MA student experiences
Hear from our MA Applied Human Rights students about their placement collaborations at home and abroad, and the benefits gained for their careers.
The word ‘fieldwork’ doesn’t often conjure up coffee in a cold York library at 2am, cosy in blankets and Skyping a human rights leader from Japan. Nor does the word conjure up leaving the library at 3.30am in the snow, feeling tired, empowered and determined to tell the stories of incredible women from across the world. However, this is a snapshot of our fieldwork with the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). APRRN is a network of over 400 individuals and organisations which advance the rights of refugees in the Asia Pacific. APRRN wanted to find out how to better support women leaders who are part of the network. Our team of three Masters students was privileged to design the project (interviews and an online survey) from the ground up.
We learned about the sobering structural issues women leaders face, including harassment and violence, gendered expectations, and lack of practical support. These issues affected women in different ways depending on their home country, status, age, and culture. Refugees had particularly difficult circumstances to navigate. There were no simple answers. Women met these challenges with creativity and a strong mindset, tapping into mentors, training, self-care, and supportive relationships. The strongest theme was connections and stories – the need for women to be together, visible, and listened to. APRRN can play a crucial role in amplifying these voices and providing the connections to support women leaders in the work they are already doing.
In this project we spoke to refugees, directors of organisations, emerging leaders and those with vast amounts of experience. Our interviews spanned New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, India and more. Our timetable reflected this! The project required tenacity to recruit participants around the busy Christmas period (and the UNHCR’s Global Refugee Forum). Like the women we interviewed, relationships were crucial in our team because we worked very closely together. I left the project in complete awe and admiration of the women who are fighting for their – our – rights around the world. I hope that our project report will support these women get just a fraction of the support they so rightly deserve.
One of the highlights of the Masters programme in human rights here at the University of York is the unique opportunity of learning the practicalities of human rights work in an NGO as part of the programme. My colleagues and I were working full time as consultants in York-based International Service, for two weeks, with the goal of producing a report that would actually make a difference for the organisation.
For International Service, our work was to gather and analyse comprehensive data on the security and development situation in Mali emerging out of its year-long conflict and coup d'état, so that the organisation can make an informed decision on how best to return on the ground to continue its valuable work there. For us, this was an opportunity to contribute something very real to the cause and the good work of this international rights-based development NGO, but also to gain what no theoretical university course can give: a valuable practical experience of working in a team and dealing with the unpredictable and exciting realities of human rights work, while actually making a difference.
For us all, working at the offices of International Service as a part of their team has been a great pleasure and honour. We have learned a great deal and felt genuinely enriched by the whole experience.
MA student team
For our Applied Human Rights project placement, me and my group of four were partnered with LATRA, a non-profit organisation based in Lesbos, Greece. LATRA’s vision is to ‘Build the World Better’, and under this banner they work to empower marginalised refugee communities living on Lesbos through the means of technology, design and education. Our task was to conduct a digital awareness-raising campaign, followed by a written report, for LATRA’s Arctivist project, ‘Letters from the Front’, which involved the gathering and dissemination of stories and artwork from the front line of the refugee experience in Lesbos. The project would encourage the perception of refugees not as passive victims but as autonomous agents who deserve to, and have the capacity to, play an active role in their own future.
To contextualise and inform our social media campaign, we carried out online focus group research among a sample of young people. These groups were a great opportunity to hear young people’s genuine opinions and revealed aspects of our campaign to us that we had not even considered. On the back of this research, we designed and carried out our social media campaign, which involved a blend of LATRA’s beneficiaries’ artwork and quotes, reposts from refugee-run social media pages and informative and advocative material created by us.
The campaign ran for over a month and was an important learning experience for each of us. In an academic year marked by constant confrontation with the Covid-19 pandemic, I feel that we have been very lucky to have such a valuable and enriching experience on our placement. The whole placement experience was defined by reciprocal and welcoming relationships, both among the project group and between us and our project partner, and it gave me a real chance to get involved in work that I am passionate about. Going forward I will take this experience and the skills I gained with me, along with some genuine friendships and connections.
The whole placement experience was defined by reciprocal and welcoming relationships, both among the project group and between us and our project partner, and it gave me a real chance to get involved in work that I am passionate about.
Going forward I will take this experience and the skills I gained with me, along with some genuine friendships and connections.
MA student team, working with LATRA
Katrina Jorene Maliamauv (Chevening scholar)
Cape Town is both beautiful and bizarre, welcoming and uncomfortable. Cape Town from the eyes of a visiting tourist, and being in Cape Town as someone who is working with communities that are marginalized and disenfranchised are both distinctly different experiences. That duality can be difficult, but paying attention to it is important and meaningful. It's easy to take a walk in the beautiful "Company's" Garden for instance without pausing to think about why it's still called that. As one of the people we interviewed said as he talked about land, identity and colonisation, "The VOC didn't bring a garden when they came here".
When reading about apartheid laws before going to South Africa, it's 'easy' to think of it as something in the past (especially when 'post-' is tacked on to the word), but being in Cape Town, and talking to people who live with that painful legacy in their every day is a stark reminder of how much the past persists in the present. While the background research on South Africa's history was necessary prior to leaving, knowing that there are multiple stories that are often not told, questioning who the narrators are, and being open to speaking to people and learning their versions of history while there has been one of the most important parts of the placement experience. Being in Cape Town has made me all the more aware of the importance of knowing, learning from and challenging our histories.
We collaborated with Natural Justice, an organisation of passionate, committed and strong individuals working on indigenous rights. There were two parts to our project: (a) conceptualising and running a workshop with Khoi San and other indigenous youth on the question of 'identity', (b) producing a report for Natural Justice on the Amendments to the Restitution of Land Rights Act.
