By Michelle Freilich
My arrival in Kuala Lumpur was marked by the tentative balance of nerves and excitement to embark on my internship with an INGO at the forefront of women’s rights. As I walked to the IWRAW-AP office on my first day in the sweltering 8am heat of a Malaysian December, the rich aromas wafting from the hawker stalls lining the street confirmed that I was at the beginning of a truly captivating experience. Over the course of the next few months, as I engaged in IWRAW-AP’s important work in defending women’s rights, the unparalleled opportunity of my Castan Centre Global Internship was continuously reconfirmed.
My experience in Kuala Lumpur reflected IWRAW-AP’s dual roles of advocacy and capacity building in the Global South and as an intermediary between the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and local NGOs from around the world. Following the Bellagio International Judicial Colloquium, facilitated by IWRAW-AP as a knowledge sharing and peer advocacy platform, I contributed to a report on best judicial practices for ensuring access to justice for sexual violence in Africa and Asia. By exploring the root causes of gender-based violence against women and the barriers to accessing justice, I not only developed critical research skills but also gained insight into comparative laws and cultures.
My other main responsibility was assisting with preparation for the 69th CEDAW Session in Geneva, and especially our Global to Local Programme for NGOs participating in the CEDAW review process. Analysing and compiling a seemingly endless pile of State, CEDAW and NGO reports revealed the importance of NGOs having a space in the CEDAW review process, as discrepancies between State reports and shadow reports marked a dangerous void in human rights protection. As I researched Malaysia, Chile, Republic of Korea, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Luxembourg and Marshall Islands, who were all to be reviewed at the 69th CEDAW Session, the need for protection against human rights abuses became evident.
After two engaging and flavoursome months in Kuala Lumpur, I ventured to Geneva to begin what would be a formative experience both personally and professionally. The Global to Local Programme started with participants sharing their ‘shero’ (female hero), uniting NGO members from around the globe in mutual awe of inspiring women who shaped women’s rights today. The intensive training course educated the participants about UN systems and gave strategic advice for lobbying. Being surrounded by brilliant lawyers and human rights defenders was uplifting. We learned about the struggles and successes of working for women’s rights in different countries, and how different laws and cultures impact human rights concerns. For example, Luxembourg focused on intersex surgeries, while Saudi Arabia was primarily concerned about guardianship laws that permeate all facets of Saudi women’s lives.
Perhaps the most monumental aspect of my internship was the opportunity to be involved in the 69th CEDAW Session. As I entered Geneva’s Palais des Nations, I was struck by the awareness that the lives of global citizens were changed by decisions made in this very location. I attended and documented the constructive dialogues between the States and CEDAW, observing the manner in which diplomats would traverse the political landscape of questioning. At the daily briefings to CEDAW, NGOs from the State to be reviewed the following day would provide key information that may have been obscured in the State reports. This ensured that CEDAW had a comprehensive understanding of the needs of women within those States. While the session was inspiring, it also elicited dismay over the lack of consensus by CEDAW regarding more controversial matters, and exasperation when States refused to be held accountable for their human rights violations. Yet overall, the session reinforced the importance of UN mechanisms for review, as issues were brought into the open and responses were demanded. Further, my understanding of the importance of civil society defending human rights was crystallised as I witnessed the reverberating effect of NGO lobbying.
My internship with IWRAW-AP enabled me to gain insight into the impact of international human rights law on the lives of women throughout the world. Through the work I undertook and brilliant legal minds from which I had the opportunity to learn, I developed critical skills in research and analytical thinking, and an understanding of international law. I would like to sincerely thank the Castan Centre for providing me with this invaluable opportunity. I am extremely grateful to the Castan Centre and IWRAW-AP, as my internship was a truly life changing, formative experience.