What Canada can learn from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

My internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is now almost over… time flies! In the time since my last post, I have had the chance to get to know even more colleagues from different countries around the Americas and overseas and to think about some of the most pressing human rights issues facing this region, as well as to deepen my reflection of Canada’s relationship with this institution.

One of my favourite parts of this internship has been the opportunity to participate in the rich academic life of the Court and neighbouring institutions. San José has become a hub of human rights law in the Americas, and interns at the Court have been invited to participate in lots of interesting talks inside and outside the Court. I went to a talk about the place of social, economic, and cultural rights in the Inter-American system at the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights. I also went to a talk about Costa Rica’s asylum policy at the University of Costa Rica’s Law Faculty.

Going to a talk at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights

Despite these enriching experiences, some of the best talks I’ve had have been with other interns as well as the Court’s lawyers over the lunch table. I love that it is part of the organizational culture here for everyone to take a break from their desks in the middle of the day to eat with colleagues. In these lunchtime chats, the interns and visiting professionals really get the chance to get to know each other and to learn about each other’s countries. Our topics cover everything from favourite dishes, to constitutional law, to the most important human rights issues.

On June 3rd the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released, and I mentioned it at lunch that day. The reaction was split: some lawyers knew of Canada’s poor track record in treatment of Indigenous peoples, but others could not believe their ears. “Missing and murdered Indigenous women, in Canada?” they asked me. The word “missing” in Spanish – desaparecido or desaparecida – comes with a lot of baggage.

Enjoying an outdoor lunch with my colleagues at the Court

In Latin America, the word “disappeared” is most commonly used to refer to people who have been forcibly disappeared by state actors in the context of authoritarian governments. Forced disappearance can happen in any part of the world, but its widespread use in Latin America has made it a common topic at the Inter-American Court.[i] Indeed, the Court’s development of the legal concept of forced disappearance, from its very first case in 1988,[ii] has been one of its most groundbreaking bodies of jurisprudence. For example, in the case Radilla Pacheco Vs. México, the Court explains that:

In International Law this Tribunals’ jurisprudence has been precursor of the consolidation of a comprehensive perspective of the gravity and continued or permanent and autonomous nature of the figure of forced disappearance of persons. The Court has reiterated that it constitutes a multiple violation of several rights protected by the American Convention and places the victim in a state of complete defenselessness, implying other related violations, especially grave when it forms part of a systematic pattern or practice applied or tolerated by the State.[iii]

In the same case the Court outlines the main components of forced disappearance, which have been developed through jurisprudential developments since 1988:

a) the deprivation of freedom; b) the direct intervention of state agents or their acquiescence, and c) the refusal to acknowledge the arrest and reveal the fate or whereabouts of the interested person.[iv]

Now, no one is suggesting that the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada can be attributed to the “direct intervention of state agents” as outlined in Radilla Pacheco and other cases. However, the Court’s jurisprudence has expanded beyond disappearance by state agents and has examined disappearances committed by non-state actors. I think that these cases could teach some important lessons to Canada and Canadian courts for responding to the Final Report of the National Inquiry.

For example, the Court has said that state parties to the American Convention on Human Rights have the obligation to guarantee respect for the rights contained in that instrument and to prevent such violations. One part of the need to prevent and guarantee is to diligently investigate human rights violations, regardless of whether the suspected perpetrators are state agents or private individuals. The Court has also identified that states have an accentuated obligation of due diligence in the investigation of disappearances of people who have an accentuated risk of being victimized, including women.

One of the first such cases was the Case of González et al. (“Cotton Field”) v. Mexico (“Campo Algodonero” in Spanish), which deals with a situation of missing and murdered women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The decision jointly analyses violations of rights contained in the American Convention and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belém do Pará, of which Canada is also not a signatory. The Court said:

States should adopt comprehensive measures to comply with due diligence in cases of violence against women. In particular, they should have an appropriate legal framework for protection that is enforced effectively, and prevention policies and practices that allow effective measures to be taken in response to the respective complaints. The prevention strategy should also be comprehensive; in other words, it should prevent the risk factors and, at the same time, strengthen the institutions that can provide an effective response in cases of violence against women. Furthermore, the State should adopt preventive measures in specific cases in which it is evident that certain women and girls may be victims of violence. This should take into account that, in cases of violence against women, the States also have the general obligation established in the American Convention, an obligation reinforced since the Convention of Belém do Pará came into force. (emphasis mine)[v]

The Court has also established that States must adopt norms and regulations that allow the authorities to investigate cases of violence against women with the required due diligence. It has suggested that the state can satisfy this requirement through the standardization of protocols, manuals, and expert consulting and judicial services.[vi]

The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

In comparing IACtHR jurisprudence with Final Report of the National Inquiry, I saw an overlap between types of problems identified in cases like Campo Algodonero and the challenges faced by Indigenous Women, Girls, members of the LGBTQ2S community, and their families. The National Inquiry reports descriptions of “police apathy in cases involving violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people”, mentioning that this apathy “often takes the form of stereotyping and victim-blaming, such as when police describe missing loved ones as ‘drunks,’ ‘runaways out partying,’ or ‘prostitutes unworthy of follow-up.’”[vii] However, police services are not the only problem. When the National Inquiry spoke to police services, many cited “insufficient equipment and resources as impeding their efforts to engage in proper investigation, as well as in crime prevention, in First Nations communities.”[viii] It is easy to make the connection between the gaps revealed in the report and the standards called for by the Inter-American Court.

The more I learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System, the more I realize that Canada shares a lot of struggles with Latin American countries. Indeed, a history of colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples is common to almost every country in the Americas, including Canada and the United States. One could say it’s what brings us together and unites us, our common legacy of colonization.

The Canadian government and Canadian courts should look to the rich jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court for inspiration on how to tackle the problems outlined in the National Inquiry’s Final Report. Although Canada is not a signatory of neither the American Convention nor the Convention of Belém do Pará, human rights are universal and the developments in this regional system could inspire and inform interpretations of Canadian law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Perhaps one day Canadians will be able to directly benefit from the protections offered in the Inter-American System by bringing complaints directly to the Court.

