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Human Rights Study Project

Posted April 16, 2008

Human Rights Study Project Finds Troubling Stories in Uganda

HRSP group
From left: Emily Buckley, Devin Huseby, Mike Hollander, Najah Farley, Dave Koenig, Allissa Pollard, Kristy Morgan, and Matt VanWormer

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Contact: Rob Seal

It was in a camp in Northern Uganda that a social worker told third-year University of Virginia law student Najah Farley about the day her childhood was interrupted.

The woman recalled that she was home with her sister when the government’s long-running fight with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army arrived on their doorstep. 

“Her babysitter pretty much had to grab them and run,” Farley said.  “There were bombs and guns and all sorts of things. Her dad wasn’t at the house with them. He was in the city.”

But the woman was more fortunate than many in the war-torn country; her father, a doctor, rejoined her several days later, and she is now an adult working with some of the approximately 1.6 million Ugandans who have been forced from their homes by the conflict.

Such stories aren’t uncommon in Uganda, an East African country that is plagued by extensive human rights issues but also houses one of the continent’s best nongovernmental support networks.

These qualities drew Farley and seven of her classmates to Uganda in January. The students spent three weeks in the country as part of the Human Rights Study Project.

Each student focused on a specific human rights issue in Uganda, ranging from the long-running civil war to the government’s treatment of a displaced indigenous tribe. The HSRP group will present its findings to the Law School community today at 5:15 p.m. in Caplin Pavilion.

The HRSP program, now in its sixth year at the Law School, is a student-run venture designed to promote awareness of legal issues surrounding human rights in foreign countries. Previous groups traveled to Cuba, China, Sierra Leone, Syria and Lebanon, and India.

“Each year, the students raise their own money, and they pick the next group of students who are going to participate,” said Professor Deena Hurwitz, who serves as a faculty adviser to the group. “It’s really grown in popularity. I think now the number of students who apply is probably three to four times the number of students who are actually able to go on the trip.”

This year’s group began planning and researching its trips before the school year began.

“It’s definitely an all-year project,” said HRSP President Dave Koenig, a second-year student who was also among those who made the trip.

Cameron L. Cowan ’81, and his wife, P.J., for whom the Cowan Human Rights Study Project Fellows are named, provide a significant donation earmarked for HRSP. Still, the students involved must raise money for the trip, a process Koenig said is still underway. Anyone interested in donating or learning more about the project can contact Koenig at dlk5d@virginia.edu.

Although they do significant planning ahead of time, Hurwitz said the students have to be ready to adapt quickly to changing conditions when they arrive, and that they must be prepared to adjust their research accordingly.

“You hit the ground and you have to plan a week’s worth of meetings,” she said.  “It’s really a lot of work, and certainly no vacation.”

This year was no exception. The students originally wanted to focus on a region in East Africa that included Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Tanzania was ruled out fairly early in the process, and some of the students in the group had to quickly readjust their plans when civil turmoil in Kenya made the country too dangerous at the last minute. Still, group members who had been planning to move on to Kenya were able to adapt, said third-year student Devin Huseby.

“All of us had an idea of what we wanted to research, and Uganda was a place that had kind of all the issues that we were interested in,” Huseby said.

So the students scheduled meetings with NGOs and government officials. They traveled to camps of displaced residents in the war-torn north and visited native tribes who have been forced off their land. They studied the culturally forbidden topic of homosexuality in relation to the AIDS epidemic and weighed the prospect of meaningful legal reform for abused and battered women who have long had no legal recourse for domestic violence.

Here’s a short look at each of the projects:

• REPORTED BY ROB SEAL