Each part demanded a different energy and seemingly very different skill sets; any given day could see us making phone calls for appointments in the morning, rushing to conduct interviews followed by brainstorming theatre games and 'workshopping' among ourselves concepts like "The Heroes Journey" and 'social scripts'. It was difficult, intense and often without a pause, but from my own experience with a human rights NGO in Malaysia, it was an honest representation of the beauty and learning through the chaos, challenge and collaboration of human rights work (especially that which has a grassroots focus).
Beyond the work with the NGO, the placement was incredible for the opportunity to spend time with my course mates (and CAHR staff) in truly delightful, thought-provoking and engaging ways. The silliness, the laughter, the tears, listening and learning from the work with other project partners, the long and intense conversations were nourishment for my mind and soul. Giving space and making time for that mutual sharing and being together is critical. [Standing outside the Guesthouse in District Six in the crazy wind and staring at the Mountain: also good for the soul]. [Indulging in the magical avocados of South Africa: also beautiful].
The placement is about the work with the NGO, but it's also about being present in new, exciting, and energising ways; it's about creating and building relationships and a sense of community, all of which is vital to the longevity and sustainability of human rights work (and a good life, really).
I was born in Haiti, but moved to the USA at the age of 13. As someone with the opportunity to straddle two worlds, one of great wealth and the other of eminent despair, I believe my life’s mission is to do what I can to make this world a better place. In the near future I hope to work in Haiti. And if that dream is to be realized I must set aside all fears. This realization to become fearless in the face of great hardship begins with the choice to study for a Masters in human rights. When it was time to choose a university, I chose the University of York because of the S. Africa placement, in Cape Town. I chose this placement because I believe this was an opportunity to do the things that I aspire to do with my life - more importantly to do them effectively.
The S. Africa placement (in Cape Town) provided an opportunity to work alongside Natural Justice, an international non-governmental organisation that seeks to promote indigenous collective rights. While in Cape Town, my research with Natural Justice included fieldwork interviews with an indigenous local group (the Khoi-San) and members of the S. African Government. In addition, my duties included compiling reports of previous Amendments to the National Traditional Affair Bill (a legal recognition instrument), and the Restitution of Land Rights Act (which is for the purpose of restitutionary damages).
This field research study provided me with the valuable opportunity to put the theories of international human rights into practice in a particularly dynamic and complex environment. Working in Cape Town was an exhilarating journey. Natural Justice provided my group with a lot of support. Yet, they allowed us enough flexibility to do our job. Natural Justice allowed us to make our own schedule and set our own meetings. I never felt like an intern while I was working. They made us feel like we were part of their team and that our input is crucial to the work that they do.
We, the students, had plenty of bonding time. During the weekends we were able to hang our professional hats and enjoy the tourist attractions of Cape Town. I had the opportunity to visit the famous Robben Island - Nelson Mandela’s prison for over 13 years. I also went up Table Mountain, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. How cool is that!
This placement is a stepping-stone to where I aspire to be in the near future. The placement has further enhanced my awareness of the world and will continue to guide me in being a more responsive and critical researcher of international diplomatic and domestic policies, pertaining to individual and collective rights. I know it was only two weeks, but I learned so much. I had so much fun. This placement was one of the best experiences of my university career.
My placement was with Natural Justice, a non-governmental organisation that works at local, national and international levels to protect and promote bio-cultural and collective rights of local and indigenous communities through innovative methods such as the bio-cultural community protocols (BCPs). I chose the placement because I was inspired by their novel methods and forward thinking.
The aim of the placement was to analyse the National Traditional Affairs Bill, a hotly debated piece of national legislation that, among other things, would give recognition to the Khoi and San communities. To do so we had to understand the issues surrounding it and interviewed a variety of experts, lawyers, academics and Khoi and San communities members and leaders.
Cape Town provided a beautiful setting in which to get to grips with the complex historical, cultural and political backdrop of South Africa. We entered the scene at a key moment in the development of indigenous rights in South Africa, just before the 2014 elections. More importantly we witnessed the passing of the country's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. It was a momentous and awe-inspiring moment to be among his 'rainbow nation' to watch the world celebrate the life of this extraordinary man.
Working from the Natural Justice offices in the central business district of Cape Town, the nature of the placement was a distinctly urban one, although a particularly memorable day involved interviewing a South African Human Rights Commissioner/Expert as part of the UN mechanism on indigenous peoples' rights with Table Mountain in the background before going to meet a representative from a fishing community whilst overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Apart from the stunning scenery, the chance to meet such a variety of actors was invaluable.
The placement gave me an opportunity not to lose my professional stride and to develop new skills in the process. I had the chance to learn how to work effectively in a peer group, and together we had the opportunity to put the lectures and seminars into practice in real life with real issues, interacting with the real people involved - something you simply cannot get in a classroom.
Equally, I now have the time to reflect upon issues that arose in a way that a 9-5 job does not always offer - the use of tools like a reflective diary helped us to engage with issues of professional and personal development that we found challenging or interesting. Natural Justice, and in particular our partner Lesle Jansen, were excellent in including us in their team, giving us the chance to participate in international Skype meetings, skills-sharing sessions and a lively discussion on the principles and practices of Green Development in a roundtable event organized by Natural Justice.
The two-week placement was exhilarating, stimulating and challenging in equal measures, but the experience I gained was invaluable for my career, and it is undoubtedly something that I will draw upon for years to come.
