Patricia Alejandro ’17 in Xolobeni, South Africa.
Since my very first day I’ve been immersed in interesting and varied work. The South African constitution is very much a living document, allowing international law to be used as an aspiring standard. It also creates a range of socioeconomic rights, seeking to correct decades of inequality under apartheid.
Our office focuses mostly on education. In this area of the country, schools are falling apart, supplies and furniture are lacking, education quality is low, many teachers are absent from the classroom, and children often walk hours and many kilometers each day to get to school. The constitution enshrines the right to education, but that right is jeopardized without access to these basic elements.
I have been working on issues of providing students with transport to school and proper sanitation facilities. I researched international law for an upcoming court hearing on student transport and made an advocacy video using photos and videos of students walking to school. We received the judgment and order last week from the case; the judge has ordered that transportation be provided for many of those students. I am now in the process of calling other schools that have transport and toilet issues so that we can build upon that judgment and provide for these students.
Part of the experience has been to rejoice in the good, like the court’s order, while facing the emotional challenges of this work. Soon after the hearing we received word that one of the children who walks to one of the schools we represented had been raped during her commute. She had not been included on our case because she walked less than the distance required by the government for transport (5 kilometers each way). I wrote a memo to the police, calling on them to provide security for the students who walk on dangerous roads, so that the school community could use it to request protection.
During my last week, we will be traveling to interview a rural community embattled against a mining company that wants to work on their land. On the way back, we plan to visit some of the schools we represent and to assess whether the government has made any progress in improving their conditions.
I wish I could stay longer than two months. I am doing substantial legal work and am constantly exposed to a range of social issues.