“For many, Haiti evokes images of devastation and poverty," wrote 3L Jessica Huang in an email after returning from spring break.
“But to me, Haiti represents perseverance. It is a country of great joy, even in the face of unyielding hardship." Huang has been to Haiti three times, twice as a student leader for HHP. Each time she said she finds it “overwhelming and exciting.”
Huang and seven other students were selected to go on the nine-day trip to Port-au-Prince and Jérémie, led by Professor Nicole Phillips and accompanied by Professor Richard Boswell, who established the partnership with Professor Karen Musalo in the late 1990s. The purpose of the delegation, which raises its own travel funds, is to support the country’s legal education system and engage in human rights advocacy. On the nearly annual trips, students visit École Supérieure Catholique de Droit de Jérémie (ESCDROJ), the only law school in Haiti dedicated to preparing students to serve the public interest.
During three evening sessions in the open air classroom at ESCDROJ, the UC Hastings students gave presentations on controversial issues in Haitian society: the plight of 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic who have had their citizenship revoked, and the laws determining consent in cases of sexual violence.
“As we talked about hot topics, in a country where gender stereotypes are widespread, interacting with the audience was essential," said LLM student Léa Ogonowski. “We used different techniques of facilitation to invite those with minority perspectives to give their ideas so that everyone could participate, not just the vocal few." Ogonowski, who is from Paris, translated a bulk of the students’ presentations into French for the audience of law students whose first language is Kreyol.
Over the week, the student delegation met with lawyers, judges, police commissioners and advocacy organizations to learn about developments in the prosecution of gender-based violence and LGBT rights. Rape was only criminalized in 2005, and patriarchal power structures still dominate society, yet students noted that there was evidence of progress.
“We were able to speak with a Haitian National Police officer in Jérémie whose job is to respond to victims and shepherd their cases through the criminal justice system," said 2L Kelsey Ryburn. “The fact that her position exists means that the police are taking these claims seriously now."
Students also checked out the building foundation of Haiti’s first legal clinic, run by ESCDROJ law school and funded by UC Hastings affiliates and other organizations. When it opens this summer, Haitian law students will get essential practical experience by offering legal services to victims of gender based violence and others without representation in the community.
Toward the end of the visit, the delegation returned to Port-au-Prince. Professor Boswell guest lectured at a law class at the University of the Aristide Foundation (UniFA) where Mildred Aristide, an American lawyer and wife of former President Aristide, directs the advancement of the university. Aristide hosted the delegation for lunch and emphasized the dire need for practical training in Haitian legal education. “Aid can only go so far," she said. “Training partnerships are more effective and are what’s needed."
The students also heard from attorneys at the Bureau des Avocats Internationeaux, the most prominent public interest law firm in the country where Professor Phillips works (and which is suing the U.N. for bringing cholera to Haiti post-disaster). BAI has also responded forcefully to the epidemic of rapes against poor women and girls in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
Students reported that the trip was profound, and they were inspired to see the positive impact of human rights advocacy in the country. “Our main goal was to open up new perspectives, and other ways of thinking for the Haitian lawyers and future lawyers," said Ogonowski. “We also learned a lot from them and their work. Going to Haiti opens one’s eyes."
For more information about the Hastings to Haiti Partnership, click here.