3).

A busy city market in downtown Kampala on a Sunday.

 

The “taxi” park in downtown Kampala. In Uganda, a “taxi” refers to a matatu, which is one of the main forms of public transport in Uganda. They only cost about a dollar, but do not have reliable schedules so you must be patient because the taxi will not leave until it is full.

 .  

The view from the office I shared with my manager at RLP. I was lucky to work next to the English For Adults Center at RLP, where RLP staff would teach new refugees English, Uganda’s official language, so that they would be able to integrate more easily into Ugandan society. I heard from many refugees that this program was absolutely vital to their quality of life in Uganda because knowing the language made it so much easier to get a job and to interact with administrative bodies like UNHCR.

_________

(1) The Cambridge English Dictionary, “Culture Shock”, accessed on August 29, 2019 from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/culture-shock

(2) Garza-Guerrero AC, Culture shock: Its mourning and the vicissitudes of identity, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1974 Apr;22 (2):408-29.

(3) According to A. Cesar Garza-Guerrero, “uncomplicated culture shock” is “culture shock resulting from a more or less voluntary decision by a newcomer to leave [their] country for diverse reasons…[T]his is in contradiction to ‘complicated culture shock’ – that is one in which the newcomer left his country for the very reason that his ‘average acceptable environment’ was no longer that ‘average’ for their particular ego identity. One example of ‘complicated culture shock’ would be that suffered by refugees from sociopolitical upheaval in the abandoned culture.” [pg. 417]

 

A Summer of Change

By Curtis Mesher

As my flight to Iqaluit took off at the start of summer, change was on my mind. I tried to picture what my summer would be like, as I had never been to Nunavut before.  I wondered what my summer would be like at Maliganik Tukisiniarvik, (Nunavut Legal Aid), and what living in Iqaluit would be like. Summer began like every summer had since I began studying law: returning to Kuujjuaq to see my family.

While in Kuujjuaq I decided to go to the court house as it looked to be in session (Kuujjuaq, like nearly all of Inuit Nunagat, has an itinerant court system and court is only held during certain weeks). My visit to the court began like every one of my visits to the Kuujjuaq courts: with the white staff assuming I was there for my own matter as an accused. I approached the right worker and used all the right legal terms when asking to see the docket. Despite this display of understanding, I was assumed to be charged with my own criminal offences. Even if it was court within Inuit Nunagat, I had approached non-Inuit in their world, the world of (Euro-Canadian) law. And in their world, Inuit can only ever attend court when forced to attend for a matter we are personally implicated in.

This wasn’t the first time I was assumed to be an accused in Kuujjuaq’s courthouse. The change this time around was that it was stated plainly and out loud whereas in the past it was implied through the scornful eyes of the white sheriffs who watched me closely, like how one would be on-guard in the presence of a wild animal. This experience set the stage for an interesting summer working in law, and it underscored being the first Inuk student sent North from McGill to Nunavut Legal Aid for this placement.

From Nunavik to Nunavut

Part of the summer of change was flying north from Kuujjuaq, rather than returning south to Montreal, or flying out to one of the other communities in Nunavik. Flying north across the bay to Iqaluit was a wonderful change as the ice had just broken up for the summer, making the ocean more icey-white than deep blue. Kuujjuaq has the largest and most modern airport in Nunavik, but it could not prepare me for the recently-built airport of Iqaluit, where massive murals of acclaimed Inuit artists such as Kenojuak adorned the entirety of walls.

I had never seen such a massive display of Inuit culture in one place before, and this truly demonstrated how Iqaluit is the capital of Inuit Nunagat in Canada. I drove through Iqaluit, marveling at the difference of the landscape compared to Kuujjuaq. All around me were rolling hills, even across the water all I could see were hills. The size of Iqaluit stunned me, despite coming from the largest town of Northern Quebec.

This summer I lived in Apex, a community where in the recent past only Inuit lived when Americans and other white people were the only people allowed to live in Frobisher Bay(now Iqaluit). Apex alone reminded me of entire communities I had seen in Nunavik. Once I had dropped my suitcase off in Apex, I returned to town, where my 1st stop was the court house.

In court, predominantly Inuit sheriffs staffed the doors, and their first thoughts were not to treat me like a criminal. This was a drastic change from all of my experiences of court in Nunavik, and it comforted me to receive this sort of reception. The courthouse itself also set me at ease: instead of the standard (and rather drab) layout of Kuujjuaq’s tiny basement courthouse, all courtrooms in Iqaluit featured architectural elements taken from traditional Inuit items such as iglus and qamutiit. There were Inuit clerks with traditional face tattoos, Inuit interpreters, and even Inuit counted among the justices of the peace and members of the prosecution.

