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Internship Report: South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)


Internships are great tools to improve your chances as a job applicant and thus it is a worthwhile investment in becoming an intern. Internships do more than just look good on your resume. You can build a network of professional and personal contacts; develop the skills employers are seeking; and build confidence, motivation, and professional work experience. Below we speak with Cara O’Donnell from Australia to learn about her internship experiences and hear her advice for upcoming human rights interns.

Cara, can you tell us a little about your background as a lawyer?

I’m a 4th year commercial lawyer at a full-service commercial law firm in Melbourne. I am in the Commercial Disputes team, primarily working in insolvency and bankruptcy law.  I never intended to do commercial law, however my uni (Deakin University) had a commercial focus and required all students to complete a 30-day placement and elective subjects, which peaked my interest in human rights law. However, in order to be admitted to practice as a lawyer in Victoria, you need to do a further year of training/study (such as practical legal training as a graduate lawyer). Graduate positions mostly only exist with the larger firms (although some suburban firms will offer something similar) and those larger firms have great resources and training. So, I did my graduate year with an international firm in Melbourne and rotated through corporate and litigation groups, before moving to a boutique firm and then finding my way to my current role.

Why have you decided to do voluntary work and internships?

I had always wanted to do, and was sure I would do, human rights law. But there are few opportunities in Melbourne in human rights law and any that did/do exist, understandably require previous experience. So, over the years I have volunteered with various NGOs including the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH now called Justice Connect) which helps the most marginalised members of society; the AED Legal Centre which works with employment and education discrimination often due to disability; the Asylum Seeker Refugee Centre and other non-legal volunteer positions. The firm I work for has a strong pro bono team and I volunteer through them, with the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, attending Breakfast Club on Tuesday mornings where we help to provide a cooked breakfast for local kids in Fitzroy, Melbourne. The families of most of these kids newly arrived in Australia.

Volunteering and interning has helped me to become more engaged with my community and better understand the real difficulties people have. They have also provided me with great opportunities to better understand areas of law I might be interested in, without making huge career changes. The experiences both professional and personally have been invaluable.

What internships have you done?

During my undergrad degree, I did volunteer internships with Justice Connect (formerly PILCH) part-time for 12 months and AED Legal Centre part-time for a semester.

I was also a volunteer member of Young UN Women (Victoria) as a member of the policy team.

I recently completed an internship with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), in Cape Town. The SAHRC has a mandate under the South African Constitution to investigate and assess individual complaints and/or allegations of human rights violations; and also, undertakes education programs. There are nine provincial SAHRC offices, with Cape Town being in the Western Cape. We worked on a few major projects including one focused one early childhood development and otherwise on many difficult individual complaints regarding healthcare; education and basic housing.

I am currently ¾ of my way through my Master of Laws at Melbourne University, which I am studying part-time. My internship with SAHRC will also be credit as the subject International Legal Internship. I always regretted not doing overseas study during my undergrad degree and this was a great opportunity to make amends! Working full-time and studying part-time is tough, however I really enjoy studying (big nerd!) but found it overwhelming to just go and read the law – where would I even start?!

What are you doing now and did doing internships help you?

Now I am in the process of working out what this means for me long term. Whilst I have loved commercial law and it has been really good for me, I am just not sure that it will be my forever job. I work at a great law firm, with a wonderful team of people, which is something really difficult to find. I also work with a terrific female partner, who is a great mentor and colleague – strong female role-models are not always easy to find! But, there are days when the work that I’ve been able to do, not just with SAHRC but with each of the organisations I have volunteered or interned with, have seemed far more valuable than any commercial law. Whether that means I go back to Australia and look to move across practice areas, I’m not sure. There are also many transferrable skills which I learnt and developed in my internships, that even if I choose to stay in commercial law, it will have been a huge benefit to me.

Perhaps I will just finish my Masters and then take some time to reflect on my future plans! There is no hurry to make any big decisions.

I have found people working in human rights to be passionate about the work they do, and also incredibly resilient. Resilience is a life skill which as lawyers, we don’t often have enough of and I have no doubt the internships have helped me developed resilience.

What was the best part of doing an internship at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)?

The work at the SAHRC was so different to anything I could have done back home, even if it were in human rights, for a few reasons. Firstly, South Africa’s history of Apartheid and racial discrimination and tensions, many of which continue today. Secondly, their modern constitution has a Bill of Rights, which Australia doesn’t have. Thirdly, the levels of poverty and huge disparity amongst the population. Fourth, the prevalence of corruption. And, many others are why the internship was unlike anything I could have undertaken back in Australia.

South Africa is amazing and truly spectacular. But it is so hard to articulate why. Cape Town for example, is a melting pot of cultures and diverse people and people who are so happy to be there. Uber drivers from places like Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are constantly teaching me more about politics and history than any university lecturer ever has! And it’s a brilliant place to live because of all the outdoor activities. There are beautiful beaches, hiking, abseiling, wineries, and spectacular wildlife all within a few hours’ drive, if not around the corner. Goodness, I sound like an ad!

What advice do you have for anyone thinking of doing an internship?

  1. There is no such thing as being under-skilled or inexperienced when it comes to internships.
  2. Start planning as early as possible, because if you wait until you get somewhere to work out how to best spend your time, it will be too late and you’ll be finishing!
  3. Take people up on any offer(s) of assistance. Whether you have a friend who knows someone in that industry, or if its overseas or interstate and they have a cousin there, make the time to contact them and get the inside scoop.
  4. Absolutely do it. It’s a safe way of “testing” out new things and from my experience, people are so grateful you are taking the time out of your studies, your career, or your life to generously donate your time to their organisation/efforts. Don’t underestimate how grateful people are for the help that you can provide.

About the author

Marcia Banasko

Marcia Banasko is a Human Rights activist and performer. She holds a bachelor in International Development and Latin American Studies. For several years she worked alongside the United Nations for an international women's rights organisation as their communication and advocacy officer. Marcia has campaigned globally to end child marriage, all forms of violence against women including domestic violence and for women to fully enjoy their sexual reproductive health and rights. She is now the co-founder of One Love Soul, a global humanitarian project for refugees, Roma communities and those most vulnerable, using music, dance and sport to promote human rights and well-being.