Nishma Jethwa: Making the Change

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 03rd June 2015 07:10 EDT

For Jethwa, conscientiousness is a core currency. Switching from her corporate background - an associate at Linklaters, the globally recognised law firm- she is now the senior programme manager at The Shiva Foundation: “I’m always looking to utilise my skills as a lawyer in ways that really help” she stated, “I'm striving to raise awareness in tandem with private companies. As a result, I always say we are cross between a traditional charity and an NGO.” As we discussed the plans to expand her unique organisation, its admirable ethos, and her wealth of consultative experience – from Aman Biradari, where she worked to give legal and social justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, to her time at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), it became clear that altruism can be a business, and not just a wistful lifestyle:

You head an Anti-trafficking program at the Shiva Foundation. Tell us more?
It’s a private foundation that was started in 2012. It was set up by two individuals who were particularly moved by the issue of trafficking when they heard about the CNN hero of the year, Anuradha Koirala, who was working in anti-trafficking at the time. No one knew that it even existed. We want to close that gap. We support organizations within and across sectors. There are lots of people doing work in silos and given that they all have same ultimate aim, we hope to encourage them to collaborate and work together, from the police force to the lawyers. We also engage businesses. Recently we’ve gone into hotels to train their managers on the issue of the sex trade. Finally, we look at prevention on a larger scale. It’s important to make a long term systemic change if there is to be a difference.
Yes, the idea of involving corporations to fund people in need reminds me of a less controversial Robin Hood! Encouraging such institutions to be more mindful is very interesting.
Very much so. Certain groups of people can be demonized, such as multinationals and governments. Of course there should be a critical focus on what people are doing, but a lot of the time we’ve found they want to help. They are willing to go very far despite making less profit. They just need a practical push from those who are experts.

What have been some of the highlights so far?
At a recent conference, I got to meet Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kailash Satyarthi and Muhammad Yunus, who shared their journeys and philosophies. It was so inspiring to hear those speak who had a similar heritage. There are so many inspirational female role models too: when I was with London+Acumen, I got to meet Jacqueline Novogratz. More personally, when I first volunteered at Strategic Advocacy, we won SOAS volunteer project of the year. We were just students and we were being approached by NGOs in Afghanistan.
Tell me more about Strategic Advocacy. The website chronicles academic essays and has a strong female rights focus.
Yes, Strategic Advocacy came about when the founder was visiting Afghanistan. She was doing research into rape law there and noticed there was a disparity between activists on the ground and the scholars formulating the theories. The organization was founded to connect the two groups, taking academia that would be useful to the NGOs, volunteers and lawyers on the ground. It was good timing as they were re-writing a lot of the laws. It started off in the context of women’s rights, Sharia Law and the Quran, and actually grew over the years. We were asked to comment on Afghan family law, and NGOs would come and complete training on land rights etc. The project became international, with contacts feeding in from the US, Singapore, and India. We now deal with a much wider range of human rights, including men and migrant rights.  We are also currently involved with the OHCHR regarding the problem of individuals who are suffering under corporations.
What can people do in terms of the everyday to be philanthropic?
Embody what you want to see, and be more socially conscious. There are so many blogs out there detailing different stories; feminist perspectives. I always want to be bold and truthful in my work. As Ghandi said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ If you can be that way, you’re closer to changing it.
You have specialised in dispute resolution. How has this informed your work?
Coming from a litigation background, you are always fighting with other people and it becomes clear that if you want to get something across, you must not be aggressive. There is a whole line of thinking known as restorative justice where you involve the other side to come to a solution. Then again, it’s not always clear who the other side is! The issue is complex.
Were you always interested in Human Rights?
I did PPE at university, and had that shared conundrum of ‘what shall I do?’ I thought maybe I’ll do law and then a friend mentioned they were going to India as part of Connect India’s ‘Learning Journey’ program. That was the turning point. I was really affected by the trip. For example we visited an organization called MASS – a collection of fishers in Kutchh who are being forcefully (often with use of private security companies) displaced from their homes to make place for ports and power plants, seen by corporations as money-making opportunities. The victimised families told us of how they moved to the coast for half the year to earn a small living, and have endured the dual forces of nature and modernisation for nearly two centuries. They are continually exploited - by middlemen who trap them in debts and the government who refuse to grant or enforce relevant land rights. I’d only ever thought about this in an academic way, but now I’d been immersed in it.
Where do you hope to take your humanitarian work in the future?
I’ve always been sensitive to the fact that I want to work with individuals. I don’t want to be positioned as a rescuer, and come at it from a balanced place; it’s not like we don’t have these issues in our own backyard. I’ve always liked the idea of working with communities. At the end of the day if I see injustice I feel passionate about making a change, but at the same time you have to come at it from their side. With SAHR’s work, we had to be incredibly sensitive about the cultural paradigm we were operating in.
How do you manage the emotional pressure with such an intense human element involved?
Being grateful for what I have: friends; their lives and stories, a supportive family, all the freedoms and privileges I have as a woman living in London, being able to travel. I think doing that (even subconsciously) really makes an impact on my ability to stay grounded.
Has your cultural background influenced you?
As I say, the trip to India was huge; I do now feel such a strong connection to my heritage. At the moment it’s come in useful with migrant worker cases in the UK, especially those of Asian heritage. Those who’ve been trafficked have been so appreciative to speak to someone who can empathise.
Finally, a big question as the world is a big place, but what do you feel is the most important concern for Human Rights at the moment?  
Women’s rights is an issue that cuts across everything. I’m not saying it’s more important but it is always there: whether it’s war, peace and justice, trafficking, or economic development. We make up half the population! Similarly, it affects issues of social and family cohesion, the ability to work and lead and individual freedoms even here in the UK.

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