This truly was a change from my experiences of Nunavik.

I quickly acclimated to this new locale, just as I quickly acclimated to my coworkers at Maliganik. It was such a drastic change to see how the office functioned in comparison to Legal Aid Quebec’s branches in Kuujjuaq: the staff was larger, and many Inuit were integral to the function of the office.

Within a short time, I felt at home. It felt great to be living and working up north (even when woken up early by noisy ravens and the bright light outdoors during ‘nighttime’!), and to be respected for my contributions over the summer. I was given important tasks and even spoke in court several times for matters such as contested bail hearings and modifying bail conditions on consent with the Crown.

It was fulfilling to begin gathering experience of what it is like to work up north, as I hope to eventually practice in Nunavik one day. I learned how to help Inuit clients navigate the criminal justice system, as many people have English as a second language.

From the Capital to the Circuit

Beyond these localized experiences, it was truly rewarding to be valued by the staff at Maliganik, as the lawyers were welcoming and open to furthering my knowledge of criminal law. This rewarding and welcoming behavior was exemplified by their willingness to send me on circuit to the community of Pangirtung, where I was integral to the work of the lawyers on circuit. I met with clients and prepared material essential to their files. While I did not get to speak on circuit (because of typical circuit court delays, which meant court was in session from 9:30 am until 9:00 pm!), what I prepared was presented verbatim by the lawyers, and it was pleasure to contribute to our clients’ cases in meaningful ways.

This experience on circuit was yet another change from my experience in Iqaluit: the glamourous courthouse was replaced by the community centre recreation room, my modern office at Maliganik was replaced by the community centre boiler room, where I had jammed in folding chairs amongst their old boxes to take their information and discuss their files. This change taught me invaluable experiences on how to manage criminal files in circumstances unlike the typical setting for professions such as law down south. The resourcefulness required while on circuit will surely guide my future studies in law, and I am grateful to have experienced it.

Furthermore, I am grateful to have seen the beauty that is the land around Pangirtung. Where I once marveled at the hills of Iqaluit in comparison to Kuujjuaq, I am now truly awestruck by the mountains of Pangnirtung. Between the massive mountains, a deep fjord snakes its way past the bay, through the sheer cliff faces and beyond into Auyuittuq National Park. Landing in Pangirtung was magical, and the entire time I was there I was amazed by the land. The first day of the circuit, I had arrived promptly at 9 am, only to find out the first day of circuit starts at 11 am. While normally I would be upset to miss a few more hours of sleep (and a bigger breakfast, of course!), I was lucky enough to see two bowhead whales swim from the bay and up the fjord. There were many whales in the area during the course of the circuit (mostly bowhead and narwhals pushed into the area by the presence of killer whales), and while those were the only I got to see with my own eyes, the excitement of the town was palpable.

I returned from Pangnirtung to find that landing in Iqaluit was now a familiar and comfortable experience, rather than a new and exciting one like it was at the start of the summer.

La Loi sur la laïcité de l’État – un préjudice hypothétique?

Par Caroline Rouleau

Le travail de l’ACLC, qui consiste à protéger nos libertés civiles, aboutit forcément devant les tribunaux. J’ai accès, cet été, à l’arrière scène du litige. Révision de factums, communication avec les avocates plaidantes, gestion des relations médiatiques, le litige est une pratique stimulante au rythme parfois effréné. Généralement comme intervenante et parfois comme partie demanderesse, l’ACLC tâche de saisir chaque opportunité pour faire valoir nos libertés fondamentales, notre droit à l’égalité et à la privée, encastrés dans la Chartre des droits et libertés. Les litiges entrepris cet été soulèvent des enjeux de taille. C’est notablement le cas de la demande de suspension de l’application de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État.