Not all work: Making new friends of the animal variety on a weekend trip to Manuel Antonio National Park

—-

[i] For more information, the Court publishes Case Law Handbooks on a variety of topics, including forced disappearance http://www.corteidh.or.cr/sitios/libros/todos/docs/cuadernillo6.pdf (available in Spanish only). For the full list of Handbooks, see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/publicaciones-en.html.

[ii] Caso Velásquez Rodríguez Vs. Honduras. Sentencia de 29 de julio de 1988. (Fondo). Ser. C No. 4 (1988).

[iii] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 139

[iv] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 140

[v] Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México. Excepción Preliminar, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 16 de noviembre de 2009. Serie C No. 205, párr. 258

[vi] Caso López Soto Vs. Venezuela.Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 26 de septiembre de 2018, párr 131, Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México, supra, párr. 388, y Caso Velásquez Paiz y otros Vs. Guatemala, supra, párr. 148.

[vii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

[viii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

Abortion in the Americas: Article 4(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since I arrived in Costa Rica to start my internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights! Of course, when I think back on all of the experiences I’ve had in the past 6 weeks, professionally and personally, I can see that I have been busy during this short time.

My idea for this post came as I was doing research for my last blog post on Canada’s place in the Inter-American Human Rights System. In my reading, I learned that Article 4(1) is frequently cited as a potential obstacle for Canada’s ratification of the American Convention of Human Rights. The article reads:

Not just work: I got to go hiking in Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the province of Guanacaste one weekend.

Article 4: Right to Life

  1. Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.[i] (emphasis mine)

… What??? I could not believe my eyes. In my opinion, the right to end a pregnancy (whether potentially dangerous, unviable, or simply unwanted) is intrinsically linked to bodily autonomy and gender equality. How could an international human rights instrument include such a clause that undermined gender equality? I was flabbergasted.

Article 4(1) of the American Convention reminded me of the 8th amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which was repealed in 2018. The amendment read:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.[ii]

Savita Halappanavar, Irish Times

As a feminist, and as an Irish woman, I have had strong feelings about abortion since I was an undergraduate student. I was living in Ireland in the fall of 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis in an Irish hospital after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy. Even though it was a much-wanted pregnancy, she was having a miscarriage that quickly became a danger to her life.[iii] Her doctors refused to accelerate the end of her pregnancy because the fetus still “had a heartbeat,” while hospital staff reportedly told her husband that Ireland was a “Catholic country.”[iv] Protests ensued. Feminists replied that “she had a heartbeat too.”[v]

At the time, Ireland had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.[vi] The public outrage at the injustice done to Ms. Halappanavar and the tireless effort of feminist groups eventually led to a successful 2018 referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and legalize the procedure in the Republic, now allowed regardless of reason until 12 weeks gestation. The Irish Times wrote after the vote that “[m]any point to a young woman called Savita Halappanavar as the reason they became revolutionaries.”[vii] I guess I could say the same of myself.

“ABORTO YA” (“ABORTION NOW”) graffiti on my way to work in San José, painted in the same green colour used by the Argentinean movement.

Abortion has long been a controversial issue in Latin America, home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The Center for Reproductive Rights, an NGO that uses law to advance reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world, writes:

Latin America and the Caribbean are home to some of the most restrictive and punitive abortion laws in the world. In El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Suriname, abortion is completely illegal—with no exception. In El Salvador, the government has taken this even further and interpreted the law such that women are imprisoned for obstetric emergencies out of suspicion of their having had an abortion. In Guatemala, abortion is criminalized in all instances except when a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, which is typically interpreted to mean immediate and imminent death.[viii]

In recent weeks abortion has been a hot topic in Latin America from Guatemala to Argentina. On May 29th, four women from Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Guatemala filed complaints against their respective governments before the UN Human Rights Committee, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights.[ix] The women were all under 14 years old when they became pregnant as a result of rape perpetrated by older men. They argue that their lives were put at risk when their governments denied them abortions.

Activists hold green handkerchiefs, which symbolizes the abortion rights movement, during a rally to legalize abortion, outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

There is more optimism happening in Argentina, where on May 28th, when an attempt to legalize abortion was introduced to Argentina’s congress for the 8th time. Last year, a similar bill passed the House of Deputies but was narrowly defeated in the Senate.[x] One of the loudest opponents of the effort to legalize abortion is the Catholic Church: on May 25th Pope Francis, who is Argentinean, compared abortion to “hiring a hitman.”[xi]

An Argentinean colleague at the Court, named Nina, told me that she wished she could be home to participate in the demonstrations in favour of the bill, which have come to be symbolized by the pañuelo verde (green hankerchief) that pro-choice protesters wear. Currently, abortions are available in Argentina only in cases of rape and when the mother’s health is at risk.[xii] However, in practice, many women are not able to access the care they are allowed by law. In February of 2019, a 12-year-old girl was forced to deliver a baby by cesarean section after hospital and government administrators blocked her request for an abortion. She had become pregnant after being raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend.[xiii] A similar abortion law also failed to save Savita Halappanavar in Ireland.

My work colleague, Nina, with her symbolic pañuelo verde that she wears to pro-abortion demonstrations in her home city of Córdoba, Argentina.

Given this context of strict abortion laws, it is perhaps unsurprising that there would have been pressure to include a provision such as Article 4(1) in the drafting of the American Convention. In the case Baby Boy vs United States of America (1981), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights talked about the origins of the clause.[xiv] The American Convention was preceded by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Canada accepted the American Declaration when it became a full member of the OAS in 1990, although it didn’t participate in the drafting of either document. Article 1 of the Declaration made no mention of conception. According to the Commission, the preliminary draft of this article protected life from the moment of conception, but was dropped in the final version due to the objection of states that permitted abortion in some circumstances (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela at the time).[xv]

According to the Commission in Baby Boy, the first draft of the American Convention sought to protect life from the moment of conception. However, the words “and, in general” were added by majority vote of the Council of the OAS to accommodate states that permitted abortion in cases such as “to save the mother’s life, and in the case of rape.”[xvi] Some states, such as Ecuador, objected to this change.[xvii] Given this history, the Commission firmly established that the right to life from the moment of conception is not absolute.[xviii]

