The International Human Rights Practicum is one of the School's new third-year practice-based courses, classes that are designed to prepare students for their careers by simulating a variety of legal practice environments. But this class goes well beyond simulation by engaging students in the investigation of actual cases of human rights abuse.
"In this course, the students are functioning as a small human rights organization," says Prof. Johanna Bond, an expert in international human rights and gender law who is teaching the course. "They research, travel, and investigate with the ultimate goal being the generation of a human rights report that can be used to prod a government into making changes."
In this case, the students are investigating enforcement of Tanzania's Sexual Offenses Act. Passed in 1998, the landmark legislation amended the country's penal code to include tougher penalties for sexual assault and also outlawed human trafficking and the harmful cultural practice known as female genital mutilation, common within some ethnic groups. But even before hitting the ground, students learned from their in-country partners at the Women's Legal Aid Center (WLAC) that general awareness of the law was on the decline. In addition, there remains in the country a strong social stigma attached to victims of sexual violence, suggesting many such crimes go unreported.
But before the students could travel to Africa to research the problem of sexual violence as a human rights abuse, they spent six weeks researching the Tanzanian legal system and the law and policy around gender-based violence. They also conducted a number of practice interviews specifically designed to teach them how to extract the most accurate information from people often reluctant to speak out on such sensitive issues.
The group, which included Bond and Class of 2010 students Cristina Buccina, Ya Marie Cham, Lena Golze Desmond, John LaMont, Dennis Maxwell, and Shannon Sherrill, traveled to Tanzania in early October. During their ten-day stay, the students conducted about 60 interviews with various stakeholders including judges, lawyers, police officers, health care providers, and a variety of non-governmental organizations that provide legal aid and counseling to victims of sexual violence.
Given their assumptions going in, the students were not surprised to find the problems with reporting and enforcement perhaps worse than they expected. But they were surprised by how seriously the issue is taken even as they uncovered the deep roots of problem.
"The people I spoke with, from police to government officials, genuinely want to fix the problems and make the environment better for women," says Maxwell. "There are many reasons why they are struggling with the enforcement of the law, and the country has a long row to hoe in overcoming the cultural and social barriers to enforcement."
One interview in particular brought this challenge into stark relief. The subject was herself a human rights lawyer, educated in the law and fighting on a daily basis for the women and children of Tanzania. But even she admitted that if she became a victim of sexual assault, she would be extremely reluctant to report the crime to police.
Perhaps the most galvanizing experience for the students was witnessing the pervasive poverty in the country. Though politically stable since becoming an independent republic in 1964, Tanzania was left destitute following decades of poorly implemented socialist policy and it is now heavily dependent on foreign aid.
This poverty has contributed directly to the failing sexual violence law. The poorly paid police force is susceptible to bribery, and because victims are rarely compensated by the court system when they do go forward with a complaint, many victims or their families elect to take payment from the offender's family in exchange for not reporting the crime.
Similarly, as Buccina notes, human traffickers, when they don't simply steal children, are able to take advantage of poor families looking for a better life for their children.
"Life in the villages is hard, and when a relative or some other agent from the city promises to provide a child with an education or a good job, families often agree," says Buccina. "But too often that child ends up being forced into prostitution or simply becomes a domestic slave."
Despite the bleakness of the current situation, there have been successes. Buccina and Sherrill conducted interviews with administrators at an aid organization that has rescued 250 children from human trafficking situations in the last four years. The children are being trained in skills such as sewing and knitting so that they have means to support themselves in the future.
"During the interviews, were heard singing throughout the building, and afterwards we were given a tour of the facility," says Sherrill. "We were introduced to the children and they sang us a song, and it was at that point what we were doing took on a greater purpose."
Now, the students have the difficult task of synthesizing all the information they gathered into a human rights report. The report will document the enforcement problems and causes and detail Tanzania's obligations under international human rights law. It will also suggest changes to the law and make recommendations to police, prosecutors, and judges on how to properly investigate and adjudicate cases involving sexual violence. The report will be mass produced at the School of Law and then delivered to the School's partners at WLAC for lobbying the Tanzanian parliament and community education efforts.
For many of the students, Bond recognizes, direct involvement with international human rights may end when the class is over, but she believes the experience nevertheless will inform their careers regardless of the area of law they practice.
"It's disorienting to be dropped into a foreign legal system so different from our own and figure out how it works," says Bond. "But in that disorientation, so much learning happens. This kind of experience gives them new perspective on our own legal system and the power of law to create social change. They will be better lawyers because of it."Email This Page