L’ACLC, le Conseil National des Musulmans Canadiens (CNMC) et Ichrak Nourel Hak, une étudiante universitaire en enseignement du français, contestent la constitutionalité de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État. Adoptée le 16 juin dernier, elle interdit le port de signes religieux dans plusieurs postes de la fonction publique, dont les procureurs, les membres de la police, les gardes de prison et les enseignants du système scolaire public. Elle oblige également les membres du personnel d’un organisme, tel que les députés à l’Assemblée nationale, à exercer leurs fonctions à visage découvert. Contrairement aux précédentes itérations de ce type de projet de loi, la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État stipule qu’elle s’appliquera nonobstant certaines dispositions de la Charte; ses rédacteurs la font donc déroger, sciemment, aux protections qu’elle offre, notamment la liberté de religion, la liberté de conscience et le droit à l’égalité. Ces clauses dérogatoires ne suspendent toutefois que quelques articles de la Charte; le reste du texte constitutionnel n’est pas écarté. Ainsi, les arguments avancés par les avocates de l’ACLC et du CNMC sont tous fondés sur la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867.

Les litiges constitutionnels n’ayant rien d’expéditif, cette contestation durera des années. D’ici à ce qu’une décision soit rendue, des personnes portant un signe religieux se verront nier d’importantes opportunités de travail au sein de la fonction publique.

Ainsi, la journée du 9 juillet était un moment charnière pour l’ACLC, mais surtout pour les individus appartenant à certaines minorités religieuses au Québec. La Cour Supérieure du Québec entendait la demande de suspension de l’application de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État. Avec quelques efforts sur le plan logistique, nous sommes quelques-unes à s’être retrouvées à Montréal pour être témoin de cette étape cruciale. La salle était pleine à craquer; elle contenait visiblement des personnes pour qui la loi n’a rien d’hypothétique, contrairement aux prétentions du juge qui a rejeté la demande.

Dans sa décision, le juge adopte une interprétation fort restrictive de ce qu’est un « préjudice irréparable ». Selon lui, l’application de la loi ne cause pas de préjudice à la requérante, Mme Hak, puisque celle-ci n’a pas encore obtenu son diplôme en enseignement et n’est pas encore en mesure de postuler au sein d’un institut d’enseignement du secteur public. La loi ne crée pas, non plus, de préjudice irréparable en rendant impossible tout avancement professionnel pour l’une des déposantes, une enseignante portant le hijab. Ces conclusions reposent entre autres sur le fait que le préjudice allégué, une atteinte à la liberté de religion, est un droit auquel l’Assemblée nationale a explicitement choisit de déroger. Or, la question est nouvelle : le recours aux clauses dérogatoires écarte-t-il la possibilité d’invoquer ces droits à un stade préliminaire, soit une demande d’injonction interlocutoire? Nulle autorité ne soutient l’affirmative. C’est la question dont sera saisie la Cour d’appel du Québec sous peu.

Les lourds impacts de la Loi sur la laïcité de l’État sont à la fois symboliques et pratiques. L’emploi revêt, dans notre société, une dimension identitaire si importante que de nier de telles opportunités d’emploi est de nier la réalisation des individus, d’en faire des citoyen.es de seconde classe. Si cette loi est motivée par un élan féministe, c’est lui qui devrait la freiner. Avant toute chose, l’emploi constitue la base de l’indépendance financière des femmes qu’on se doit de protéger jalousement.

A Prison in the Middle of Nowhere

By Katrina Bland

“You have to wear a long skirt, for the security of the inmates.”

The day before our visit to Muinaina Prison, I was told that a woman is not allowed to enter a prison in Uganda if she is not wearing a skirt. What else did I know about prisons in Uganda? Almost nothing.

I had spent the last couple days reading a report from a partner organization, Interaid, about refugee clients in Luzira Prison in Kampala that they wanted Refugee Law Project to take on. The report described each prisoner’s country of origin, their charges, sentence, and their requests. While many requested help with their appeals, a prison transfer, or to contact their families, every single one requested the basic necessities of cooking oil and rain boots. I had also heard people say that conditions in prison in Uganda are awful, and likely responsible for the country’s low recidivism rate of 30%—the lowest in Africa. In the car during the three-hour drive to Muinaina from Kampala, I went over these clues in my mind. First, I had to wear a skirt. Second, the inmates want cooking oil and rain boots. Third, the conditions are so bad no one wants to go back.

With these clues, I unsophisticatedly adapted an image of North American prisons in my mind. Muinaina would be, I thought, the same, but the incarcerated persons might do their own cooking and the courtyard would be mud instead of cement. I wrote off the third clue because it’s difficult to imagine any prison anywhere where the conditions would be such that people would leave wanting to return.