The South Africa placement was one of the main reasons I had chosen the MA in Applied Human Rights as my area of study. Having both a law degree and a postgrad diploma in legal practice I felt it was a more rounded subject area to study than the various LLM routes, and the course was highly thought of across the UK university courses I had researched. Having the opportunity to go to South Africa and engage with an NGO around specific legal challenges to indigenous people within South Africa was both exciting and a little daunting, even though I am at 54 a mature student and have a lot of experience behind me.
Cape Town was a place full of contradiction, where people were very welcoming on the one hand and yet, the city itself had a feeling of impatience. I never encountered any stressful situations while I was there, no crime in the streets and no ill feeling towards me, but there were refugees from other African countries camped in the centre of Cape Town who were the subject of discrimination from both the authorities and the local people I met and spoke to.
A strange state of affairs that made me appreciate the classroom work I had done in modules at the University. It was easy to put that learning into practice and understand the dynamics that were at play. In a post-truth populist world it seemed such issues as migration played out in a similar way in Cape Town as they were doing, say on the Mexican border or elsewhere in the world, irrespective of the history of apartheid and oppression of non-white communities in South Africa.
My work with the Khoikhoi and San people of the Western Cape was very interesting and for me, the engagement was both spiritually and intellectually satisfying. There are some really amazing people within the indigenous communities I was privileged to have been allowed access into, who are dedicating their lives to a better future for those communities. The struggles they currently face, whether those of identity and recognition within modern South Africa, or the legal obstacles that have arisen because of inequity in the South African constitution and associated land restitution regimes, are not unsurmountable, but help is needed and the advocacy that NGO's provide is hugely important in that struggle.
The indigenous leadership groups I met were very aware of their responsibilities to their own people, and showed a great deal of interest in the research and work I was again privileged to be a part of. They were intelligent empowered people who had a very clear vision of what the future could be and were expert navigators of the political landscape they found themselves in. Personally, I felt that I learned a lot about identity and power, and how indigenous people such as the KhoiKhoi and San were experiencing an awakening of identity and indeed a shared purpose as a group.
It was an extremely enjoyable two weeks, but it was also very hard work. The contacts I made in South Africa were diverse, from government ministers to other NGOs to activists and civil rights campaigners. You get out of it what you put in and having put the hours in I have a greater appreciation now of what South Africa is all about and how the modules I have studied help me translate that place into a more meaningful experience.
An honest representation of the beauty and learning through the chaos, challenge and collaboration of human rights work (especially that which has a grassroots focus).
Katrina Jorene Maliamauv (Chevening scholar), working with Natural Justice
MA student team
Our team placement was with Protection International, an international non-profit organisation supporting human rights defenders. The brief was to evaluate an innovative communications project in Mesoamerica. Protection International was supportive throughout, including identifying 16 people to interview, facilitating meetings by providing interpreters and providing secure storage for research data and internal documents. Two team members had chosen other placements as their preference, but in hindsight, we are so appreciative of the opportunity to work with PI. We would definitely recommend any student to take the opportunity to work with them in the future.
The placement undoubtedly had its challenges, one of the most amusing of which was during an interview with a human rights defender in rural Guatemala, it was incredibly difficult to hear our interviewee due to excessive chicken noises. Not something we were warned about before starting the placement! As all of the interviewees were from Central America, they had to take place in Spanish as such if we did not have a Spanish speaker in the team, we probably would not have been able to carry out the project.
In other circumstances using a translator would have been possible, but the last-minute organisation of some interviews coupled with the limited time we had with each interviewee removed that possibility for us. A necessary skill for the project placement is adaptability; for example, we did not leave ourselves enough time to translate and transcribe all of the interviews because we did not think it would be as time-consuming as it was. This led us to use interview notes to write a significant amount of our analysis.
Before starting, we may have felt unsure of how it would be to do an online placement, but it was an incredible experience. It gave us the opportunity to work with a global organisation that has offices on five continents. Being able to have meetings with offices in Brussels, the US, and Guatemala without leaving York superseded the impossibility of in-person interviews.
We interviewed grassroots defenders, human rights professionals, and members of partner organisations to understand how they work to protect human rights defenders. We also produced a report that will be useful for the organisation to improve and expand the project from Mesoamerica to their offices in other countries. It was an excellent way to put into practice what we had been studying and a great learning endeavour.
When driving from the airport to the city centre of Cape Town you pass by miles of miles of informal settlement. This is the township of Khayelitsha, where I did my fieldwork as part of my Masters course at the University of York.
My group did a survey for the local NGO Rape Crisis here, asking people about crime, rape and violence. Surprisingly, many people told us that they felt totally unsafe in their community, fearing robbery, hijacking and housebreaking in the middle of the day. Women and children living in the shacks were afraid of going to the toilet in the bush because they may be raped on their way there.
The field trip to South Africa was one of my main reasons for doing the Masters in York, and after coming back home I'm for sure not regretting my choice. What you learn during such fieldwork cannot be taught in school. It is learning by doing.
For me, the two weeks were really intense. Working in a township with high crime rates and where hardly any other whites enter, we had to take our safety precautions. There was a lot of work to be done in order to get 500 interviews in five days, and on top of that there was the heat. However, what I remember most from Khayelitsha are all the people I met. People who dream of a better future, a future where they can go to the toilet without the fear of being raped or robbed. More than anything else, my visit to Khayelitsha reminded me of the importance of human rights work, and why I am studying human rights. I really hope I can go back one day.
I have been passionate about human rights since an early age and have been dreaming of getting field experience since then. When reading about the different placements put forward by the Centre of Applied Human Rights, the Rape Crisis 'Making Change' project immediately struck a chord with me. It focused on a cause close to my heart, included preventive work, direct contact with the community and aimed to implement change at the local level. After weeks of preparation and a roller coaster of emotions, here I was, sitting on the plane for Cape Town, a place full of surprises, contradictions and beauty.
