Students Reflect on Fact-Finding Trip to Colombia for the International Human Rights Clinic

March 4, 2014

International Human Rights Clinic Students Marco Traversa and Lindsay Short offer these reflections on their recent fact-finding trip to Cali, Colombia.

Marco Traversa, LL.M. Candidate Class of 2014

I have recently come back from a fact-finding mission in Cali, Colombia, through the International Human Rights Clinic and the RFK Center for Justice and Human rights. During our trip, my team-partner, Lindsay Short, and I, together with Professor Sital Kalantry interviewed members of the Nasa Indigenous Community.

Prior to the trip, we spent months conducting research, writing affidavits and preparing questions in order for the trip to be as profitable as possible.

Even though I have consistently worked on this project throughout the school year, it was not until I interviewed primary school students that I realized what education means to me and what education means to them.

In the “Western World,” we tend to take education for granted, we perceive costs such as pencils or notebooks as relatively minor. When we think about human rights, our immaginarium goes directly towards:  right to life, right to privacy, freedom of religion and so on so forth. Education to us is not only something that is free and available, but also something that is mandatory: we are “forced” to receive education, we do not have to fight for it.

By interviewing our “clients” and speaking to the community, I perceived “the forgotten importance of education.” The right to education is not only a basic right, it is the basic right.

This trip reminded me how, only through education, a community can fight for its other rights, such as land and physical security. And above all, only through education can the rule of law be established.

Our “clients” have to walk from 1 to 4 hours to get to school and they face all sorts of dangers. However, they still wake up every day and go to school, where, if they do not have the compulsory material, they can be forced to clean bathrooms or halls. They do so because it is fundamental for them; they want to go onto secondary school in order to improve the life of their communities.

Our trip is part of an on-going project that started a few years ago, thanks to the dedicated work of Professor Kalantry. In the previous steps, Professor Kalantry’s team managed to secure a court ruling in Colombia that held that education should be free. Our goal is to make education more accessible and to eliminate high costs, often amounting to 40% of the family budget. Substantially free education is the first step through which the indigenous communities of Colombia can fight for their rights.

Lindsay Short, J.D. Candidate Class of 2015

Diego’s family makes an all-day trek, from their remote indigenous community to the nearest large city, to purchase his school supplies each year. Their expenses include books, notepads, lunches, and a uniform—which may not seem like much, until you realize that for children like Diego, these expenses alone equal about 30% of his family’s annual income.  If Diego, 13, cannot afford his uniform, he’ll need to clean one of his school’s bathrooms. Other students in his region have dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford one pencil.  Others walk up to four hours each way to school every day, their paths marked with armed conflict and dangerous terrain.

I learned these stories firsthand, alongside Professor Sital Kalantry and classmate Marco Traversa, during a January fact-finding trip to Cali, Colombia, through the International Human Rights Clinic (IHR Clinic) and the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.  In Cali, we also teamed with a local association for indigenous rights and a Colombian lawyer to manage the logistics and help us throughout the interview process.  The trip was part of a larger project to attain truly free education for indigenous Colombian primary school children and to ultimately bring a case to an international legal body by the end of this school year.

The trip is just one example of the practical, real-life work I’ve experienced in my time in the IHR Clinic.  My partner Marco and I spent much of fall quarter drafting affidavits (initially in English, then translated to Spanish), based off interview transcripts and recordings from a previous fact-finding trip.  We also spent time drafting the most comprehensive, specific interview questions possible for our trip, and learning about the current situation in Colombia and work done to date on the case.  During our four days in Colombia, we interviewed indigenous students, their parents, and two local governors to learn more about their specific education and community experiences. We subsequently constructed affidavits based on the interviews.

Using what we learned in Colombia, my group will now spend the rest of the year analyzing educational data (ranging from costs of education to dropout rates to male-female ratios in schools), and finalizing and filing our petition.  Our ultimate goal is that neither Diego, nor any of his classmates, will ever need to worry again about cleaning bathrooms—or worse, dropping out completely—because the costs of education are too burdensome for his family.