By Amanda Bahadur
The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) has been empowering young lawyers since 2002 through its International Initiative: the Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP). The CBA’s International Initiatives are dedicated to the global development of the rule of law and access to justice. The YLIP, in particular, sends recent graduates and young lawyers to developing countries for substantive experience in international law. Currently, 28 interns are advocating for human rights and representing Canada in Southern Africa, East Africa, the Caribbean, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans.
The YLIP is supported by the Government of Canada through funding from Global Affairs Canada (GAC). With this round of funding, GAC has provided for 32 CBA interns each year until 2022 to work with various rights based organizations on human rights programming, the rule of law, and constitutional reform in developing countries. The eight-month internship includes a six-month overseas placement with pre-departure and reintegration activities in Canada. A pre-departure briefing equips interns to best contribute to their placement organization and succeed overseas. The 2018/2019 cohort received formal training on trauma-informed lawyering, access to the extensive YLIP alumni network, and advice to adapt to an intercultural work environment. There is a distinct focus on GAC’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), gender equality, inclusive governance, and environmental sustainability.
The YLIP has a diverse range of partnerships for the 2018/2019 program including international organizations such as UNICEF in Vietnam and the International Development Law Organization in Kyrgyzstan, and localized agencies such as The Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia and the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa. I am placed in Guyana until March 2019 at the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD). SASOD is the leading organization in Guyana fighting for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights.
As with many countries around the world, the LGBTQ+ community in Guyana faces heavy prejudice and discrimination with few legal protections. Same-sex intimacy remains illegal, and until recently, cross-dressing was also illegal. The lack of legislative protection for the LGBTQ+ community emboldens those who act discriminatorily and justifies prejudice against the community. What I have found particularly disheartening is how palpable and blunt intolerance and hatred can be due to entrenched cultural norms of gender identity and gender roles. Derogatory slurs are used in common conversation and violence against the community is discussed causally, often in jest. As a result, LGBTQ+ victims of hate crimes rarely report violent incidents out of fear of further discrimination at a police station or hospital; and those that do report often do not mention any biased motivation. In response, SASOD works to reform legislation to increase protection of the LGBTQ+ community. In November 2018, SASOD was instrumental in having the law that criminalized cross-dressing struck down by the highest court of appeal in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Court of Justice (McEwan et al v AG of Guyana,  CCJ 30 (AJ)).
During my internship at SASOD, I have been able to document many incidents of discrimination and provide assistance to victims, however, it can be difficult to proceed with cases as victims fear family and friends finding out about their lifestyle more than they fear an offender. This can be difficult to relate to as a Canadian citizen, where we are privileged to hold justice in high regard. Listening to these stories has made me acutely aware that my privilege is solely based on the location of my birth and compels me to use that privilege to support those who are not so geographically gifted. The economic conditions of developing countries are undoubtedly a factor as fear, and by extension prejudice, is exacerbated when people are struggling to meet basic needs. The broader implications illustrate the importance of countries with vast resources supporting fundamental human rights globally.
Legal change is a first and necessary step to address inequality but social change will have the greatest impact on the community. This is where the YLIP shines. Sending interns straight into the environment allows for direct results from on the ground efforts. With SASOD, I have been able to facilitate safe spaces for LGBTQ+ persons and advance education in the community. Immediate collaboration has been the most powerful approach to inspire understanding and mutual respect. It is difficult for one to be tolerant with the belief that they are amongst a majority, living a “normal” lifestyle, and that there are a few remote others trying to corrupt that norm. However, sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression are fluid concepts depicted on a spectrum that can change over time. The idea that a person unequivocally and perpetually identifies at one end of the spectrum, the cis-gender heterosexual “normal”, is more unrealistic than the alternative. In essence, this seems more likely to be the minority. Contextual understanding is key to social change and is most effectively imparted through grassroots efforts like the YLIP. Entrenched cultural norms means progress will take time, but internships such as this provide an opportunity for cross- cultural learning and common understanding that can lead to positive change.
The Government of Canada has made universal human rights a priority by supporting not only the YLIP, but other CBA International Initiatives such as Supporting Inclusive Resource Development in East Africa and National Legislative Development in Vietnam. The YLIP is a uniquely rewarding opportunity for young lawyers to gain hands on training. My perspective is only one intern’s experience; the YLIP has sent over 100 interns to advocate on the ground for human rights. GAC has equipped young lawyers to contribute to Canada’s international legal obligations during their placement as well as after, and has committed to do doing so for the next four years. Canada’s most marked display of international priorities is its investment in the latest class of human rights defenders.