Our project group worked with Rape Crisis during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, on the 'Speak Out' campaign. Athlone, identified as a community strongly affected by rape, is where we worked. Through a survey, we aimed to find out whether rape was indeed a problem in the community's eyes and if so, what the reasons leading to it were and its impacts on individuals' daily life. During 6 days, we conducted the survey in areas affected by important social issues. The second part of the placement was spent analysing the collected data and putting together a presentation for the community in order to present the results and launch a discussion on the issue of rape, during a community dialogue. The latter was put into place to encourage the community to speak out about rape and ways to prevent it from happening.
I feel very lucky to have worked on this project, for more reasons than I can write about. Rape Crisis is an extremely welcoming NGO. They instantly make you feel like you are one of them. Furthermore, they are passionate about the cause they defend, which was a pleasure to witness and learn from. Regarding the Athlone community, directly interacting with them was an eye-opening experience. I am extremely grateful for the many stories I heard. The community taught me a great deal. Despite the severity of the issues it is facing, such as rape but also gangsterism and drugs, it continues to smile and look for ways forward. Speaking about rape is always very delicate, but by doing so, the community truly helped us get a better understanding of their needs. It is now time to work with them to bring about change.
The field trip to South Africa was certainly something I had been looking forward to since the start of the degree programme. As I have come from an academic background in which I have not had much experience of working in the human rights field, I was eager to gain some practical field work experience and acquire skills that would help me throughout my career.
My placement enabled me to work with an amazing NGO called Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust who seeks to support and empower victims or rape throughout their interaction with the criminal justice system and ensure that these individuals face no secondary trauma throughout the process. Right from the first meeting with the organisation I immediately felt welcome and part of the team. It was clear to me that everyone working for the organisation was there not just because it was their job but because they truly believed in Rape Crisis and what it was trying to achieve.
For the first part of my placement I, along with another peer from the University of York, had the privilege of joining a select group of ladies from the organisation on Rape Crisis' annual awareness raising campaign called 'Stop the Bus' which commemorated the sixteen days of activism to end violence against women. We were asked to produce a photo journal to document the campaign which would then be uploaded on the organisation’s blog. This was so that we could allow a much wider audience to have an insight into the great work they were doing, and we also regularly updated the organisation's Facebook and Twitter pages with the campaign’s progress.
The aim of 'Stop the Bus' is to reach out to rural communities in the Western Cape to educate them on the issue of rape and to make them aware of the rights of rape victims and the support available to them. This year the campaign saw the bus travel to three communities: Bredasdorp, Barrydale and Swellendam. Whist in these communities we aimed to reach out to as many people as possible whether through home visits, community talks/workshops, radio/TV interviews and even attending community church services.
What was great about the placement is that the team really gave us a chance to participate in all aspects of the campaign, even allowing us to introduce Rape Crisis on a number of occasions which for me really helped with my public speaking skills and made me feel liked a trusted, valued team member. The one-on-one work within the communities was certainly the most eye-opening part of the placement for me as I was able to interact with individuals and hear first-hand their stories and bear witness to their struggles and hardships.
One particular interaction which I’m sure will stay with me for the rest of my life is when I was able to hear one woman speak about the loss of her daughter through a brutal rape. Although it was difficult to hear it really touched me and made me realise that although I may learn and hear of different case studies in the classroom, it bears no comparison to hearing stories first hand. It ignited a spark and determination in me to push forward as best I could with the campaign to reach individuals who, without the 'Stop the Bus' campaign, may not be able to access information about rape or support for the after effects.
For the later part of my placement I attended a three-day youth camp called 'the Birds and the Bees'. Throughout the year Rape Crisis holds workshops with youths selected from local schools in the hope that the organisation can train them and equip them with knowledge and skills to act as peer educators in their schools and communities. 'The Birds and the Bees' camp is held at the end of each school year and acts as not only a reward for all the kids’ hard work but also as an opportunity for them to come together to share what they have learnt over the year.
During the camp my peer and I were asked to conduct interviews and focus groups with the peer educators to be able to evaluate and assess just how effective the year's training had been and to hear some feedback from the youths. This was daunting for me as it was the first time I was going to hold any form of interview; however, it was a great learning experience which has now helped to span my abilities further. We also wrote two blogs for the organisation, one on an evaluation of the peer educators and another on the camp experience as a whole. All the work undertaken whilst at the camp is now going to be used by the organisation to help them develop the camp for further years.
On the final days of our placement we heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Although it was a devastating time, it was also a time for the country to celebrate his life and to reflect on the future of South Africa. To be in South Africa for such a monumental time in its history was truly an inspirational and once-in-a-lifetime experience. On my last day in Cape Town I was able to go to the legendary Robben Island, the maximum-security prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for so many years, and to have the chance to delve further into the history of the country seemed to be a very moving and fitting way to end my trip.
The two weeks in South Africa were probably the most intense two weeks of my learning life. It gave me the opportunity to step into what almost seemed to be a different world and to learn so many things not only about the human rights field but also about myself as a person and my abilities to take on what can seem at the time to be daunting and challenging tasks. Most importantly, the placement experience has definitely helped reaffirm to myself that I want to pursue a career in the human rights field and has inspired me to be resilient in my hopes to make a difference.
The two weeks in South Africa were probably the most intense two weeks of my learning life.
It gave me the opportunity to step into what almost seemed to be a different world and to learn so many things not only about the human rights field but also about myself as a person and my abilities to take on what can seem at the time to be daunting and challenging tasks.
