New Beginnings in a Human Rights Community in Tamil Nadu

When we were told repeatedly during orientation to “expect the unexpected,” I kept wondering what exactly that would end up meaning. As soon as I arrived in Madurai I started to understand…from the second I landed I experienced one mishap after another. My laptop crashed almost immediately upon my arrival, I didn’t understand any of the rules at the hostel where I was to stay, and I have gotten sick multiple times since I arrived, to name a few…

The good thing is that things turned around relatively quickly and despite a few bumps along the road, my experience thus far has been a positive one. Within just a few days of starting my work at People’s Watch, the human rights organization I am placed with in Madurai, I became involved with the completion of a report on the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India. The NHRC is an autonomous institution that was created in 1993 for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights in India. I was fortunate enough to join People’s Watch at an incredibly exciting time. In early 2011, the NHRC will be submitting itself for reaccreditation before the Sub-Committee of Accreditation of the International Coordination Committee on National Human Rights Institutions in Geneva. Our report, along with the reports of other civil society organizations, will be submitted at the time of the NHRC’s reaccreditation. The report examines the functioning of the NHRC using the framework of the Paris Principles of 1991, the internationally agreed upon standards to which national human rights institutions are expected to adhere.

As a member of the team working on the completion of this report I was quickly thrown into day-long meetings with our incredible Executive Director and my mentor, Mr. Henri Tiphagne, to discuss the various chapters of the report. While these meetings were an incredible learning experience for me, I was also overwhelmed at the number and magnitude of the challenges that stand in the way of the full realization of human rights in India. Feeling overwhelmed was a good sign for me personally though, because as a human rights activist I greatly admire once said, “If you don’t ever have a moment when you’re lying on the floor wondering what the heck is happening in the world, then you aren’t paying attention.”

Some of my most memorable moments at People’s Watch during this first month have been away from my desk and in the midst of some of the many exciting events that take place at our office on a regular basis. These events have given me the chance to connect with individuals from the community who have faced discrimination and who are acting as catalysts for positive change.

The Safai Karmachari Andolan gathering at People’s Watch was a particularly moving event. Safai Karmachari Andolan is the movement to end the degrading practice of manual scavenging in India. It was amazing to witness the self-sacrifice of these activists, as it is considered shameful to come from their community and yet these individuals were willing to endure that discrimination to work towards eradicating manual scavenging. The photo in this entry is of one of the youngest activists who participated in the Safai Karmachari Andolan event.

Another memorable event was the weeklong training held for young Dalit women to empower them with life skills and an awareness of their rights. At the end of the event, the participants were honoured with certificates and a few were given the chance to talk about their experiences in front of the staff at People’s Watch. In the human rights world, it is often said that women from already marginalized communities like the Dalit community are doubly disadvantaged because they face the challenges of the second-class status assigned to them as women, as well as the discrimination associated with being from another marginalized group. As the young women spoke that day however, one could actually see that they had been transformed and empowered. They spoke with a sense of purpose and confidence that inspired me to want to be more purposeful and confident myself.

My first month has been eventful and exciting and while I am certain that there are many challenges ahead, I am looking forward to continuing this learning process and integrating myself into this amazing human rights community in the months to come.

(Photograph courtesy of A. Loganathan, Media Assistant, People’s Watch)

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