Justice for all: SIT alumna talks about law and intellectual property rights

January 4th, 2019   |   Alumni, SIT Study Abroad

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In spring 2004, Yvonne Ochilo spent a semester in Kingston on SIT’s Jamaica: Gender and Development program, run in collaboration with the University of the West Indies. Today, she is a lawyer, handling transactional and litigation matters in  business, real estate, estate planning, nonprofit management, intellectual property, and other legal matters in Wisconsin. We spoke with Ochilo about her time with SIT and what she’s doing now.

SIT: Tell me about your SIT program in Jamaica.

Yvonne Ochilo: From the moment I set foot in Kingston, I was engulfed by the sights and sounds, the local dialect-patois, the delicious cuisine (infused by its African heritage) and the beauty of the Island. It is unforgettable. Our academic director, Ms. Shirley Campbell; my host family; and my fellow students were instrumental in making my learning experience both enjoyable and eye opening.

The program immersed us in Jamaican culture. Through experiential learning and the Independent Study Project (ISP), we were able to confront various issues such as the perception of men and women in Jamaican culture; the role of Rastafarianism; the role of music/popular culture—roots reggae, dancehall, poets/poetry/spoken word, and literature; crime; and economics. Ms. Campbell taught us that the first rule when entering a new culture is to “suspend judgment,” so as to have the opportunity to formulate an “educated” opinion based on both facts and firsthand knowledge. It is natural to judge, yet we must make a conscious effort to develop opinions that are not born of stereotypes, racial prejudices, or myths, and learn how to reconcile opposites.

After a semester in Kingston, it was bittersweet to leave! I am grateful for the friendships I made as well as for my wonderful host family that embraced me. More importantly, I emerged with a better understanding and appreciation of how cultural norms contribute to the complexities and dichotomies between men and women.

SIT: Why did you go into law?

Ochilo: My decision to pursue law stems from the premise that each of us can make a difference in the lives of others and in our communities. The definition of “difference” varies according to worldview(s), resources, upbringing, and education. However, our ability to exercise “free will” in a democratic system and to use our voices for good is not outdated. In fact, it is needed now more than ever. We have an opportunity to showcase our humanity and to stand up for human rights even when faced with: the current political climate in the United States, the immigration crisis, anti-Semitism (e.g., the Pittsburgh shooting), police brutality, and racial and economic disparities.

SIT: What can you tell us about intellectual property law, particularly laws protecting indigenous populations?

Ochilo: Western intellectual property laws do not always fit neatly into allowing protections for indigenous peoples, particularly in developing nations. In addition, some forms of “traditional” intellectual property such as folklore/stories/songs that are passed down from one generation to the next through oral history have not always been recorded. For instance, in ancient times, some tribes relied on griots to safeguard and pass on their traditions through storytelling. This presents a challenge to protecting these forms of traditional knowledge.

I consider it an honor to be a lawyer and to be a “voice for the voiceless.” As exemplified by my recent paper “Keeping Traditions,” published in Intellectual Property Magazine (April 2018), indigenous cultures are (often) exploited through misappropriation and biopiracy thereby widening the North-South divide. It is critical for intellectual property laws to be enacted and/or strengthened so as to protect these communities/tribes who have rich folklore, traditional medicines/herbs, clothing style, beadwork, etc. Change is a two-prong approach and it is not enough to rely on systemic advancements but rather our power lies in our interconnectedness in the global arena.

Ochilo has shared with us several ways people can help:

  • Increase awareness—through focus groups, events/seminars, or conferences.
  • Participate in online discussion groups/forums that deepen the conversation. Share feedback or ideas for initiatives via social media. (Share your ideas with Ochilo.)
  • Support Fair Trade goods to ensure that these communities (and in particular women owned businesses/entrepreneurs) receive a fair wage for their artifacts.
  • Governments should enact and/or strengthen copyright and patent laws in their countries are well as collaborate with WIPO, ARIPO, and other international organizations to level the playing field in international trade/business. Contacting your local representative(s) to voice concerns may make an impact in the long term.