The placement experience has definitely helped reaffirm to myself that I want to pursue a career in the human rights field and has inspired me to be resilient in my hopes to make a difference.
Hannah Burke, working with Rape Crisis
MA student team
MA students doing their placement with the Sonke Gender Justice Network in 2009 participated in creating the Men's Guide to the Sexual Offences Act (PDF , 1,790kb).
Having graduated with a BA in English Literature and Politics in 2010, I didn't know what direction I wanted to go in, so began teaching English abroad. Over five years I taught in Vietnam, Japan, the UK and Lebanon, and was lucky enough to do some volunteering along the way. Through these experiences, I got interested in the field of human rights and did a three-month internship with the British Institute of Human Rights. I chose York's human rights MA because of the 'applied' ethos that is central to the course. It certainly hasn't disappointed.
A key part of this 'applied' theme is the placement everyone does with organisations working in the field. I chose Survive, a rape and sexual abuse charity, as I had never worked on anything like this before and wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone. Survive do valuable and often undervalued work, and I saw this as an opportunity to do something I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to do.
On the placement, we were given independence to manage the project ourselves, but received support when needed from our MA supervisors and Survive's service manager. We saw how projects work in the real world and struggled with practical challenges like obtaining the trust of people to interview. We learned how to put what we had been taught in the classroom about interviewing and research ethics to good use and also learned new skills like how to do a SWOT Analysis and use Theories of Change tools. It wasn't always easy, but it taught us all a lot about practising human rights and about ourselves as individuals.
We were given independence to manage the project ourselves, but received support when needed. It wasn't always easy, but it taught us all a lot about practising human rights and about ourselves as individuals.
Jonathan Rebours, working with Survive
Weaam Youssef (Chevening scholar)
When I was awarded a Chevening scholarship, I was so happy that I would be able to study for an MA in Human Rights at one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. The Center for Applied Human Rights is not only a place to study and get a postgraduate degree based on theoretical and academic knowledge, but also an institution that enables you to take your position as a future human rights practitioner and activist. At least that is what I felt when I started to study the 'Defending Human Rights' module - the module has provided me with a set of skills I found very useful to apply practically during my placement in Cape Town.
My host NGO was the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation (SLF), a new, fresh NGO that has worked in partnership with the University of the Western Cape. I chose to be a part of the SLF project that focused on refugee rights because of personal reasons - as a Syrian - and professional interest – previously I have worked as a migration policies practitioner at the Arab League. In Cape Town I realised that everything I've learnt and all I've practised behind a desk for years was incomparable to the field work experience. This was a trip that enriched me culturally while enlightened me professionally and empowered me personally.
Working with refugees intensively for two weeks can be quite challenging, but at the same time appealing. I have listened to their stories of suffering and shared their moments of weakness and helplessness; I have explored the deepest details of their daily battles against discrimination and xenophobia. Sometimes I felt very fragile when my tears were unintentionally falling, but other times I felt forceful, especially because my understanding was increasing. Through their powerful statements and strong will my anxieties decreased.
Events we encountered on the 27 November 2014 caused concerns and controversies of various kinds, including with our project supervisors! On that day the police responded violently to the refugees' claims outside the Home Affairs Office in Cape Town. The authorities not only closed the Refugees' Reception Center and pushed hundreds of people away but also used pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the angry crowd of men, women and children.
I felt responsible and accountable and so decided not to walk away, not to leave the rights violations undocumented; because for me that was what I was there for. I was fortunate to witness these incidents that have added value and credibility to my reflections. On the other hand, I've realised that I should be more cautious and take security measures into account because to be active you need to be safe and healthy as well.
The Cape Town experience has truly motivated me forever. I am now more confident and competent to stand for human rights anywhere on the front line, while distancing myself away from any discrimination and social stigmatization; I am now more human!
Lena Hendry (Chevening scholar)
When I first wanted to do my Masters at the University of York, I was attracted to the possibility of going for a two-week placement in South Africa. South Africa and Malaysia share some similar history in terms of colonization, institutionalized racism and affirmative action for the majority. I have read a lot regarding the political situation and the opportunity to do some work in this country made me work harder to get the funds to make sure that I can go in this placement. I would say that it was beyond my expectation, and it did provide me a great learning experience. I did not regret going on this placement for a second.
Many would have expectations that the placement would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I would not romanticize the experience. Personally for me, it was life-changing as it gives you a first-hand experience of an issue which you may never understand by reading hundreds of articles or journals. In my case, this was the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Cape Town, and how different social structure and skin colour determines the security in a city.
I worked in a team of three with an organisation called Voices of Africans for Change (VAC). The organisation is a smaller scaled NGO with mostly volunteers working on refugee rights in South Africa. They run capacity building workshops and work hard for bridging the gap between refugees and the local South African community. Our task was mainly running a survey in a local township called Dunoon and also outside the Home Affairs where the refugees and asylum seekers go to get status or documentations. We hope to produce a report at the end of the project using the data obtained from the survey, and to provide some concrete recommendations to improve the situation of refugees in Cape Town in terms of documentation and security. We spent 5 days interviewing almost 300 people.
We faced multiple challenges in getting our work done, most to be taken as a learning curve and an opportunity to open up your mind to something beyond your understanding. The placement definitely pushed me out of my safe zone and made me analyse the experience I had and the theories I have studied and to find a balance between both.
One of the most valuable experiences I had on this placement was seeing first-hand how a community would behave and react when the state has failed to ensure their safety and provide the most basic necessities. From an outsider's perspective, it would be seen as something negative and wrong, but being in a totally hopeless situation, their mindset was tuned to believe that what they are doing is right and just. The experience taught me not to judge but to analyse and understand a place based on situations. In short, if you are serious about going into human rights work, the placement will give a short preview on what is it all about.
