Interns of FORUM-ASIA: Interview with Avantika, Cam, and Elaine
20 October 2021 10:28 am
For this month’s e-newsletter, we interviewed current interns at FORUM-ASIA: Avantika Singh (India), South Asia Programme Intern, Camikara Yuwono (Indonesia), Communication and Media Programme Intern, and Elaine Lazaro (the Philippines), United Nations Advocacy Intern.
They come from different places and have different backgrounds and experiences, but they are each very enthusiastic about promoting human rights in Asia. Elaine will be with FORUM-ASIA until November this year, and Avantika and Cam will be with FORUM-ASIA until early-2022.
Let’s look at what motivates them, the challenges they face, and their most memorable moments of working with FORUM-ASIA.
1. What is your background, and how did you get involved with FORUM-ASIA?
Avantika: I completed my Integrated MA in Development Studies and International Relations from IIT, Madras, just before starting at FORUM-ASIA, where I wrote my Master’s thesis titled, ‘Attribution of State Responsibility for Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’. In the summer of 2019, I was chosen for the ThinkSwiss Scholarship to pursue a research project in armed conflict at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. I also have a research and academic background in International law after my time at the Paris Insitute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) doing an exchange semester. I have been following FORUM-ASIA’s work for quite some time now. I chose to apply for this position at the South Asia programme because of its regional exposure. I am glad I did so because I also got the opportunity to work exclusively on Afghanistan during the 2021 Taliban takeover among other South Asian countries. My interest also lies in impunity and state accountability, especially conflict-related, part of our programme’s work. FORUM-ASIA does some spectacular work across 21 countries to protect human rights, and I am proud to be a part of this diverse and multi-cultural organisation. It’s a unique international NGO functioning across Asia, and that attracted me.
Cam: I am a proud Indonesian, and I graduated from International Relations Studies Undergraduate program with a specialisation in Transnational Civil Society studies. I was an intern in the national office of one of the international human rights NGOs for one year, mobilising communities through digital means and personalised campaigns. I also had several passion projects of volunteering in the human rights field, providing educational resources for refugees in Jakarta, promoting environmental rights through board games in schools, and disseminating youth’s opinions in Asia-Pacific. My first encounter with FORUM-ASIA was during my final years of college. I was writing an undergraduate thesis on The ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women (ACWC). I cited FORUM-ASIA’s “Report on the ACWC+10” and was very inspired by the research and advocacy towards women’s rights mechanisms in Southeast Asia. Since then, I have been following FORUM-ASIA close, heavily moved by the Dignified Menstruation campaign, and read many publications outputs. I applied for the Communication and Media programme because the job descriptions fit the experience that I did before. I also would like to learn how to strategise, frame, and disseminate human rights stories to the world.
Elaine: I spent around ten years doing philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then as a university lecturer in the Philippines. I have always been interested in the theme of memory, which is why I took a very specific interest in ‘ethics of memory’ in philosophy. The same topic inspired me to pursue a second graduate degree, MAS in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law (MTJ). I wanted to learn more about memory and memorialisation from the perspective of human rights and transitional justice. The MTJ degree is the opportunity that opened the chance for me to get involved with FORUM-ASIA. Coming from a very theoretical field, philosophy, with only a year of exposure to human rights through the MTJ program, I am keen to learn more about human rights, especially concerning the region where I come from.
2. What motivated you to get involved with human rights work?
Avantika: It has been a long-standing interest to work in the field of human rights. With all my work so far, I have also been involved with various aspects of human rights work. My time in Geneva was the first step in this direction, though. In November 2019, I worked with the International Justice Mission to help victims of bonded labour and human trafficking, where I made the final decision to work in the field.
Cam: I was born in the new millennium, amidst a national period of upheaval in Indonesia from a three-decades-long authoritarian dictatorship rule into a democracy. Indeed, this has impacted the situation that I grew up in, where all voices and opinions are important and need to be shouted. My specialisation in college, Transnational Civil Society studies, sometimes doesn’t meet academia’s scholarly demands. It interprets my focus as somewhat irrelevant and immaterial because they are not categorised as high politics such as security and economic studies discussed in mainstream international relations. However, over time, I understood that grassroots issues such as human rights and gender demand students to step down and directly make changes in society. Thus, I decided to dedicate my life to activism, movement, research, and campaigns focusing on development sectors, especially human rights.
Elaine: My motivation to get involved with human rights work stems from some of the unforgettable news and documentaries that I have seen as a child in the 90s, specifically (1) the documentaries on Martial Law and the subsequent 1986 EDSA Revolution in the Philippines, a revolution against a dictator, as well as (2) the Flor Contemplacion case which highlighted the plight of Filipino domestic workers abroad. As a Filipino, I am continually bothered by (1) amnesia/forgetting, and lack of memory as this may lead to repetition of abuses and (2) the lack of recognition of the importance and value of care work, be it in the form of domestic work rendered by Filipino migrant workers or the little things done by women in the community, i.e. the ‘every day’ that nonetheless contribute to long term social cohesion and peacebuilding.
3. What are some of the challenges you have faced while developing your career/looking for opportunities in this field, and how did you overcome them?