After Baby Boy, there was no jurisprudence on the subject of the rights of embryos under Article 4(1) until the 2012 case Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, which related to the legality of in vitro fertilization.[xix] In Artavia Murillo, the Inter-American Court said that the addition of the words “and, in general” means that the right to life from conception is not absolute, but rather is gradual and evolves along with the development of the fetus.[xx] The Court also concluded that it was impossible to consider an embryo to have full legal personhood, and noted that no other international human rights instruments grant personhood to the unborn.[xxi]

Nevertheless, Article 4(1) has been pointed out as a potential obstacle to Canada’s adherence to the convention. In 2003, there was a Senate Commission on Canada’s involvement in the Inter-American system. The Commission said:

Even though article 4(1) does not impose an obligation to prohibit abortions, it may impose an obligation to regulate them. However, at the moment, there is no Canadian legislation or regulation with respect to abortions. The Supreme Court of Canada found in R v Morgentaler that the procedure created under section 251 of the Criminal Code for obtaining an abortion was incompatible with a woman’s right to the security of her person. No new provision has been adopted to replace s. 251.[xxii]

Despite this concern (and others), the Senate ultimately recommended that Canada join the system.[xxiii] Sixteen years later, Canada’s law on abortion has not changed, and therefore, in my opinion, the concerns of the Senate Committee remain valid.

This photo with the flag of the Organization of American States was taken in the room where the judges of the Court deliberate important cases such as Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica.

Even with the limits on Article 4(1) circumscribed by the Court, I do not think that the right to life as set out in the American Convention is compatible with Canadian law on the subject of abortion. Bernard Duhaime writes in “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR” that the interpretations of the Article in Baby Boy and Artavia Murillo bring the Article in line with obligations of other human rights treaties ratified by Canada, and would not pose an obstacle for Canada’s acceptance of the Convention.[xxiv] I respectfully disagree. It is clear from the jurisprudence that Article 4(1) allows abortion in some circumstances, such as in the case of rape and to save the life of the mother. However, the jurisprudence is silent on whether the Article permits the termination of a pregnancy that is simply unwanted, as is currently allowed in Canada. Duhaime does acknowledge that “any remaining concern could also be addressed by entering a reservation or an interpretative declaration as to specific aspects of the American Convention, when adhering to it.”[xxv] On this point I agree: any adherence by Canada would require such a reservation, which would relieve Canada of the obligation of Article 4(1).

In conclusion, the lack of protection of a women’s right to end a pregnancy is a pressing issue in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, and, increasingly the United States as well (but that’s another issue[xxvi]). The American Convention, unfortunately, does little to protect women’s reproductive rights due to the protection of a fetus’s right to life in Article 4(1). Clearly, the Inter-American Human Rights System allows abortion in at least some circumstances, but it is not clear whether a legal framework such as Canada’s would be allowed. Consequently, if Canada were to ratify the American Convention, it would be essential to include a reservation with regards to Article 4(1). The complex topic of abortion in the Americas, therefore, should not necessarily prevent Canada from playing a bigger role in the Inter-American Human Rights System.

—————

[i] American Convention on Human Rights, available at: https://www.cidh.oas.org/basicos/english/basic3.american%20convention.htm

[ii] Constitution of Ireland, available at: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d5bd8c-constitution-of-ireland/?referrer=/DOT/eng/Historical_Information/The_Constitution/Constitution_of_Ireland_-_Bunreacht_na_h%C3%83%E2%80%B0ireann.html

[iii] BBC, Woman dies after abortion request “refused” at Galway Hospital, 14 November 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-20321741

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See, for example, Ann Rossiter, “‘She Had A Heartbeat Too’: The Tragic Death of Savita Halappanavar in an Irish Hospital,” 21 Jan 2013, Feministing, http://feministing.com/2013/01/21/she-had-a-heartbeat-too-the-tragic-death-of-savita-halappanavar-in-an-irish-hospital/

[vi] For a comprehensive look at the state of abortion rights in the world, see: Center for Reproductive Rights, “The World’s Abortion Laws 2019,” updated in real time, http://worldabortionlaws.com/

[vii] Kitty Holland, “How the death of Savita Halappanavar revolutionised Ireland,” The Irish Times, 28 May 2018, online: <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/how-the-death-of-savita-halappanavar-revolutionised-ireland-1.3510387>.

[viii] Center for Reproductive Rights, “They Are Girls: Reproductive Rights Violations in Latin America and the Caribbean,” 2019, online: <https://www.reproductiverights.org/document/just-girls-reproductive-rights-violations-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean>.

[ix] The Guardian, Latin America rape survivors who were denied abortions turn to UN, May 29, 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/29/latin-american-survivors-who-were-denied-abortions-turn-to-un>.

[x] BBC, “Argentina abortion: Senate defeats bill after polarising debate,” 9 August 2018, online: <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45125687>.

[xi] Semana, “‘Abortar equivale a contratar un sicario’: Papa Francisco,” 25 May 2019, online: <https://www.semana.com/mundo/articulo/papa-reitera-que-abortar-es-igual-a-contratar-un-sicario/617162>.

[xii] Walter Bianchi, “Argentine activists try again with new bill to legalize abortion,” Reuters, 28 May 2019, online: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-argentina-abortion/argentine-activists-try-again-with-new-bill-to-legalize-abortion-idUSKCN1SY2NO?>.

[xiii] El País, “Obligada a dar a luz por cesárea otra niña argentina que había sido violada y pidió un aborto,” 28 February 2019, online: <https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/02/27/actualidad/1551292176_461936.html>.

[xiv] Baby Boy vs United States of America [1981], Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Res 23/81, Case 2141, online: <http://www.cidh.org/annualrep/80.81eng/USA2141.htm>.

[xv] Ibid., at paras 18-19.

[xvi] Ibid., at para 25.

[xvii] Ibid., at para 29.

[xviii] Ibid., at para 30.

[xix] Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, Decision 28 November 2012 (Preliminary exceptions, merits, reparations and costs), online: <http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_257_ing.pdf>.

[xx] Ibid., at paras 188 and 264.

[xxi] Ibid., at para 223.

[xxii] Senate, Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, “Enhancing Canada’s Role in the OAS: Canadian Adherence to the American Convention on Human Rights (May 2003), online: <https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/Committee/372/huma/rep/rep04may03-e.pdf >, at p. 43.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Bernard Duhaime, “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR,” Revue générale de droit, Vol. 49 (2019), at p. 196.