Going on a field placement in South Africa as part of my Masters course was an extremely valuable experience, helping me to gain practical fieldwork skills.
I was part of a team of four students who were asked to carry out a needs assessment for Voices of Africans for Change (VAC). VAC is an emerging NGO championing refugee rights in South Africa. We were asked to identify the legal and social needs of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants living in Imazimo Yethu (IY), a township established in the early 1990s in Hout Bay. Over a period of two weeks we interviewed foreign nationals, South Africans, community leaders and a police representative in IY.
Spending time in Hout Bay showed me how the landscape of South Africa still symbolises apartheid. It was a strange and uncomfortable experience seeing how closely the two separate worlds lived. We would spend our day interviewing people who were living in shacks with no running water or electricity and then, within minutes, pass huge fenced mansions on our journey back to the guest house.
The two weeks I spent with VAC helped develop my interviewing techniques. I had not interviewed before and no amount of reading before I left could compare to what I learnt out in the field. Although the two weeks were work intense, we still had time to explore the sites of Cape Town. If you are a climber like me, you will love the routes on offer at Table Mount. Going to South Africa was an extremely valuable experience which I am fortunate to have had and is definitely something I would recommend to future CAHR students.
Juliana Leal (Chevening scholar)
The opportunity of working with a group of MA students to draft the 2020 York Human Rights Indicator Report on Covid-19's impact in the city was an excellent experience, which enabled me to improve my research skills. While working with different local and international stakeholders, I could improve my understanding of the European approach to human-rights based public policies, which differs from my previous experience back in Brazil.
As an international researcher, this report made it possible for me to bridge the gap between theory and practice, combining both hands-on experience and interdisciplinary academic enquiry. I saw this report as an opportunity to promote a knowledge-sharing platform between other European cities and local actors as well. It connects directly with my future aspirations of working with the formulation and implementation of human rights public policies in Latin-America based on international standards. I have no doubts that York will be my main reference!
MA student team
As a part of our MA in Applied Human Rights, we were given the opportunity to complete a project placement. Our group was able to work with the York Human Rights City Network (YHRCN) on producing the 2020 Indicator Report. This year's report is different to previous years as it analyses the impact of Covid-19 and responses to the pandemic on human rights in the city, rather than focusing on the five priority human rights for the city.
We all found this exciting and enjoyable, as it allowed us to have full scope and creativity on the focus of our research. We have all developed a wide range of skills during the project placement. These included engaging and communicating with a wide range of key stakeholders, report writing and research skills, all of which are skills we feel will be valuable to our future careers. We relished the opportunity to meet different people from civil society organisations and decision makers within the city during the interview process, listening to stories and learning about experiences of residents in the city.
By engaging with a wide range of civil society organisations, our eyes were opened to the discrimination and disparities different groups have faced during the pandemic, which we wanted to illustrate in the report. We have really enjoyed the opportunity to work as a team. Due to the difficulties Covid-19 has brought, we have spent countless hours on WhatsApp calls and working over Google Docs. Working on a difficult, and at times emotional, topic in the midst of a pandemic has not always been easy, but having a supportive team and supervisor has made all the difference. While it has been challenging, it has also been extremely rewarding, and we have come out of the process with a new group of close friends - The Yorkies (Amy, Lauren, Juliana and Mollie).
Our placements provide invaluable experience for life in the field of human rights. Here, some of our alumni reflect on the ways in which the course impacted their careers.
I'm the Programmes Officer at Conciliation Resources, an independent organisation based in London that works with people in conflict-affected areas to prevent violence and build peace. CR has programmes in Colombia, Central African Republic, Kashmir and many other contexts. I work with teams to deliver these programmes, from helping to prepare policy briefs and funding bids to coordinating their monitoring and evaluation strategies.
The MA course's interdisciplinary breadth familiarised me with a number of fields beyond human rights, such as conflict and development studies, that are key to a complete understanding of peacebuilding. There is a definite sense at the Centre of looking beyond the limits of academia - the field trip to South Africa in the first term and the frequent opportunities to interact with human rights defenders and activists, from York and beyond, really helped ground the coursework in reality. The MA was a great springboard for my career!
Katrina Arokiam (Chevening scholar)
I was first exposed to drug users and people living on the streets at the tender age of nine when my parents started a drug rehab centre and a nursing home for people living with HIV and AIDS. Being the youngest in the family, I used to tag along, and the centre became my second home.
During my teenage years, we struggled as a family in journeying with my brother who has been a drug user since the age of 16. Fourteen years of witnessing this has shown me how delicate this matter is and how socioeconomic factors can effect even the strongest of us. It was exposure to vulnerable people as such that prompted me to take up psychology and pursue the study of human behaviour.
I soon found my calling in Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), where I was employed as one of the only two social workers and was promoted to a centre manager. YCK is a nongovernmental drop-in activity centre that provides social services to more than 400 high-risk youths living in Malaysia's red-light district.
During my years at YCK, the alarming number of children living on the streets prompted me to start and lead the first outreach team working with street children. While trying to keep the best interest of the child at heart, the overall lack of youth-friendly support and services on a grassroots and policy level has been a great stumbling block and sometimes leaves these children with no other option.
Throughout my personal and working life, I have come to realize that my passion and interest lies in working with the most at risk children. I believe that in order to really drive change in the area of street children in Malaysia, emphasis is required on both grassroots and a policy level, working hand in hand. While YCK may have sufficient opportunity for me to gain grassroots experience and exposure, I felt that the avenue for affecting policies, advocacy and research were very much lacking. This prompted me to peruse a higher education in the area of human rights.
