Remote Internship, the New Normal

Mehri GhazanjaniBy Mehri Ghazanjani

This summer, I started my remote internship at the HIV Legal Clinic thinking that it would be an awkward or inconvenient. However, soon I realized that in fact there were a number of advantages to a remote internship. For example, I was quite happy I didn’t have to go through the stressful experience of finding accommodation in Toronto. However, I soon realized that the key to a positive and effective remote experience was having clear and frequent communication. One of the first things that stood out to me when I started my internship was how quick and willing people, and in particular my supervisor, were to join a Zoom/Team call and allocate their time to answering my questions. Despite everything being remote, people still actively communicated ideas on how to improve something, or just fun life stuff. And this really eased the process for me.

This year, I realized how easy it is to lose motivation and stay engaged when you are physically disconnected from people and responsibilities in your life. In terms of interning remotely, there are many things that I learned about staying motivated and productive. For one, the fact that I was working on very interesting projects, including working on a submission to the UN Committee against Torture about criminalization of drugs in Canada and its torturous impacts on various marginalized groups kept me engaged, motivated, and passionately involved.

In particular, punitive drug laws and policies in Canada have fueled deadly stigma and epidemics of preventable illness and death, contributing both to significantly higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) among people who inject drugs in Canada than among the population as a whole and to an overdose crisis that has resulted in almost 20,000 overdose deaths between January 2016 and September 2020, with Indigenous Peoples particularly affected.

While the toxic drug supply is largely responsible for these dire numbers, the unregulated market is driven by Canada’s long-standing policy of criminalizing drugs and the people who use them. This punitive approach pushes some people to use their drugs in isolation, compromising their ability to take vital safety precautions, deterring people from essential health care and social supports, and subjecting people who use drugs to increased risk of overdose, HIV and HCV infection, and other harms —constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Moreover, the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking has hampered the scale-up and operation of supervised consumption services (SCS), which are settings that provide a safe, hygienic environment where people can use drugs with sterile equipment under the supervision of trained staff or volunteers to prevent the transmission of infections and overdose-related deaths. Not only have SCS been one key measure to address Canada’s ongoing overdose crisis, they can also provide a refuge from various forms of violence that women who use drugs may experience on the street.

In 2017, Canada replaced some of the onerous legislative requirements to operate SCS with simpler, streamlined requirements, resulting in new SCS being implemented across the country. Yet there remains a need to facilitate the scale-up of SCS across the country and to remove restrictions (imposed by the criminalization of trafficking) on assisted injection administered by SCS staff or peers and on splitting and sharing of controlled substances — restrictions which prevent people from accessing SCS and increase their risk of overdose and criminalization.

Notably, the provision of other harm reduction services — including drug checking — are also hampered by the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking. Drug checking services provide people who use drugs with information on the chemical composition of their drug samples to facilitate more informed decision-making.  Given the extreme toxicity of the unregulated drug market and staggering loss of life due to overdose fatalities, impediments to the implementation of harm reduction services like supervised consumption services and drug checking inflict harm and suffering upon people who use drugs, further constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

I assisted HIV Legal Clinic in drafting a submission to the UN Committee against Torture and argued that Canada’s drug policies are in violation of Articles 1 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Working on this submission was definitely one of my personal highlights this summer!

More than anything, one thing that I’ve taken away from this experience is how valuable it is to be adaptive. Especially in the times of Covid-19, where we’ve constantly had to adjust ourselves to a “new normal,” I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that it is okay to be uncertain, in doubt, and even confused. When facing uncertainty, I realized, it is important to take a step back every once in a while, before throwing yourself into unfamiliar grounds.

