When Melisa Handl enrolled in the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa in 2012, she was attracted by its specialization in human rights and social justice. What she found was more than people sharing knowledge on these issues. She found the perfect match for her.
“I could work with people with whom I share the same assumptions on how the world works, and about what is important for us as researchers to capture or what is being marginalized by mainstream research.”
Empirical research - the kind of dogged detective work used in fact-finding investigations - was the foundation of Professor Angela Cameron’s career. Melisa took a class on Legal theory with Professor Cameron for her Master degree at the Faculty of Law while writing her thesis. That class kindled a keen interest in empirical research that would eventually be used for her Ph. D. studies.
She had her mind set on analyzing conditional cash transfers policies in Argentina from a gender perspective. The Argentine government provides a Universal Child Allowance to poor women as long as they accept to receive prenatal care and send their children to school all the while providing proof of their compliance.
“Is it to discipline the mother to take care of their kids? I don’t understand why the program needs to be conditional to meet human rights. In a way, human rights are supposed to be universal,” she said.
Melisa was also attracted by the opportunity to do interdisciplinary research, which the University encourages. Her research is at the crossroads of law and sociology with a very strong component on development studies.
Her supervising committee is composed of law professors Angela Cameron and Marie-Eve Sylvestre, who researches the regulation of the poor and the criminalization of poverty. She can also count on Prof. Susan Spronk from the Faculty of Social Sciences who is working in development and has researched issues in Latin America.
Melisa has conducted interviews with two child allowance recipients as part of her preliminary findings. She discovered that these women felt burdened by the requirements needed to receive social assistance. According to the women, they were unnecessary because they were anyways planning to register their children for school and ensure that they received primary medical care.
“They materialized these restrictions in a way that it turns into a disciplinary mechanism, this is what ‘good mothers’ are supposed to do. There is a constant reinforcement that women are the main caretakers and I don’t see how it is empowering for women.”
Melisa thinks that to be socially transformative the government needs to address the role of men in the responsibility of care. That issue came to the forefront during conversations with other Faculty’s graduate students who have been a great source of support.
“We all have a legal methodology background and we think, to some extent, in the way we were trained to think as lawyers, but at the same time, each of us has a particular perspective and a very specific knowledge, so mutual feedback and cross-training can be very enlightening.”
Being co-president of the Graduate Law Students Association and participating in discussions at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre has given her a chance to debate ideas in a respectful atmosphere while avoiding the isolation that can occur during research studies.
Melisa would like to take on the challenge of teaching in the future while pursuing research.
“It’s meant for me. I like the process of checking and making sense of information, lots of information, and critically looking for paradoxes. It’s never black or white.”
It is those shades of gray, she feels, that makes the profession fascinating.