Last Thursday, UTM’s Student Association for Geography and Environment hosted assistant professor in UTM’s Department of Geography, Nicole Laliberte, at an event for students to meet their professor. Laliberte spoke to students about her research in intersecting geography, feminist theory, and critical development studies.

The evening began with simple ice breakers, where those attending were asked to share one odd thing about themselves. The geography professor shared that she had double-jointed elbows. Another interesting fact about her, that made its way into the discussion, was that Laliberte was a professional dancer, and her favourite is a folk dance called contra.

Professor Laliberte has had a keen interest in activism for a long time. At the age of 15, she joined a human rights group in 1993, during an active war time in Guatemala. The future geography professor noted that during the war, people had so much optimism in improving their country. However, this soon turned into acceptance of their circumstances due to the prolonged time of war. She found that the capitalist market soon took advantage of the war ruins, which then led to her area of study.

Laliberte’s research in northern Uganda piqued a strong interest among the students listening. During her time in Uganda, Laliberte remained involved with non-profit organizations and exploring conditions in post-war Uganda. She focused on women’s rights and militarism, and how political groups were using it to gain social acceptance. Laliberte also worked with grassroots women’s groups, and explored how they worked against the military-driven patriarchal system.

The population of the professor’s study was the Acholi ethnic group. Laliberte explained that in this society, functioning under the patriarchal system was complex. A topic that was brought up during the discussion was bride prices in patriarchal and post-war societies. As Laliberte explained, the Acholi bride’s family would be paid with dowry. If this sum of money was not paid to them, then the children would not belong to the husband and wife, and they would be taken by the bride’s family.

Laliberte noted that one of the ways the activists used to counteract patriarchy in the post-war society was logic. One method was convincing families that educating their daughters could increase the price of the dowry. While discussing possible solutions to these expenses, students proposed micro-financing to counteract the damaged economy within the country.

To move against this gendered system, Laliberte explains, humanitarian aid workers began to distribute food to the villages through women, “and so now women became the sole providers.” This created a shift in power, where men were no longer the providers and in response, this ultimately lead to problems like violence against women.

A student asked if helping educate women in the Acholi society was a political move or if it was done out of sheer good? Laliberte states, that “it was a pragmatic move.” She believes that the woman’s activist group’s intention was to create a scenario where more women would have access to education. “It would be a catalyst that would increase more opportunities where women can be lawyers or doctors,” says Laliberte, and that way women could access the public sphere. “It was playing into the patriarchy, it wasn’t questioning a man’s power to pay for a wife, they were playing the long game. To get to the point where more women with education in positions of power who can challenge these things in a more systematic and sustained way,” says Laliberte.

The event ended on the question of whether western aid should be involved in eastern conflicts. Laliberte explains to The Medium, “if you were outside of the war, and you’re watching it happen how can you not do anything? That’s part of what the humanitarian initiative is, so there is that good will intention, but there’s also been and extraordinary number of critiques. Especially how international humanitarianism functions.”

The next “Meet Your Prof” event will host associate professor Andrea Olive from the Department of Political Science at UTM.

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