I was first attracted to the Masters course offered at the University of York's Centre of Human Rights because of its emphasis on practicality. I was always a strong believer that the knowledge of human rights cannot only be learnt through books but involves a much more organic approach such as through experience, interactions and discussions.
The Centre not only ropes in lecturers with years of experience in various human rights issues and groundwork around the world, they also host a number of human rights defenders each semester. I always enjoy the unconventional teaching methods, and the lecturers' willingness to encourage constant class participation. There is so much to learn from a room full of students and defenders who come with different experiences and background in human rights. I absolutely love the interactive environment which makes classes fun and entertaining, and always something to look forward to.
The placements in South Africa are definitely the most anticipated event of the first semester, and probably the most talked about event for the rest of the year. It’s hard to sum up what the best two weeks of one’s learning life can teach. My placement managed to challenge my core values and beliefs that I had been holding, but at the same time it allowed me space and experiences to then affirm it.
Nights were the most exciting as we huddled around and shared stories about our day. It was almost like I was gaining four different placement experiences other than my own. If planned well, the placement does not have to be all work and no play. I managed to do a few things that have been long on my bucket list. Most importantly above fun, I valued the time I spent together with my supervisors and group mates.
For the first time in three months since I first arrived in York, I finally felt less homesick. Now that the buzz is over and we are no longer in Cape Town, I still look forward to meeting up for movie nights, afternoon coffee, stay overs, dance nights and game nights that have now become part of our MA group's tradition. The placement in Cape Town has indeed brought me abundance, but I also gained equally valuable experience and knowledge from the relationships that I nurtured with fellow students and supervisors.
For those of us who are interested to learn more about other areas of interest, there are tremendous opportunities to join in events organized by other departments. The Centre also hosts many talks and events on human-rights-related issues from around the world. The Human Rights Festival that is organized by the Centre is a great opportunity for us to engage in creative expressions. This year, one area that interests me the most is engaging in storytelling with children on the history of chocolate in York by infusing human rights elements in the stories.
There is never a dull moment at university. Other than being involved with the Centre itself, the University offers many opportunities to interact with other students from different departments through organized events and clubs. My classmates and I take part in surprising activities that interest potential human rights defenders such as Zumba classes, salsa nights, outdoor society, art class, drama class and many others. I also spend time involving myself with activities organized by my college. Getting to know people living in the same college can be very useful when I am particularly home sick.
Here, I have found knowledge and experience that will help me make a change in the world, and friends that will make a change in my world. I know I am not alone, as I have heard this many times before from my other classmates, that joining the Masters programme here was the best choice that I could have made for myself.
Rony Al Assaad
I was employed by International Alert, a peace-building INGO, as a Project Senior Officer within three months of finishing my studies in September 2015. My responsibilities include establishing a local mechanism of mitigating tensions in partnership with the local and affected community living in a multi sectarian region on the border of the endless war occurring in Syrian since 2011.
One of the multiple questions posed to me during the job interview was about my experience and my capacity in peace building within a war torn society like Lebanon, and where civic trust is lacking. Before getting my degree in Applied Human Rights I was an activist and was engaged in many struggle areas, but I was never close to dealing with the issue of civil war and tensions among local communities. Being exposed to various related modules and especially the Transitional Justice module and the placement that took place in South Africa were very significant in enriching my skills and extracting lessons which helped to direct me in my current job.
First I had, theoretically, the chance to learn about the multiple mechanisms, intricacies and challenges of peace building in post-war societies (Rwanda, Yemen, Germany, Libya…). Moreover, I’ve learned how deep, impartially and unbiased scrutiny is needed in order to well understand the root causes of any conflict, and, then, engage all the concerned and vulnerable sides into this complex process.
In addition, and throughout the placement in South Africa, I was so close to a 'success story' that increased my belief in the reachability of building a strong and developed nation after years of oppression and distress. Visiting and exploring the history of South Africa gave me hope and a very reliable answer to the sceptical people who question the possibility of peace. This was my main answer to the aforementioned interview question. Since securing the post I’ve managed three dialogue sessions in which we have succeeded in derailing obstacles and improving the chance of establishing a local mechanism for mitigating tensions that will sow the seeds of a peaceful society.
Lusako Munyenyembe (Chevening scholar)
My name is Lusako Munyenyembe, I am a Malawian national working with the United Nations System in Malawi. I was awarded a Chevening scholarship to study in the UK. I applied to three universities in the UK at the time, and was accepted to all. However, I chose to study at the University of York due to the wide range of courses and emerging topics delivered by the Centre for Applied Human Rights. In addition, the presence of lecturers with vast international human rights experience gave me the confidence to trust that the journey would add value to my learning experience.
Some of the highlights of studying for an MA in Applied Human Rights was the practical approach to learning processes, through participatory seminars and sharing of knowledge, interactive processes with human rights defenders on short-term visits at the centre. Fundamentally, the course is designed to challenge the paradigm shifts towards development, notions of participation, active citizenship etc. My experience at York was life-changing; I met with a diverse and committed team in human rights, and made lifelong friendships and networks with whom I continue to interact on various issues, including petitions on international causes on human rights.
Previously I worked for a National Human Rights Institution where I was responsible for handling human rights complaints, conducting community awareness programmes and providing capacity building for various sectors in human rights. The most satisfying aspect of this job was the ability to provide redress to the most vulnerable people in Malawi and to build their capacity to enable them access their rights. After obtaining my MA in Applied Human Rights, I found myself with a lot of options in terms of employment and career paths. The practical approach towards human rights enhanced my skills and made me marketable on the job scene.