[xxv] Ibid, at p. 197.

[xxvi] The Guardian, “US abortion policy is ‘extremist hate’ and ‘torture’, says UN commissioner,” 4 June 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jun/04/us-abortion-policy-extremist-hate-torture-un-commissioner-kate-gilmore>.

La 40e édition du PIFDH!

Par Lauriane Palardy-Desrosiers

L’équipe d’éducation aux droits humains du PIFDH 2019 composée de Vincenza Nazzari, directrice de l’éducation, Jean-Sébastien Vallé, spécialiste principal en éducation et Stéphanie Pelchat, stagiaire en éducation.

Un mois s’est écoulé depuis le début de mon stage chez Equitas et je n’ai pas vu le temps passer ! Les journées sont bien remplies, mes tâches varient énormément et l’équipe est aussi inspirante qu’hilarante. Ceci étant dit, heureusement que l’on m’avait avertie de la charge de travail… !

Le stage en éducation aux droits humains est très exigeant, mais extrêmement gratifiant. Après de longues heures passées à préparer un rapport sur le contexte régional des droits humains tel que perçu par les participant-e-s du Programme international de formation aux droits humains (PIFDH) 2019, j’ai eu la chance de voir les fruits de mon travail. La première matinée de formation des animatrices et animateurs de la 40édition du PIFDH fut dédiée à analyser le contexte régional des droits humains en comparant ce rapport avec celui produit par Amnistie Internationale.  J’avoue avoir ressenti une grande fierté en écoutant ces humain-e-s admirables discuter en s’appuyant sur les informations que j’avais colligées.

Or, la gratification liée au PIFDH dépasse le travail formel. C’est pendant les conversations de corridors et entre les éclats de rire que le sentiment de satisfaction le plus profond émerge. En tous cas, pour moi.

Marthe Wandou, coordinatrice générale d’Action Locale pour un Développement Participatif et Autogéré (ALDEPA) au Cameroun

Déjà, j’ai eu des échanges qui ont remis en question certains de mes aprioris. Déjà, j’ai pris part à des moments magiques pendant lesquels la communication a transcendé la langue. Déjà, j’ai versé des larmes en catimini pendant que Marthe Wandou, une animatrice camerounaise, me parlait de son travail. L’an dernier, elle a été sacrée l’une des 100 femmes africaines contribuant à la paix dans le monde par l’Union Africaine. Avec plus de 75 employé-e-s, elle lutte pour l’autonomisation des femmes en permettant, entre autres, aux femmes victimes de violences sexuelles d’avoir des soins et à celles n’ayant pas eu accès à l’éducation d’avoir une deuxième chance. Que dire de plus ! Frissons garantis !

 

J’aurais beaucoup de choses à raconter, mais le devoir m’appelle ! Demain, la centaine de participant-e-s venu-e-s des quatre coins du monde, de l’Arménie aux Îles Fiji en passant par Haïti, l’Argentine et le Sénégal, s’inscriront officiellement pour commencer leur parcours au PIFDH. Un sentiment d’excitation se mêle à une forme de trac vis-à-vis cette expérience imprévisible qui sera certainement pleine de rebondissements ! J’ai bien hâte de vous faire part des réflexions qui accompagneront la fin du PIFDH. À bientôt !

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

 

 

Close to Home

Sarah Grace RossBy Sarah Grace Ross

Unlike the majority of my fellow interns, my placement is not only within Canada, but in the very city where I was born: Toronto.

Despite having lived away from Toronto for a few years, it hasn’t taken long for me to become reacquainted with the city. From the neighbourhoods that my friends live in, to the best roti you can find, I know Toronto.

So with the start of my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I was curious to find out what it would mean to work in human rights so close to home. My first realization during the internship was that while I know Toronto, I only know my Toronto, which is one version among millions. My internship was situated in a very different Toronto, one nested in the intersection of health and law, where I would be conducting legal research and policy advocacy for a segment of the population that, I came to realize, I didn’t know at all.

I had never met someone who was openly HIV+. Further, the only two public figures with HIV or AIDS that I could bring to mind were Freddy Mercury and Magic Johnson, a pretty short list. Fortunately, my first week at the Legal Network coincided with their annual symposium, where I met activists, mobilizers, lawyers, volunteers, and many individuals living with HIV. It became clear that while I would be working in a familiar city, everything about this job was going to feel new.

I was prepared to feel appalled at the human rights abuses of people living with HIV abroad, but as I began my first legal research projects, I realized there were many elements of living with HIV in Canada that were worse than I thought. After Russia and the United States, Canada is one of the most aggressive prosecutors of people living with HIV. Worse still, the criminal charge in non-disclosure cases is aggravated sexual assault, one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code. Past interns have written thorough blogs about disclosure, which is when someone is legally required to disclose their HIV status prior to sexual activity. Advocates such as the Legal Network argue that the criminal justice response is heavy handed and does not reflect scientific advances regarding HIV transmission risks. Studies show that maintaining an undetectable viral load through HIV medication makes the risk of transmitting the virus effectively non-existent.

The publication’s cover photo is from the 1990 Montreal Sex Garage riots.

A few years ago, Canada’s criminal justice approach to disclosure sparked an underground, anonymous, grassroots publication titled How to Have Sex in a Police State. The publication surfaced online in 2015 and provides tips on how a person can access support from the health care system without triggering surveillance from the criminal justice system in the process. The fact that these two systems are interconnected is a huge problem; people should not have to choose between health care and privacy. Since violence, stigma, and discrimination are a reality for many people living with HIV, the publication encourages individuals to protect themselves from potential criminal charges, for example by having proof of their HIV status disclosure (such as screenshots of text messages) or even going so far as having a signed waiver for sexual partners.

There’s an often-used slogan that captures the connection between the health care and criminal justice systems: ‘take the test, risk arrest’. I heard the slogan mentioned a few times during the symposium last month, which made me suspect that the ‘police state’ described in the publication was still a reality for some people living with HIV today, even in large, arguably progressive cities like Toronto. ‘Take the test, risk arrest’ refers to the assumption that whoever is diagnosed with HIV first is presumed to have brought it into the relationship. This misattribution of infection is particularly stigmatizing for vulnerable women whose diagnosis may take place as a result of prenatal care or other routine visits to the doctor. The fear of partner retaliation upon discovering HIV or risking criminal charges related to disclosure can lead vulnerable women to seek prenatal care at very late stages in their pregnancy, to stay in an abusive relationship, or to deter testing.

