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Nivedita Guha graduated in law from CLC, Delhi University, in 2009. Thereafter she pursued her LL.M. from NLU, Jodhpur. She has been involved in a lot of socio-legal work in multiple non-profit organisations. She has worked at HelpAge, Kalyan Ashram, MARG, HRLN and currently she is working at UNICEF.
In this interview we speak to her about:
- Pursuing LL.M from NLU, Jodhpur in furtherance to a career in social work
- Work at different domestic NPOs and at UNICEF
- Advice to students who want to pursue a career in Human Rights
HOW WILL YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO OUR READERS?
I am a human rights lawyer presently working as a Consultant with the UNICEF office, West Bengal. My area of interest is child protection and women’s rights. Work is my favourite pastime and I believe it is very important to do what you love and not fall prey to the conventional way of life, satisfying societal standards.
HOW DID YOU GRAVITATE TOWARDS LAW?
My grandfather was an Income tax lawyer practicing in the Calcutta High Court. I was in awe of him. I was brought up in Chandigarh and as a kid when I used to visit him in Kolkata during my summer vacations, I used to minutely notice the way he talked. His command over language was impeccable. I used to spend hours flipping through the legal journals stocked in his big law library. His personality had a deep impact in my formative years which I think later instilled the desire to pursue the legal profession in me.
DO YOU THINK THAT BEING FROM A NON-NLU MADE ANY DIFFERENCE TO YOUR CAREER?
It did not make any difference to me as I was always inclined to work on humanitarian issues and since human rights law is a very unconventional area of law, I always knew that I will have to carve my own way. There are ample job opportunities for corporate lawyers with companies and firms offering good pay packages to them but human rights law is a less sought after area and it was a struggle to choose the right career path. I do not think my struggle would have lessened if I was an NLU graduate.
HOW WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AT HRLN, KOLKATA?
After I left my job in MARG, Delhi, I was looking for jobs in Delhi and Kolkata. A cousin of mine informed me about the vacancy at Human Rights Law Network, Kolkata and I immediately applied for the position. I was called for an interview, I appeared and was selected.
My work at HRLN involved defending the rights of the victims of domestic violence by filing cases under the Protection of Women from the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, defending the Juveniles-in-conflict-with-law in the legal cases in the Juvenile Justice Boards, I have been in-charge of the Prison Project in HRLN where providing legal aid to the inmates in the prison, parallel to the state machinery, maintaining effective collaboration with the relevant government departments like the Department of Correctional administration has been an integral part of my work. Issues like no physical production of prisoners before the courts, illegal detention of the inmates in Section 107 and 109 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 cases in the prisons, inhuman prison infrastructure, improvement of the condition of women and their children in the prisons are some of the issues which have been addressed through fact finding, research and litigation during my tenure in HRLN. I have also trained police officials on the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and the Protection of Children from Sexual offences Act, 2012.
Working in HRLN for three years was very enriching. Though one has to put up with lot of difficulties while working in an organisation solely run by lawyers as administration is not their forte but HRLN surely knows how to extract the best from you and the experience one gains is worth all the struggles.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION BEHIND PURSUING LL.M.?
Once I was sure that criminal justice system is my area of work, I immediately started looking for courses on this area of law. I was looking for distance learning courses as I did not want to leave my job and LL.M. in Criminal law, Criminology & Forensic Science at NLU Jodhpur seemed like a very good option. LL.M. from foreign university is there in my mind but only after few more years of work experience.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU INTO HUMAN RIGHTS? How did you end up in an offbeat , unconventional and unique career such as this?
Not any incident but the character of Atticus Finch in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee inspired me greatly. Atticus Finch is a white American lawyer who defended a black man who was falsely accused of raping a white woman. He fought for racial inequality during the times of apartheid in America. His character, integrity and principles inspired me greatly.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WORK WITH MARG AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT APPLYING TO THEM?
MARG was my first job after completing LL.B. and I was working there as a legal trainer. I did an internship with MARG as a law student and after I completed LL.B., they approached me for this role which I gladly accepted.