For most of the drive from Kampala, we had no idea where Muinaina Prison was. We stopped for directions three times, and each time we were simply told to keep driving. The tarmac road turned to dirt, but the same open hills of green tea plants and matoke rolled by. Suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my colleagues breathed sighs of relief and announced our arrival. What gave them that idea? As I looked around, I saw nothing that indicated a prison. There was no massive parking lot or ten-metre high wall, no buildings made of flat grey cement with barred windows. Then I spotted a man in a bright yellow uniform with a herd of cows. Then another man in a bright orange uniform carrying a bundle of firewood. And a group of ten men in yellow carrying sacks of maize. A group in mixed yellow and orange tilling a field. They were prisoners, but there were no guards to be seen.

As we got closer what I thought was just another collection of houses surrounding a school turned out to be the prison staff quarters around the inmates’ wards. We went in, gave the name of the client we were there to see and were shown to a wooden bench looking into a courtyard through a gate. Nearby, three or four guards stood talking. They were the first security personnel I had seen in Uganda without guns. There was no privacy, but we were not searched or asked any questions. A guard simply called to an inmate near the gate to tell our client that he had visitors. I realized that it is not surprising Muinaina does not have the fluorescent lit visiting room that I had pictured during the journey there. The prison is so remote; it is difficult to imagine visitors are more than a rare occurrence.

When our client appeared dressed in yellow, he sat on an identical wooden bench on the other side of the gate bars and described his case. Yellow is the colour for incarcerated persons on remand, while orange is the colour for those who have been convicted—at least most of the time. These days, prisons often run out of yellow uniforms due to the huge number of persons incarcerated waiting trial. They make up more than 50% of Uganda’s prison population and many are relegated to the orange of convicted persons.

Much like the lack of information about the whereabouts of Muinaina Prison, RLP had been referred our client’s case without any details. This is not uncommon. RLP has eleven offices across Uganda serving thousands of clients who often do not have permanent phone numbers, residences, or in some cases, even birthdates. RLP staff at other offices refer the vague details of a potential client and my supervisor, Jesse, sets out into the field and hopes for the best.

Our client told us he had been incarcerated for over three months. Originally, he was told he would be brought to court for a bail hearing on June 11th, but the day of, the guards told him he wasn’t going. He hadn’t heard anything since. No one was surprised by this story. The prison is so remote that there is no internet or cell service there. Communication to and from the prison is difficult and expensive. Just as family members of incarcerated persons do not know where they are or how they are, the incarcerated persons themselves are usually not informed of the status of their file or when they will get to appear in court. There is no broad promise of legal aid in Uganda, and without an advocate on the other side any information is difficult to come by.

Court room at the Law Development Centre in downtown Kampala

As my colleagues interview our client, in a mixture of Congolese Swahili and Luganda, I watch as the courtyard comes to life. Inside, there only appears to be one guard, distinguishable among the sea of orange and yellow by his beige uniform. The incarcerated persons sat in three neat groups, two of yellow and one of orange. Surrounding each group were three or four other individuals in yellow or orange, each carrying a long skinny stick. While the single prison guard appeared to chat amicably with them, they seemed to be the ones in charge.

The colour doesn’t seem to matter, however, in Uganda’s overpopulated prison system. Uganda has 249 prisons, with a maximum carrying capacity of 16 612 individuals. The most recent statistics say that the total population of these prisons is 48 422, exceeding their maximum capacity by over 30 000 people. Individuals on remand are not separated from those convicted and those convicted of the most serious offences are not treated any differently than the rest. Muinaina is only one prison among these 249, but as the inmates get up and move around it is not difficult to see how overcrowded the facilities are and how impossible it would be to separate offenders by their crime or sentence.

Without any signal or instruction, some men begin sorting through maize, separating kernels and putting them through a grinder to create maize flour. Others begin cooking in a corner. Some men work at a makeshift carpentry station under the branches of a young tree. One man in yellow discusses something with the guard and then uses a saw to cut a long branch off of another small tree. This man then appears to be able to wield the same authority as the other men in orange and yellow overseeing the activities in the courtyard. No one objects. The sticks do not appear to be threatening at all. Granted I cannot hear or understand anything that is being said, they seem almost like a wooden pointer in a classroom, used to indicate or just to hold, imparting a sense of confidence and status to the bearer.

Along the edges of the courtyard are two long single-story buildings with many doors. While the centre of the courtyard is bustling with activity, men on the edges sit on the doorsteps or lean against the walls of these buildings. They look like they are waiting for something and have been waiting so long they have run out of things to talk about. Many watch us intently from afar as we interact with our client. Soon, without warning, the men return to their original three groups of yellow and orange sitting on the ground. After a short while, they get up and work or wait again. And then return to their groups. And repeat.