I haven’t been surprised to see flagrant HIV-related human rights abuses in my international research projects. But the extent to which a segment of the Canadian population has to intentionally protect itself from the criminal justice system on a health matter gives me pause. It troubles me to imagine that in my own city, people living with HIV are, even if unintentionally, treated as a threat from which criminal laws are meant to protect. Are people living with HIV not worthy of protection too? Or an even simpler question: what does criminal law have to do with HIV anyway?  Even when a person’s viral load is undetectable due to medication and therefore untransmittable, their sexual activities are subject to surveillance. Safe sex should be about protecting the health of one’s self and partner, not about protecting one’s self from the long arm of the law.

Updates from Malawi

  By Julia Bellehumeur

The Surprise Internship:

On May 10th I arrived in Blantyre, Malawi to work with the Equality Effect and the local organization WLSA (Women and the Law in Southern Africa).  Although I had been preparing for months to travel to Africa to work with this organization, this internship came to me by surprise.

My original placement with the Equality Effect was in Meru, Kenya.  A few days before my departure I got an email informing me that my internship in Kenya was cancelled due to concerns about the political climate.  My Equality Effect director and McGill’s IHRP director worked very quickly to arrange my new internship placement and a few days later, I was leaving for Blantyre, Malawi.  I knew very little about Malawi and I knew even less about what I would be working on, or where I would be living.  But I accepted the placement, trusting that this would be an adventure at the very least.

This last-minute switch seems to have foreshadowed and prepared me for my summer in Malawi. It set the tone for the internship in that I’ve had to be very adaptable and ready to take initiative in situations of uncertainty.  The work that I am doing is very different from what I would have been doing in Kenya, and the Equality Effect projects in Malawi aren’t quite as far along as they are in Kenya. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to have been granted such a wonderful and unique opportunity in Blantyre.

 

The Projects

The Corroboration Litigation 

The Equality Effect together with WLSA has been working on a constitutional claim against the Corroboration Rule in Malawi for cases of rape and defilement (defilement is Malawi’s legal term for sexual intercourse with a child).  Corroborative evidence is defined as any independent evidence over and above the complainant’s testimony that confirms that a crime was committed and connects the accused to the crime.  The Corroboration Rule comes from Malawi’s colonial past and is based on the discriminatory assumption that women and girls tend to fabricate claims of sexual violence, and that these claims are easy to make but difficult to disprove.  An example of corroborative evidence often required is a medical examination of the victim to prove that a rape or defilement did in fact occur. . . Of course, this is often impossible to provide for countless reasons.  The Corroboration Rule requires the judge to warn him or herself about the danger of convicting on uncorroborated evidence.  You can imagine how problematic it is to impose this additional requirement on women and girls when there are already so many other barriers to access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.

My co-intern Michelle and I have been going to court to try to find new claimants for the case, although the bulk of our work for the litigation will pick up near the end of our internship.

 

The Workshops

WLSA has suggested developing a legislative campaign as another route to tackle eliminating the Corroboration Rule.   They’ve suggested that a conference would be a great way to get people talking about this rule and share some of the available knowledge and information within the community.  Michelle and I have taken on organizing this conference, which has proved to be quite a challenge.  Planning these initiatives usually requires a significant amount of time and funding.  Fortunately, we have been meeting with many engaged members of the community and have been coming up with creative ways to overcome these challenges before the end of our short stay in Malawi.

 

The One Stop Centers

We have observed many barriers to access justice for survivors of sexual violence in Malawi.  For example, police corruption, inconclusive or lost medical exams, a lack of education and awareness about the laws and resources, and most notably a lack of funding for fuel and transportation to bring victims into court or to the police stations.  These barriers all contribute to a high rate of withdrawal of cases, and are exacerbated for women and girls living in rural communities.

Michelle and I attended court twice this week and witnessed how some of these challenges come into play.  For the first case, we waited an hour after its start time for the magistrate to arrive.  Once he arrived, he informed the prosecutor that we could not proceed until the victim attended court.  Earlier the prosecutor had told us that the victim could not attend court because she lived too far away and they had no way of getting her.  A couple days later we came to see another case at 10am.  There was a small 7 year old girl waiting with her mother along with a doctor who came from the hospital to testify.  We all waited for over 3 hours for the magistrate who the prosecutor claimed was stuck in traffic.  Eventually the case was rescheduled to a later date.

The Blantyre One Stop Center has stood out to me as a beacon of hope among these obstacles for survivors of sexual violence.  At the OSC, victims and their families can come and report an experience of sexual or gender-based violence.  The OSC has social workers, a police officer, a doctor, a nurse, and a counsellor available onsite. They are all very committed to helping each person get the justice they deserve and the counselling they need to move forward.  They also organize awareness-raising events in local schools.  Unfortunately, these centers do not receive any funding beyond the minimal salaries provided to them by the government.  From what we’ve seen, the work of the OSC provides the most immediate results for individual victims. If they had even slightly more funds, the OSC has the potential to create widespread change. Michelle and I hope to help them create a crowdfunding type of fundraiser, and possibly even a student legal clinic to help them reach their potential.

 

Malawi

When I was told that we would be going to Malawi instead of Kenya, I had to quickly check on a map to find exactly where this tiny country was located.  I am not sure if it would have ever crossed my radar as a place to visit in my lifetime.  Yet now, it’s starting to feel like home.

Although Malawi is one of the continent’s poorest countries, it is known as the warm heart of Africa.  This was immediately apparent, Malawians tend to be very friendly and welcoming.  We have a lot of fun with our co-workers and we’ve enjoyed immersing ourselves in the very welcoming arts community at the weekly poetry nights and at an arts festival/party.

We arrived in their winter time so the landscape is incredibly lush. The fresh air and hilly backdrop makes Malawi feel like paradise.  In our yard, there are two avocado trees from which the best avocados I’ve ever had, measuring about the size of my face, fall almost daily. At night, I could spend hours looking up at the brightest starlit sky you can imagine.  I have found inner peace in Malawi – this country is truly breath-taking.

