Interview with Shama Farooq, Rule of Law and Access to Justice Officer for UNDP in Shan State, Myanmar
What is your job title? What is a typical day for you?
I serve as a Rule of Law and Access to Justice Officer for UNDP in Myanmar. I assist UNDP in implementing its programmes that help the country develop a governmental culture of compliance with rule of law principles, and especially to promote human rights and public participation in decision making. On a daily basis, I support the work of UNDP’s on-the-ground projects, working with different groups such as legal aid lawyers and rule of law trainers, by advising on programme content and delivery. I also assist government counterparts, such as prosecutors and judges, in training their staff on human rights principles. On any given day I might start off with observing a mobile training on gender based violence organised by one of our projects for community leaders. Later, I might be reviewing reports on how a legal aid organisation that we are funding is delivering access to justice to vulnerable women and girls, followed by talking to local members of a governmental justice sector coordinating body to discuss their plans for addressing citizen complaints.
What was your route to your current role?
After law school, I spent nearly ten years working in access to justice, providing legal aid to vulnerable and indigent groups. During most of that time I served as a public defender representing criminal defendants. During my tenure as a public defender, I had the chance to pursue a three-month long fellowship in Palestine (West Bank) with an international organisation that helps set up legal aid systems in transitional countries. That gave me my first international exposure working with lawyers in different countries promoting access to justice principles and effective lawyering techniques. I left the public defender’s office to join the organisation full time working primarily in Tunisia. Owing largely to my language skills and criminal justice background, I also worked on small consultancies with UNODC training prosecutors in Pakistan. Beginning to get a feel for the larger justice sector picture, I decided I needed to immerse myself in critical thought on criminal law and justice, so I spent a year teaching at a law school in China that provides a joint American JD and Chinese Masters of Law curriculum. That experience allowed me to engage in the study of comparative law, specifically comparative criminal law, which helped me to think creatively about solutions to common justice sector problems. I then transitioned into my current role as Rule of Law and Access to Justice officer, as an International UN Volunteer Specialist, in Myanmar.
What do you enjoy most about the job? What are the challenges?
I enjoy witnessing the eagerness of the people I work with to learn about international principles of human rights and rule of law. I am very lucky to have a wonderful team of supportive staff around me who are experienced and keen on making a difference. The challenges are the ones that are common to all areas of development and human rights work: seeing “bad” things happen around you even though you and others are working really hard to prevent them and then being a professional and getting right back to your work; and being far away from “home.”
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring human rights professionals who want to pursue a similar career path?
Try to get real on-the-ground experience providing direct services. Invest in a good education which values critical thought and introduces you to new and challenging ideas. Find mentors along the way. Remember where you come from and the privileges you carry with you.