Avantika: I think I realised through the many applications I put in for jobs that there may be plenty of human rights issues, but there doesn’t seem enough space for everyone to participate, especially someone who is starting. There is also a common expectation of having a degree from a western institution or having a particular amount of international experience. Fortunately, that is not the case with FORUM-ASIA, who evaluate you on the necessity of the position and the relevant work you have done. I am thankful that they gave me a fair opportunity to do something I am extremely passionate about. They also actively engage fellows and interns instead of making them do brunt work like other organisations.
Cam: Since I am a fresh graduate who just graduated this summer, I would say it is pretty fast for me to get a job, unlike the majority of people that I know, and I am grateful for that. The biggest overcome was matching my idealism with the job openings, and I found out that only a tiny window of opportunity opens for a fresh graduate like me. Many people working in the human rights sector got their graduate degrees already or have been working for countless years; that’s why sometimes I feel inferior working in this field. However, I realised that this is a specialised field, and for now, I should be grateful and see everything as a learning experience to start sailing my voyage in the human rights sector.
Elaine: The difficulties caused by COVID-19, including the resulting tight job market, are the significant challenges that I still need to overcome. Moreover, I find it challenging to make recruiters understand the continuity and coherence of my career in my resume or CV. I am also very new to transitional justice and human rights, so I have not exhausted possible career options. I practice patience and persistence. I try to not look for a very specific opportunity but instead remain open to possibilities. Moreover, despite the pandemic, I feel that living abroad in Geneva for over a year now has truly enriched my perspective in human rights through meeting and talking to people working and aspiring to work in the field of human rights, peacebuilding, and development. This has helped me re-centre and understand what I truly wish to do.
4. What has been a memorable moment, or what moment are you proud of from your internship here?
Avantika: I think one of the things I felt was important was that I got a chance to draft the first copy of an open letter on Afghanistan addressed to governments. Apart from that, I am part of a task force in Afghanistan that makes me feel like I am doing something meaningful. I have also enjoyed the work on repressive law mapping and human rights monitoring that we do here.
Cam: It has only been a month since I worked he and there are many moments that I cherish along the way already. It is my first time working in an international setting; despite us working through our screens in our bedroom and I could not experience working on-site in Bangkok. However, everything is still fascinating to me, from meeting and working with one of the best teams, getting to know the diverse team members, and being in charge of many of the wonderful outputs from all programmes. Currently, my main focus is on rebranding FORUM-ASIA’s visual designs on social media, and I am proud of where it is going, and I can’t wait to see it be running in the long term.
Elaine: There is no single moment that I am proud of, but I am proud to have met the staff of FORUM-ASIA from various cities both online and offline and learn more about the work they do, their motivations, and their interests in human rights in Asia. I am grateful for the internship opportunity because when I was doing the MTJ course, I aspired to get involved with an organisation focusing on Asia.
5. What are your plans after the internship?
Avantika: Given the opportunity, I would like to continue working with FORUM-ASIA for a longer time. I would like to do an LLM in International Law and maybe someday a PhD at some point in the future. I would also like to work in international humanitarian/criminal law at an international court/tribunal or the ICRC.
Cam: My original plan is to apply for graduate programs either in human rights or gender studies after this. However, I know how hard and competitive they are, so I am also at a crossroads on whether I should work for a while and gain knowledge and expertise through practice before applying. If the latter’s the case, I would like to apply to internships or entry-level positions in international human rights NGOs similar to FORUM-ASIA. Who knows, if there are any opportunities, maybe I will come back to FORUM-ASIA after?
Elaine: I am hoping to pursue a career track to integrate what I did in the past and the MTJ degree. I hope to work for human rights, development, and peacebuilding in general, but more specifically and hopefully on something concerning dealing with the past, memory, and memorialisation in the context of transitional justice.
6. If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?
Avantika: I think collectively, as human rights defenders and advocates, we have a long, difficult way to go. In my first month, the biggest learning and hardest thing to digest was that you might not be able to help everyone even though you would like to. Sometimes, especially while protecting others from human rights violations, you may fail. You have to take the failures with the wins and work harder each day. If you successfully make even one person’s life better, then everything you have worked for is worth it. It is also important to detach from work because sometimes, given human beings are involved; it becomes really personal and very hard to let go of.
Cam: As the frontline on achieving peace, justice, and equality, many stories hits too close to home that can cause burnout. Your well-being is essential, and that’s why you have to put it as your priority. If self-care is not enough, you can find collective care in this vast community of workers by sharing your stories and concerns or even chit chat on your life outside of work! Trust me, it helps.
Elaine: I think it is important to be open to dialogue and practice humility in human rights and development.
7. Will you recommend your friends to join FORUM-ASIA as an intern? Why?
Avantika: I would recommend anyone wanting to work in the field of human rights to apply to FORUM-ASIA. I have been here three months and have already learnt a lot more than I could have in any classroom. In fact, I have asked a few friends and juniors to apply to the organisation already.
Cam: Of course, and I currently am! It is one of the most fantastic places I have ever worked with; thus, I would like my friends to experience what I am currently experiencing.
Elaine: Definitely! In fact, as early as my first week, I have encouraged friends to apply for an internship or fellowship position when there is an opportunity. My internship with FORUM-ASIA is more than what was expected. Despite the distance and time difference between FORUM-ASIA offices, the staff sincerely welcomed us and introduced us to the work they do through induction sessions. In FORUM-ASIA, we are given opportunities to both learn and contribute.