The first half of this internship has been amazing so far and I have learned so many unexpected things.  Navigating a role where I am encouraged to take initiative in a foreign country with a colonial history can at times be very challenging.  But I have learned a lot about what it takes at the primary stages of a human rights initiative, and I am working hard to ensure that the many skills I develop are appropriately balanced with a positive and sustainable impact on the women and girls in Malawi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travailler de concert

Par Michel Bélanger-Roy

Liste de choses que je ne m’attendais pas à faire lors d’un stage en droits humains au Cameroun :

#1 – Organiser un concert

Oh, je vois que vous froncez déjà les sourcils. Pas de problème, je prends les questions.

@FanDuCameroun : Mais Michel, pourquoi un concert? Je croyais que tu travaillais avec une organisation pour les droits des femmes.

#Action2015

#action2015

–       Bonne question, @FanDuCameroun. Mon organisation participe à une campagne mondiale intitulée Action/2015. Dans le but d’attirer l’attention sur une importante conférence de l’ONU, différents événements étaient organisés partout à travers le monde le 11 juillet dernier. L’idée était d’exposer le soutien populaire à un meilleur financement pour le développement international. Un concert avec des artistes « engagés » était une façon pour nous de rejoindre un large public de façon agréable tout en faisant passer notre message. En effet, il y avait aussi une portion du concert dédiée à discuter avec le public de thèmes chers à Women for a Change, comme la santé sexuelle et reproductive des femmes.

@PetitMalin : Le titre du billet est un jeu de mots?

–       Oui, @PetitMalin. Mes excuses.

@jaimelamusique : Comment on fait pour organiser un concert quand on est dans un nouveau pays et que notre organisation n’a jamais tenu un tel événement?

–       Tu vois juste @jaimelamusique : c’est un défi! Il faut trouver des artistes, des musiciens, une salle de spectacle, de l’équipement de scène, un technicien de son, des bénévoles. Et en quelques semaines seulement. On trouve peu d’information sur internet, alors on utilise le bon vieux « bouche à oreille ». On dit à tous ceux qu’on connaît qu’on veut faire un concert, puis par contacts interposés on fait beaucoup de rencontres jusqu’à trouver les bons partenaires.

@SRHR237 : Et pour la promotion?

–       Même chose! On a été très actifs sur les médias sociaux, mais on est aussi allé rencontrer les gens directement : sur le campus universitaire et même à la messe du dimanche!

@Africaincoquin : Épatant! Et vous aviez de bons artistes?

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent "We Must Survive"

Dr Sley et Mr Leo interprètent “We Must Survive”

–       Oui, excellents! Tiens, @Africaincoquin, écoutes par toi-même leurs vidéoclips:

Dr Sley & The Green Soljas

Mr Leo

Ils sont bien connus dans la région pour leurs chansons qui dénoncent la guerre ou la corruption. C’était donc des choix naturels pour nous. Ils ont même écrit une chanson thème spécialement pour l’événement! Ça s’appelle « We Must Survive ».
(AJOUT : Cliquez sur le lien pour voir un extrait filmé lors du spectacle)

@Junglegirl8 : La soirée a été un succès?

–       Tout à fait! @Junglegirl8, tu peux imaginer qu’avec de tels artistes,  la salle s’est vite réchauffée et le public a beaucoup apprécié. La portion « séminaire » a provoqué de fructueux échanges sur le développement du Cameroun. Je crois que mon organisation a pu rejoindre un nouveau public et passer son message. Et on a terminé la soirée en dansant sur scène avec les musiciens!

@Fascinee : Fascinant! Et quelle a été la clef de ce succès, selon toi?

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

Musiciens, bénévoles et organisateurs réunis sur scène

–       Le travail d’équipe! Même si Women For A Change n’avait jamais organisé de concert, mes collègues se sont lancées dans l’aventure et ont fait un travail formidable. Les artistes, les musiciens et l’animateur ont été d’une grande générosité. De nombreux partenaires nous ont aidé à faire la promotion du spectacle. Les déléguées régionales du ministère de la promotion de la femme et de la culture ont assisté et soutenu l’événement. Nous avions une superbe équipe de jeunes bénévoles, les « Iam15 ambassadors » et le public a participé activement au succès de la soirée.

@PetitMalin : Bon, au moins ton jeu de mots avait un véritable double sens alors.

–       Ce n’est pas une question @PetitMalin. Mais merci pour le commentaire. Je travaille fort sur mes jeux de mots, ça fait chaud au cœur.

C’est ce qui clôt la période de questions. Merci et à bientôt!

Cameroun : Parmi les inégalités

2015 Belanger Roy MichelBy Michel Bélanger-Roy

Bien sûr, la différence frappe. Avant même d’atterrir, en voyant par le hublot les banlieues délabrées de Douala, on comprend qu’on n’est plus en Occident. Puis, une fois au sol, le choc s’amplifie. La saleté. Le bruit incessant des klaxons. Chaque première expérience est une surprise : s’entasser avec 6 inconnus dans un taxi collectif (Ah, le siège prend 2 passagers? Bien sûr, assoyez-vous sur mes genoux); faire son marché (Les œufs ne sont pas au froid? Ah tiens, la viande non plus); chercher un appartement (Il n’y a pas d’adresses? Ah bon, les rues n’ont pas de nom). Parlant de rue, la traverser entre taxis et motos qui ne s’arrêtent pas demeure une frayeur quotidienne

Mais on s’habitue. Un peu. Et on découvre les différences qu’on apprécie : la nourriture de rue délicieuse et abordable; la musique africaine; les fruits savoureux; les paysages verdoyants; l’attitude décontractée; la générosité. Je me suis même surpris à souhaiter voir des taxis collectifs à Montréal.

Et au fil des jours, c’est autre chose qui m’a frappé : l’ampleur des inégalités. Il faut dire que mes rencontres sont variées. Entre un repas cuit sur le feu d’une femme de campagne et un scotch versé sur le minibar d’un riche avocat, je fais connaissance avec des gens qui eux ne se côtoient pas. Le mur encadrant la villa de l’avocat y est peut-être pour quelque chose.