I have to admit that at first I was rather disappointed when I realized I couldn’t experience the in-person version of the internship, something I was very much looking forward to. But everything worked out nicely in the end and I still had a wonderful intern experience. I particular, two things that have made a huge difference for me were support and transparency from my supervisor and helpful feedback on my ideas and work. Complicated times are always full of unique and life-changing opportunities. It’s always important to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Access to Justice and Health Services for Women in Rural Uganda

by Jillian Ohayon

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

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

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

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

Village of Kanoni, District of Gomba

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

Health Facility Assessment

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

Interviews with Adolescent Girls and Young Women

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

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

***

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


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

Sunset over Lake Walamo in the village of Mamba

Trans*clusivity: a call to action

CW: Conversion Therapy & RPDR7 Spoiler
Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto. - Jeansil Bruyère

Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto.
– Jeansil Bruyère

We are all born with privileges & barriers. More often than not, we overlook the privilege we benefit from while denouncing the barriers that hinder us. As a good friend of mine once said, privilege is not something we have per se but rather something we don’t have; it is a lack of barriers that spare us from stigma and discrimination. I am French-Canadian, biracial, male, gay, atheist of Muslim and Catholic decent, enrolled in legal studies at McGill University. Until recently, I never realized that being cisgendered could be added to that list of privileges and barriers that compose my identity. Cis-ness is a privilege because I do not face barriers to the same extent as lived by the trans*  members of our LGBTQ community: health, employment, immigration & education (just to name a few). In light of my cis-privilege and field of interest (i.e. human rights law), I am taking the platform offered by the McGill Centre of Legal Pluralism and Human Rights to call all other human rights activists to be more trans* inclusive, or trans*clusive as I titled this blog post.
Toronto City Hall proclamation of the international day against homophobia transphobia and biphobia.

Mayor John Tory proclaimed May 17th of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia.

Within a week of being at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Network (the Network), I was given the opportunity to meet mayor John Tory and Queer Ontario New Democrat MPP Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo at a City Hall Proclamation declaring May 17th, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Notably, DiNovo introduced Bill 77, the “Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act” and is urging Kathleen Wynne to pass it by Pride in the upcoming weeks. The Act would prohibit conversion therapy for LGBTQ children, and prohibit doctors from billing Ontario Health Insurance for conversion therapy conducted on any patient. That said, Ontario isn’t the only province with groundbreaking trans* developments. Only a few days later in Quebec, amazing activists such as Gabrielle Bouchard, Samuel Singer and Jean-Sébastien Sauvé were speaking to the Committee on Institutions which included the Minister of Justice at the National Assembly at special consultations and public hearings on the draft regulation concerning the Regulation respecting change of name and of other particulars of civil status for transsexual and transgender persons. An issue of great concern for volunteering at the Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Clinic and many trans* people living in Quebec.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Zomming out to what western-mainstream culture has been depicting of trans* folk, who can omit to mention Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, following in the footsteps of more mainstream trans* icons such as Lavern Cox (Time) and potentially Aydian Dowling (Men’s Health Ultimate Guy Search). Be it the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race (spoiler alert) crowning Violet Chachki as the next Drag Superstar or the fact that I actually live above a drag-crossdressing shop (wildside.org) with the most eclectic and amazing landlady in all of Toronto, LGBTQ developments are in my face and have been garnering more attention than ever. However, more coverage does not mean more understanding and awareness. For this very reason, I call my colleagues within the legal and human rights fields to acknowledge cis-normativity and fight back: attend workshops, get informed.
Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is an art gallery.

Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is indeed an art gallery.

In closing, within the various projects assigned by the Network, I have taken the time to integrate trans* oriented statistics and concerns. Did you know that the HIV prevalence rate, (i.e. the proportion of people in a population who have a particular disease at a specified point in time) among male-to-female transgender persons in North America is at 27.7%? Sorry, no Canadian-specific data is available and this is part of the problem. A problem that we can solved by being part of the trans* agenda and working towards a more inclusive environment for all. Whether it be policy analysis, academic research or just plain day-to-day conversation – keep in mind that we live in a heteronormative & cisnormative world where we often forget the benefits and hindrances of our privileges and barriers. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be part of a society where our children can live their lives with dignity and respect be they trans* or cisgendered/seropositive or seronegative/LGBTQ or allies. Honoured to be a jurist of the LGBTQ community, I truly believe that we have a duty to future generations to be more trans*clusive.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

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