My work primarily involved training grass root level NGO workers on various important laws in the States of Bihar, UP and Jharkhand.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE INCIDENT WORKING FOR THESE NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS?
While I was working in MARG in Delhi, I was on a field trip at a village in Haryana. It was a legal empowerment program and I was assisting my senior in sensitising the women of the area to get trained as paralegal volunteers. During the visit, I noticed that in almost every household I went, I met a woman wearing the traditional red and white bangles which is a sign of a married woman in Bengal. They all spoke fluent Bengali and I was told that their parents live in West Bengal and most of them were from the Sundarban area. They were all married to the families in that village of Haryana. I was perplexed as I did not understand the reason why women from the interiors of Bengal will be married to Jats of Haryana. Soon these women cleared my doubts and very explicitly told me that their families in Bengal were poverty stricken and their in-laws in Haryana are providing for their families in Bengal. So basically, by marrying, they are helping their family back home in getting food to eat and also to live a comfortable life. There is a dearth of girls in Haryana so the families in Haryana go searching for brides in Bengal alluring the families of brides with money.
I was shell shocked to witness the vicious cycle of atrocity occurring so flagrantly. It was my first stint with reality and concept of cross cutting issues. It was an eye opener.
WHAT IS IT LIKE WORKING FOR AN INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION LIKE UNICEF?
It has been absolutely amazing to work in UNICEF as working with organisations like UNICEF widens your horizon as you are no longer look at resolving individual cases but you are thinking about the larger picture. I feel more responsible as I know that my work will now impact the masses and not just two or three people. It is also the first time that I am working with the government as UNICEF is a partner of the Ministry of Women and Child Development and I have to work very closely with the Department of Child Development, Women Development and Social Welfare in West Bengal. It is a very different experience from working with NGOs.
It has only been four months that I am working in UNICEF, I can handle the stress till now.
DO YOU THINK REMUNERATION IS A SERIOUS IMPEDIMENT TO SUCH WORK?
Anyone who needs a “higher pay package”, should not even think of getting into the development sector because when you decide to get into this sector, it is not money which drives you but a desire and passion to connect to the masses and serve the people. Yes, initially money is a serious impediment in this field.
WHERE DO YOU SUGGEST ONE CAN INTERN OR APPLY FOR AN OPPORTUNITY IF SHE IS INTERESTED IN WORKING FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES?
For lawyers or law students, Human Rights Law Network and Lawyer’s Collective are great organisations to work and learn. The summer and winter internship program in National Human Rights Commission is also very good. Amnesty International India is also a good place to learn and grow.
WHAT IS THE BEST POSSIBLE COURSE OF ACTION FOR A LAW STUDENT WHO ASPIRES TO WORK FOR INTERNATIONAL NON- PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS?
I would advise students to involve themselves in various humanitarian causes like by volunteering or interning with NGOs and groups working on human rights issues. This way one understands if working on humanitarian issues is their true calling or not. Thereafter, they should focus on understanding issues and think how as a lawyer they can contribute for that particular issue.
If one is specifically eyeing for international organisations than a foreign degree might help and one has to keep an eye on international vacancies and opportunities but what I have learnt from experience is that the most important thing is your ability to understand issues and build skills to intervene as a lawyer and activist, which is possible only by working extensively in the field.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF BY THE END OF THE COMING FIVE YEARS?
For the next three years I am solely focusing on my work at UNICEF. I want to complete the work assigned to me successfully. Thereafter, I would want to pursue higher studies abroad.
LASTLY, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR MESSAGE TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO HAVE A CAREER IN HUMAN RIGHTS?
Please do not opt for a career in human rights because you feel it is glamorous to be working in a NGO or United Nations or any other international organisation. There is much much more to it. One has to survive the initial grill with lot of patience and perseverance but if you are driven by the right reason primarily the desire to serve, it will be worth it. Reiterating, the need for a passion to serve does not necessarily means to work without money but when you are passionate to serve you will understand the importance of what you are doing and the great impact it makes.