Inégalités socio-économiques donc, d’abord. Ici, les Mercedes roulent en bordure des bidonvilles. Comme ailleurs, on affiche sa richesse comme gage de réussite. Mais dans un pays du tiers-monde, le contraste impressionne particulièrement.

Atelier sur les droits des femmes à Mudeka

Atelier sur les droits des femmes à Mudeka

Inégalités de genre ou condition féminine, le thème de mon stage avec Women for a Change Cameroon. Au Cameroun, la loi limite encore l’égalité, notamment en criminalisant l’avortement (Code pénal du Cameroun, Article 337). Plus encore, ce sont des normes culturelles qui perpétuent les inégalités. Le harcèlement de rue demeure pratique courante. Et le passage aux toilettes d’un bar ou d’un restaurant (souvent 3 simples panneaux de tôle dans une cour) rappelle que ces lieux sont conçus pour les hommes. Par ailleurs, inégalités sexuelles et économiques restent intimement liées, les femmes ne possédant que 2% des terres au Cameroun (Cameroon Gender Equality Network, 2011).

Inégalités linguistiques, ensuite. Pour un Québécois, il est fascinant de se retrouver en région anglophone au Cameroun. En effet, la minorité anglophone camerounaise défend fermement ses droits linguistiques face à une parfois oppressante majorité…francophone. Elle revendique même la protection de son système juridique distinct (de Common Law). À part l’inversion des rôles, rien de très dépaysant. Cependant, avec plus de 250 langues locales et dialectes parlés au pays, le portrait linguistique demeure autrement complexe.

Parmi les autres vecteurs d’inégalités, quelques uns sont plus encourageants. Malgré une diversité impressionnante, le Cameroun connaît peu de tensions ethniques ou religieuses et reste très tolérant à ces égards. En revanche, l’état des droits LGBT demeure déplorable.

Finalement, inégalité… internationale. Celle qu’illustre ma présence. Étant l’un des rares « blancs » (mon bronzage impressionne peu) en ville, j’attire forcément les regards. Outre quelques rares remarques moqueuses et des prix parfois gonflés, je n’ai vraiment pas à m’en plaindre. Mais en parlant du Canada avec des Camerounais, je sens bien leur envie. Légitime. Et je constate que même si on les déplore, notre système de santé, nos infrastructures et notre système d’éducation sont autant d’immenses privilèges.

Ce « privilège occidental », facile à oublier à Montréal, est ici exposé aux regards par la couleur de ma peau. Et forcément, ça confronte. Quoi faire avec ce privilège?

À cet égard, une femme demandait récemment à ma collègue ce que je faisais ici.

–       « A human rights internship »

–       « How long? »

–       « 3 months »

–       « And after that…? »

Bonne question, Madame. Bonne question. And after that…?

 

L’autre 50%

Suzanne Zaccour

Lorsque j’ai décidé d’appliquer pour un stage à la CONGEH (Cameroun), plusieurs facteurs sont entrés en ligne de compte. Certains n’étaient que de simples préférences, mais une chose était certaine : je voulais travailler pour promouvoir les droits des femmes. Heureusement pour moi, le stage qui était à la fois le plus accessible, le seul en français et situé dans un pays où ma famille a déjà vécu concernait également les droits des femmes. Plus spécifiquement, les droits fonciers et successoraux des femmes, en particulier celles infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Après presque deux mois de stage, j’en suis venue à la conclusion que ma volonté de travailler pour les femmes n’était pas qu’une simple question de préférences. En réalité, tenir compte du genre dans le contexte du développement est tout simplement incontournable. Comme je le disais hier à un collègue à la recherche de financement, les bailleurs de fonds sont nombreux à exiger que les projets ciblent les femmes. L’industrie du développement a, semblerait-il, enfin découvert cet autre 50% de la population mise de côté depuis… toujours? Quoiqu’il en soit, deux anecdotes vécues cette semaine dans le cadre de mon stage m’ont confirmé l’importance des questions de genre même dans les domaines les plus apparemment « neutres ».

Je suis en train de compléter une (imposante) demande de financement pour un organisme qui appuie des projets visant l’autonomisation économique des femmes et la promotion de leurs droits. La CONGEH (Coalition des ONG et OCB du Cameroun œuvrant dans le domaine des Établissements Humains) conduit justement depuis plusieurs années le projet de Cliniques de Consultation Foncière (CCF) pour la réduction des inégalités envers les femmes infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Ces cliniques offrent des services gratuits d’information, de consultation et d’accompagnement pour les femmes victimes de violations de leurs droits fonciers ou successoraux ou désireuses de mieux les protéger. Dans les communautés où elles sont implantées, les CCF permettent donc aux femmes de connaitre et de faire reconnaître leurs droits, en particulier dans un contexte de VIH/sida. Elles organisent également différentes activités de sensibilisation communautaire et de plaidoyer auprès des autorités locales et traditionnelles.

La CONGEH étant un réseau d’organisations, de nombreux projets sont élaborés par ses membres avec plus ou moins de centralisation. L’un de ces projets « périphériques » consiste en l’assainissement et l’installation de latrines dans une communauté, l’objectif étant de favoriser une meilleure hygiène et notamment de limiter les maladies opportunistes au VIH/sida. Préoccupée par mon application, je constate qu’il ne cible pas spécifiquement les femmes. Mon superviseur me détrompe : ce sont les femmes qui portent le fardeau des soins aux enfants et aux malades. Ce sont elles également qui entretiennent le foyer familial. Ainsi, tout changement dans la sphère dite privée les affecte directement. Une hygiène décente améliore grandement leur qualité de vie, tandis que des enfants ou un mari malade représente un défi supplémentaire à relever dans leur quotidien déjà surchargé. Si elles sont commerçantes ou agricultrices, leurs revenus fluctuent selon l’état de santé de leur famille.

Pour moi qui ai cette préoccupation à cœur, c’est un plaisir de constater que la situation des femmes est prise en compte dans la planification des activités de la CONGEH. Négliger les questions de genre peut faire d’une bonne idée un échec. Cela m’amène à ma deuxième anecdote.

