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Gayle Gunawardena - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa

Volunteer group When I decided to take up law as my undergraduate degree program my main interests centered on international human rights. After completing my degree and specializing in human rights in my final year at university I was keen to see how my academic knowledge and personal interests could be put into practice and the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO) seemed like the perfect opportunity to get the first hand experience I was looking for.

Much has been said of South Africa “The Rainbow Nation” and its place as a success story and international example of how democracy, equality and reconciliation can develop from a repressive and brutal Apartheid regime. The home country of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the voices at the forefront of campaigns to promote women’s rights, and the fight against HIV/Aids and poverty made the attraction to work in South Africa even stronger, but the insight into this complex nation I was to gain during my month long placement was more than I could have anticipated.

After my first day at PAHRO I was surprised at the variety of work being undertaken by the interns. I wrongly assumed that the office would have a set agenda of areas of concern but there was unlimited room for independent interests to take shape, for new initiatives to be set up and for involvement with as many projects as I wanted! It didn’t take me long to establish my interest in a project involving “Bonnytoun” an institution housing male juveniles aged 12 to 18 awaiting trial.

A couple of other interns had already set up workshops that ran almost everyday at Bonnytoun focusing on the older 16 to 18 age group and I got myself involved in constructing and implementing workshops for the boys aged 14 to 15 who were a group that had not had any contact with organizations such as ourselves.

Beach at sunset After my first visit to Bonnytoun with my group, I felt unsure as to whether I was going to have any real impact on the boys in the 4 weeks that I was in South Africa for. Instead of feeling disheartened however, I used this feeling to act as a springboard for motivating me to continue to contribute to establishing constructive and useful workshops that engaged the boys and made them realize how important they were to us.

The constant enthusiasm of my team made even workshops tackling hard hitting issues worth the time and effort. We implemented workshops dealing with increasing the boys’ respect for women, educating them on the trial process they were to face and their legal rights, discussing gang violence and drug use, as well as tackling more personal issues such as their aspirations and aims for the future thereby building their self confidence and instilling in them a sense of self-belief.

The days spent at Bonnytoun weren’t all formal workshops however. There was always room for fun! We taught the boys British, Canadian, German and American playground games reflecting the diversity of the team I was working with and the boys in turn taught us South African children’s games that we all (even being in our 20’s) enjoyed thoroughly!

Through our workshops and games we got to know the group at Bonnytoun better and as they opened up to us more and more, we built up a strong attachment to them. I still think about a couple of the boys in particular and wonder whether they are any closer to fulfilling the dreams they had of becoming a chef or a lawyer and I hope that they are. The fact that on my last day one of the boys said to me that one day he wanted “to do good like us” made the entire experience so worthwhile and made us feel like we were positive female role models for these young boys.

Sign on Robben Island Although the main focus of my time at PAHRO was with the boys at Bonnytoun, the variety of work available meant I was also able to put my knowledge of refugee law into practice by assisting with a couple of consultations with refugees from Rwanda and Zimbabwe and the knowledge I gained of refugee law in practice was invaluable.

I was also lucky enough to get involved with a topic that was a long-standing interest of mine: transitional justice. Coming from Sri Lankan heritage I have been interested in how post ethno-national conflict societies struggle to move towards inclusively, equality and democracy and South Africa was the perfect place to get an international and alternative perspective on this issue.

Myself and 3 other interns conducted research into this area and constructed a 6-week “Transitional Justice Program” creating workshops for young South Africans focusing on personal experiences, perceptions of the struggle and inter-generational trauma for example. We were able to introduce the new initiative to a Cape Town based charity that have since implemented the program with our assistance demonstrating how PAHRO was not just a lone organization but that we were working alongside and building bridges with other likeminded groups thereby expanding the scope and reach of our work.

View of Table Mountain During my time at PAHRO I effectively had my hand in a number of pies so to speak and the range of the projects underway allowed the environment I was working in to be constantly stimulating and really fulfilling. I was able to touch on a number of issues that concerned me during my placement and felt that even though I was there for only 1 month, I was able to make a significant contribution.

Aside from the work I carried out with my team members at PAHRO I also attribute my amazing experience to the generosity and kindness of my host family. My host mum and dad made me feel at home from day one and my host sister was always there for a girly gossip and chat! Me and my fellow PAHRO roommate were always invited to family dinners and were able to truly become part of the family which made being away from home that much easier.

Finally, I would strongly encourage anyone looking to get hands on knowledge of human rights and relief work to get involved with the Projects Abroad experience. I learned so much not only about South Africa but also about myself and the experience I have had has shaped my goals for the future.

Regardless of how long you choose to spend at the Human Rights Office, if you have the dedication towards and passion for the issues affecting humanity then you will be able to make an important contribution. In addition to that you are sure to make some lifelong friends from all over the world and share a unique experience with them that I promise you will never, and could never forget.

Gayle Gunawardena

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