The Ugandan Prison Service (UPS) promotes farm prisons like Muinaina as self-sufficient entities that teach inmates agricultural skills they can use when they are released. It is one of many rehabilitation programs that has been promoted by the UPS since the Prisons Act was passed in 2006. In a way, what I saw presented a much more believable version of rehabilitation than what I know of prisons at home. There was no trace of the North American version of incarceration where individuals are surrounded by cement above and below as well as on all sides or where a fight between inmates or bad behaviour is punished with solitary confinement. Instead, Muinaina seemed to function like a small village, replicating life outside the prison quite well. At the same time, the shortage of resources is evident. Indeed, it is probably the shortage of resources that makes this style of prison both possible and necessary.

The government does not have the funds to provide food, so the inmates must grow and cook their own. Other shortages, like space, medical services, and clean water reported in Ugandan prisons, however, are less possible for prisons to remedy on their own. Even worse, there are reports of torture and ill-treatment, especially among individuals incarcerated on remand as guards are charged with securing confessions to push cases forward. The difference between forced labour as punishment and agriculture as a rehabilitative program may be impossible to observe in such a short visit. For individuals waiting for a trial date that may never come in Uganda’s backlogged and bureaucratic judicial system, all of these conditions—no matter how rehabilitative—violate their fundamental rights.

The entrance of Muinaina Farm Prison

It is colder at Muinaina than in Kampala, cold enough to remind me of a late September evening at home, and the sky is dark with coming rain. When it rains, it will get colder and the ground will turn to clay. The ten men carrying sacks of maize return from the fields. The guards unlock the three padlocks keeping the prison gate closed, and the men run in, deposit their maize in a pile and run out again. They repeat this three times in the period we are there. Some of these men have uniforms including pants or a sweater, while others wear only shorts and a t-shirt. Many of these men are barefoot, while others are wearing the much coveted rain boots.

As we drove away, I asked Jesse why no one seems worried about the men escaping. They seem free to graze cattle as far from the prison as they wish or to disappear into tall fields of maize unsupervised. Jesse asked me in return, where would they go? My response of ‘anywhere’ only made him laugh. Their yellow or orange uniforms make them visible from so far away, they would need to run naked. Moreover, many of them are safer here than at home as traditional justice in their villages sometimes means wrongdoers must be killed for the sake of peace. Besides, he said, the guards know the prisoners aren’t stupid. They could be out of here any day, so why would they run?

Adam, our translator and driver for the day

Jesse, a lawyer with Refugee Law Project and my supervisor

Mombasa: Sun, Sea, and a Study of Sexual Violence

By Julia Green

After our whirlwind day in the Hague, Jenna and I were able to spend a night with Jenna’s relatives in Nairobi before our flight to Mombasa the next day. The side of Nairobi I saw during my first day and a half in Kenya seemed comparable to many other large cities I’ve visited. I saw tall buildings, nice restaurants, large shopping malls and people milling about in stylish clothes as they went about their days. Since we arrived during Kenyan wintertime, even the weather, which was about 15 to 20 degrees, was not the scorching heat I imagined. Everyone we interacted with was completely punctual, defying the expectation of “African time” I had been warned would be the norm. Given that the two other times I have lived abroad it was in countries where very few people spoke English, I think I was even thrown off by the fact that I could communicate perfectly with everyone I met. As I boarded the flight to Mombasa after our short stay in Nairobi, I found myself wondering if I would actually experience the culture shock I expected during my first time in Africa.

A typical Mombasa sight.

From the moment we arrived in Mombasa, however, it was clear that Kenya’s second largest city has a completely different vibe than the capital. We spent our first weekend there using the daylight hours to take in the sights: shanties and open-air markets, groups of men running with heavy rickshaws of fruit, packs of skinny cows holding up traffic, and of course, the beautiful blue water of the Indian Ocean.

The roads, most of which were unpaved and quite bumpy, seemed to be governed by an unspoken code of chaos that allowed cars, tuk-tuks, and “boda-boda” motorbikes to smoothly manoeuvre around each other with only the occasional honk despite the absence of traffic lights. Members of the nomadic Maasai tribe, adorned with handmade jewelry and wearing their brightly-coloured shukas(a toga-like linen garment), walked amongst the crowds of people in Western clothing with their wooden staffs in hand.

The Indian Ocean.