S’immerger dans un pays en voie de développement permet de constater de nombreux problèmes qu’on n’a jamais vécus. D’un autre côté, les pays dits développés ont beaucoup à gagner en prenant pour exemple leurs voisins du Sud relativement à certains enjeux. Les préoccupations environnementales, notamment, semblent intégrées dans le quotidien des Camerounais-e-s. Cela n’est guère surprenant quand on sait que le gaspillage des ressources renvoie à des pertes financières et que les pays du Sud souffrent davantage de l’impact des changements climatiques. Ainsi, l’élimination des emballages en plastique s’est récemment ajoutée à des pratiques respectueuses de l’environnement telles l’alimentation sans gaspillage et la réutilisation des contenants en verre. Plus précisément, « la fabrication, l’importation et la commercialisation des emballages non biodégradables (plastiques) sont interdites sur l’ensemble du territoire camerounais » depuis le 1er avril – mais certain-e-s ne l’ont pas trouvée drôle. L’interdiction s’accompagne de systèmes de surveillance et de sanctions; ainsi, même si les sacs de plastique sont encore parfois utilisés « en dessous de la table », la plupart des commerçant-e-s ont usé d’inventivité pour trouver des moyens alternatifs d’emballer leur marchandise. Les résultats sont parfois assez surprenants. Par exemple, on a empaqueté mon marché dans des boîtes – on aurait dit que je déménageais. Le vendeur que je visite tous les matins « emballe » mon pain dans une feuille manifestement arrachée d’un cahier de rédaction. Il est également populaire d’enrouler d’une bande de papier les tablettes de chocolat : sans attaches, c’est à mon humble avis totalement inutile, mais les vieilles habitudes sont résilientes.

Un pays qui bannit totalement les emballages en plastique, quand on sait le désastre qu’ils représentent pour l’environnement, ça ne peut résonner que comme une bonne nouvelle. Or, il y a bien un hic. C’est la responsable d’une des organisations membres de la CONGEH qui me l’a fait découvrir. Son organisme vise le renforcement des capacités économiques des femmes, dont des veuves et des femmes atteintes du VIH/sida (des personnes vulnérables, donc), par la production et la vente de chips de plantains. Vous savez, celles qui se vendent dans de petits paquets transparents… en plastique? Cette activité, dont dépendaient de nombreuses femmes démunies, a donc dû être interrompue. En raison de la crainte de visites d’inspecteurs environnementaux, les magasins ont interrompu les commandes. Le plus choquant, c’est qu’il n’existe aucune production d’emballages conformes (biodégradables) au Cameroun. Les femmes qui bénéficient des actions de cette ONG sont réellement prises au piège, et elles ne sont pas les seules. Ce sont les femmes qui préparent et vendent la plupart des aliments, et la santé de leurs enfants dépend de leurs revenus. Il semblerait que le gouvernement camerounais ait négligé de tenir compte des femmes dans son plan à la rescousse de l’environnement.

Les gouvernements du monde résistent à l’ADS (Analyse Différenciée selon les sexes), « un processus d’analyse favorisant l’atteinte de l’égalité [en discernant] de façon préventive les effets distincts sur les femmes et les hommes que pourra avoir l’adoption d’un projet ». De leur côté, les mouvements sociaux (socialiste, nationaliste, environnementaliste…) ont tous un jour où l’autre laissé tomber les femmes. On ne peut pas sacrifier les femmes au développement; le développement doit être réalisé par et pour les femmes. « L’avenir de l’homme est la femme » disait Aragon. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire, quand je vois ces commerçantes déterminées saisir l’ambassade des États-Unis en vue d’organiser l’importation d’emballages biodégradables. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire quand j’entends parler des initiatives que les femmes prennent au sein des communautés et des sommets qu’elles peuvent atteindre, à condition qu’on croit et qu’on investisse en elles.

Aider les femmes à réaliser leur potentiel n’est définitivement pas une préférence. C’est une obligation.

Criminalization of HIV status non-disclosure: what’s the issue?

by Jihyun Rosel Kim 

When people hear the question “should non-disclosure of HIV status be a criminal offence?” their usual response is, “well of course! We shouldn’t hurt people.” When all we see and hear about HIV in the news is so sensationalized to the point that we equate HIV with death and people with HIV with predators, that response is understandable.

The landmark case involving HIV status disclosure was R. v. Cuerrier.[1] In the case, the Supreme Court established that failure to disclose one’s HIV status could lead to a charge of aggravated sexual assault, which can lead to a maximum of a life sentence in prison. Justice Cory for the majority stated that non-disclosure of HIV status that would lead to a “significant risk of harm” would constitute an aggravated sexual assault. However, he never clarified what exactly would amount to “significant risk,” despite the differing levels of risk of transmission in diverse sexual activities. Justice Cory did, however, stated in an obiter that certain actions such as wearing a condom might be seen as mitigating the “significant risk.”

Since the Cuerrier decision in 1998, science has come a long way for HIV/AIDS. Moreover, research has shown that transmission risks for HIV are generally low, and differ significantly depending on the activity. Generally, the transmission rate of HIV during unprotected vaginal intercourse is 0.1% per act (with recent analysis suggesting a more accurate rate would be 0.08% per act).[2] If a person has an undetectable viral load (below 50 copies of HIV virus per mililitre of blood), the risk of infection is about 1 in 10,000 for unprotected sex acts.[3] Recent studies also suggest that antiretroviral therapy can reduce transmission up to 96% in heterosexual couples, where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative.[4]

Yet, Canadian courts have not kept up with scientific evidence. Due to the unclear guidelines regarding what exactly constitutes “significant risk,” courts have continued to send mixed messages regarding legal duty to disclose one’s status. Some courts have held that a person who did not disclose to a partner but wore a condom is not criminally liable. Other courts have held the opposite view by charging a defendant with sexual assault for non-disclosure without considering the kind of sexual activities.

The conflicting messages from the courts seriously undermine and threaten the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHs). How can PLHs truly prove that they disclosed to a partner – should they require witnesses or signatures? Should activities such as oral sex and mutual masturbation, which bears almost zero risk of transmission, bear the possibility of a criminal charge, when almost no activity in our lives are truly risk-free? What about the issue of partners, who can blackmail and even abuse their HIV-positive partners by threatening to charge them?

(more…)

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.