I am currently working in the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Malawi as Programme Officer on the Right to Food. This project aims to influence national dialogue on the right to food agenda, and influence policy, programmes and strategies to adopt the right to food agenda, in line with international obligations on availability, access, adequacy of food in Malawi.
I therefore recommend this programme to any interested candidates and can assure you that it has the potential to change your life.
When deciding on an MA programme I wanted to make sure that it would provide me with both a theoretical basis as well as a practical one, especially since I had previous experience in the field. I believe that a purely theoretical programme would not have benefited me as much, and probably bored me. The reason I chose the MA in applied Human Rights is because there was a lot of attention paid to the application of Human Rights which made the discussion of theory more relevant. The modules offered cater to a broad range of interests. The lectures were interactive and highlighted the key debates, while the seminars always led to thought-provoking discussions. The lectures and seminars complimented each other well and enhanced my overall learning experience.
Alongside the teaching came the applied component of the programme. I have been involved in one project after the other, each drawing on different aspects of the discourse. I worked on a team developing an advocacy strategy for the Travellers living in York, was part of another team planned a Human Rights Film Festival, and now I am working on a human rights indicator project for the York Human Rights City Network. I believe it has made my experience well-rounded and has allowed me to work with groups of people or on projects that I would have not had the chance to otherwise.
All in all, my experience with the MA has been a successful one. The programme has given me the space to reflect on the Human Rights discourse as a whole, as well as my position within it. Accordingly, I believe it has successfully prepared me for the field.
Latest student posts
Keep up to date with the work of our latest MA Applied Human Rights changemakers on York's Student Voices blog.
Human Rights fieldwork to identify problems faced by women in York
Posted by MA and LLM students
Our group undertook a project to identify problems faced by women in York, in collaboration with York Women’s Forum (YWF) and York Human Rights…
On placement with Rape Crisis in Cape Town
Posted by Amina
Being a member of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust team was a wonderful experience. As one of the most important NGOs in Cape…
On placement in Cape Town investigating working-class marginalisation
Posted by Alexander
The time I spent in Cape Town was one of the most enlightening and character building experiences of my life. During the two weeks…
Working with North Yorkshire Police on a human rights placement
Posted by Tim
I was one of a team of 4 students working with North Yorkshire Police on a human rights placement in York. We looked at…
Remembering Sam Pegram
The Sam Pegram Human Rights Placement Award celebrates the life and honours the memory of Sam Pegram, our LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice alum, who died tragically in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash. We remember Sam as an exceptionally bright student, a committed humanitarian, and a profoundly kind soul.
The award recognises human rights projects developed by students in partnership with inter-, non- or governmental organisations, which shine through their dedication for reflexive human rights practice and seek to centre the voices of research communities in need.
Hear from our partners
LATRA found the placement experience to be rewarding and helpful. For our organisation, trying to better understand the process of engaging young students from the UK on refugee-related issues through social media was very informative, as the youth demographic is sometimes hard to approach. During the placement, the students both helped us with much-needed tasks, eg an awareness raising campaign in social media, and provided us with a well-structured report which can serve our organisation in the future both for training of our staff as well as for our communication with shareholders. It was overall a very positive and helpful experience which we would have no hesitation repeating in the future.
Natural Justice had the pleasure of partnering with York students in both 2013 and 2014. For both years they worked on the National Traditional Affairs Bill. This legislation will formally recognise indigenous communities and their institutions. The York students supported Natural Justice in reviewing this Bill, and specifically, how it impacts on the Khoi and San communities. Indigenous groups continue to experience serious marginalisation in post-apartheid South Africa. The York students through their research and field work helped articulate the concerns of the communities through their report outputs, and played a role in shaping legislation that would impact greatly on the formal recognition of these communities. The work was strategically important in supporting historically marginalised indigenous communities.
At Protection International, we take pride in developing innovative ideas and putting them into practice for the protection of human rights defenders and their right to defend human rights. Between November 2020 and March 2021, we welcomed a team of students from the Centre of Applied Human Rights (CAHR) of the University of York to collaborate with us on a report. They helped us assess the impact of a new programme we piloted in Mesoamerica: the development of grassroots 'community communicators' within rural communities of Guatemala and Honduras.
These networks - which are located in places where security conditions are sensitive - were given communications training in order to improve the overall protection of their members. After reviewing our manuals and methodologies, the students conducted a series of interviews with our protection and communication teams based in Mesoamerica and Brussels, as well as the partners and community communicators who have been involved in the initiative.
We are very happy with this collaboration with CAHR. We really appreciated the hard work and the unbiased, yet knowledgeable viewpoints the students offered in drafting their report, which highlights our initiative's preliminary impact. It also provides avenues on how this specific dimension of our intervention can contribute to enhancing the collective protection of those communities and their right to defend human rights. Finally, it also explores the project's potential for expansion to new locations within the Mesoamerican region - and beyond.
Thanks to the great work done by students from the University of York we have been able to survey and assess the outcomes of some of our services to rape survivors and their families on an annual basis for three years now, and in so doing make improvements to the service. Counselling for rape survivors and support to them as they access the criminal justice system are important elements of defending and upholding their human rights.
We had a very productive ten days with the student group we worked with this year. They were so wonderful. We left them quite a lot of freedom in terms of how they wanted to execute the interviews and analyse the data, and they were great at dividing the work, getting themselves organised, and liaising with all the relevant staff and clients. We also had some excellent debriefing talks where we discussed the findings so far and what adaptations need to be made, which I think taught them some valuable things about research in this context. Thank you for sending us such a great group. We are looking forward to their output.