Malin Hustig - Human Rights in Argentina
Why the Law- and Human Rights placement?
Since High School I have deliberately directed my education to focus on human rights, international organisations and global politics as these topics have for a long time interested me. At university I have been able to study these topics more in-depth, however, I have always thought it important to gain practical experience as well and not just be bombarded with theory as theory alone can only get you so far. This is why I was extremely excited when I had the opportunity to go abroad and work as a volunteer during my studies.
Projects Abroad and its different programs all over the world caught my eye from the very beginning when I was trying to decide where to go and what to do. I immediately knew that a Law and Human Rights placement would be right for me, not only because it would complement my studies and give me valuable practical experience but also because, as mentioned, human rights is something that has always intrigued me and been important to me personally. A Law and Human Rights placement would allow me to experience what it would be like to work with human rights close up, and put all my theory based-knowledge into perspective.
I received a warm welcome when I arrived in Córdoba and was given a tour of the city and the office before I was put to work. I immediately felt like a part of the Law- and Human Rights ‘family’. The office was small and we would at times be quite a few volunteers, but there was always a great atmosphere in the room and we all became good friends which made the overall experience even more enjoyable.
No days were the same and we all had different schedules as we all worked with different things and had different placements. Some days were long and some days were short, but there was always something to do. We were all in groups and had one or two main placements that we worked at twice a week. A bit more administrative work at the office was also expected of us as we all had to plan the activities for our placements, make preparations during the week, and write reports, though we could often choose ourselves when to work at the office.
I liked how flexible the office hours were and the fact that we all had to work independently as groups with our tasks. It really helped me grow and I learned to be a lot more independent than before. Help was never far away though should we have any issues or concerns about, well, anything.
At the end of each week we would have our weekly Friday meeting where everyone talked about their week and what they had been doing at their placements. Normally I’m not too fond of meetings but I always looked forward to those Friday meetings! Although it was conducted in a serious manner it always ended up in a casual conversation towards the end where we shared experiences, discussed future plans for the placements and ate pastries or alfajores, an Argentine speciality.
My main placement was at an institution called SOAJE where girls between the age of 11 and 17 would stay as a result of the court deciding that they could not live at home due to domestic violence or other difficult circumstances. Some girls were there only for a short amount of time while others were there for months, or even longer. My task was to plan educational activities that were aimed at empowering the girls, discuss various important topics with them which they could relate to personally, and take them outside the institution once a week as they otherwise were never allowed to leave the institution apart from when going to school.
The hardest bit about working at the institution was to get the girls to trust me and open up to me. I was nervous at the beginning as the girls were not always easy to handle. It took some time but eventually I became friends with them and was able to enter their world. I quickly realized how different we were and how much more mature these girls were than me. We had many serious moments, but also many cheerful ones filled with laughter and light mockery at my expense due to my terrible Spanish (but I didn’t mind at all). These meetings were a chance to learn about each other’s culture as well. I remember one time when they were absolutely shocked to find out that I was 21 and still had no children of my own. I could do nothing but laugh a little at this cultural difference and try to explain why it was so. In their eyes I was already old and should’ve had a family of my own!
I had other responsibilities apart from SOAJE as well and I usually joined other social justice activities when I could. Every week I would join a group of volunteers to work for and organisation called Fundación Ganas. Our task was to interview the homeless people of Córdoba in order to acquire data and statistics over the homeless in order to get a more complete picture of the situation. We also tried to help them if they needed anything, like clothes, or if they were ill. It was really an eye-opener listening to all of their stories and my own complaints suddenly seemed so insignificant.
One of the most interesting experiences I had during my stay was the weekly visits to the federal court to hear the testimonies from the victims of Argentina’s last dictatorship. This was of particular interest to me as I had earlier written a paper on the truth commission that was established in Argentina after the fall of the dictatorship. It is one thing to read about the events in journal articles at the library, but to actually be there and hear the victims tell their stories is a tough and emotional experience. As my interest for this topic grew during my stay I was asked to work with another volunteer and do some research on this and create and write a handbook for future volunteers about the Argentine judicial system and the historical context behind the weekly testimonies. It was challenging work but we were proud of the outcome when we were done.
I was faced with challenges from day one. It was not only the challenges of solving different tasks at work that I sometimes struggled with, but using a new language and get accustomed to Argentinian’s way of life also proved at times to be difficult. My Spanish was not the best even though I had studied it at university and having to use it on a daily basis when working and simple things like going to the grocery store was at times a struggle. To make it easier I memorised a few phrases and always worked with another volunteer who knew Spanish better than me. As for the cultural barriers these were quickly overcome as Córdoba is no touristy city, thus enabling me to immerse myself into the local culture and quickly learn how things work and what to look out for. I welcomed these challenges though as they helped me grow, and I quickly learned that the only way to deal with them was to face them head-on.
Social activities and travel
We would often meet up after work to relax, hang out or to do something fun. The frequent social activities we engaged in were a welcome pause from all the hard work. The possibilities were many; we took tango lessons, shopped at the flea market in the city, visited museums, drank maté (a herbal tea passed around in circles at meetings or social gatherings of any kind), and went out for meals in the evening.
I was lucky enough to be able to travel during my stay as well and explore the country and other parts of Latin America. I went on short trips to local villages outside of Córdoba and on longer trips to places such as Iguazú Falls up north by Brazil’s border, Mendoza, the wine capitol of Argentina, and to Santiago and Valparaíso in Chile. All of these trips offered wonderful experiences. I’ve for example sat on a bus for 24 hours straight and seen how the landscape changes drastically from a flat and desolate desert to a tropical jungle, I’ve been on a boat directly under the Iguazú Falls being absolutely soaked, I’ve seen the bright city lights of Santiago in the distance as we came down from the mountains on a bus at night, and I’ve zip-lined over a lake in the middle of the Andes.
I am extremely glad that I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer in Argentina for three months. I learned so much during my stay that I wouldn’t have been able to learn anywhere else, and I hope that I was able to reach out to the people I worked with and that I made a difference, no matter how small it might have been. Although tough and difficult at times it was all in all a very rewarding experience that has given me memories that will last a lifetime.