In Mombasa, income disparity between the different classes was also more apparent. As we sat in traffic (and boy, does Mombasa have traffic) many forlorn-looking street children came to the window of our car begging for money. Minutes later, before we could even process the poverty, we would drive past a luxury resort glamorous and excessive enough to be considered fit for the wealthy Kenyans and foreign tourists that frequented it. The city was extremely humid, reaching temperatures of 30 degrees during the day and only dropping to about 27 or 28 at night. According to locals, the heat was part of the reason why everyone was consistently late for every engagement – in Mombasa, we definitely experienced the more relaxed attitude towards punctuality we had been told about. Despite any inconveniences caused by the chaos, the heat, or the poverty though, everyone we met seemed to be relaxed and happy. On Sunday we could hear the peaceful calls to prayer from several nearby mosques competing with the loud, joyful songs that floated out of the churches.

Mombasa has both a strong Muslim and Christian community.

On our first day at the International Centre for Reproductive Health Kenya (ICRH-K) we met with the organization’s acting director as well as the team’s in-house lawyer who we would work closely with during our time there. The four of us discussed mine and Jenna’s educational and professional backgrounds, as well as what we were hoping to get out of the internship. By the end of the meeting we had come up with a rather ambitious project: we were going to look at all the cases of gender-based violence reported to the local hospital’s Gender-Based Violence Recovery Centre (GBVRC) from the past six years and find out how many of them wound up getting legal justice in the courts. For all of the cases that didn’t result in a conviction, we planned to get to the bottom of why they had fallen through the cracks.

Jenna and I with our coworkers at the GBVRC.

In retrospect, I don’t think that any of us sitting in that meeting room on our first day realized just how much work would be required to bring this project to fruition. When we got to the hospital, we discovered that there was no centralized, digitized database for all of the patient files. Instead, all the patient records were kept in a locked storage room in binders that appeared to have no rhyme or reason when it came to their order on the shelves. Despite how confusing the filing system seemed to us, the nurse and paralegal from the GCVRC somehow knew exactly where every file was and were always able to help us find what we needed in a matter of minutes. Slowly but surely, we worked our way through the hundreds of handwritten files and entered information we deemed to be relevant into a carefully crafted Excel sheet.

It took us just over a month to go through the nearly 4,000 cases that had been reported to the hospital between 2013 and 2018, but our work didn’t stop there. After we had collected the data from the GBVRC we started visiting all of the local police stations, where we asked if we could go through their sexual offence files to see how the cases had been handled. Because of the reputation of the equality effect, the Canadian non-profit our placement was organized through, the police response to us was for the most part agreeable. There were a few administrative hurdles we had to get past in order to get what we needed at some stations, but by the end of July we managed to work through almost all of the sexual offence files that the eight Mombasa police stations could produce for us.

While we carried out the data collection, we also conducted interviews with relevant parties including police officers, counsellors, health professionals and even a local magistrate (judge), all who work closely with

Jenna and I, aka the dream team, hard at work going through police files.

survivors of sexual violence. Jenna is an Excel whiz who used her skills to crunch the numbers from our data sets, and I put my journalism degree to work as I transcribed the interviews and carefully documented any observations we made as we visited the police stations. All of this information came together to give us a clear picture of challenges in the justice system for cases of sexual violence. The quantitative and qualitative research we conducted allowed us to see clearly where improvement was needed to increase convictions, and also gave us some ideas for initiatives that could help to deter perpetrators from committing sexual violence in the first place. The end result was a comprehensive draft of a report almost 50 pages long that we were able to send to the ICRH-K to help guide their future work with survivors of gender-based violence. Before we left Mombasa, we had the opportunity to present our findings at a journal club, a monthly event where researchers from local universities and non-profits come together to share what they have been working on. In many ways, it felt like we had completed an entire thesis project in just two short months.

When I look back at our time in Mombasa, I still find it incredible to believe how much we accomplished in so little time. Because I had worked in non-profit before and know how common it is for interns to be forgotten or underused, I had fairly low expectations for the work I would do over the summer. Happily, my expectations for my time in Kenya were once again defied. I can already see all the ways that my time with the ICRH-K Kenya will make me a better student, a better researcher, and down the line, a better lawyer. Most importantly though, I know that the lessons I learned in Mombasa have helped me to better understand the many human rights challenges that persist around the world. I came away with an understanding of gender inequality, poverty, and corruption that I simply could not have gotten in a classroom or from a book. Throughout the summer I found myself constantly thinking about how grateful I was to have such an incredible opportunity through my studies at McGill.

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