Human Rights Lawyer Baljeet Sandhu is the recipient of the 2017 International DVF Award and the Founding Director of the Migrant & Refugee Children’s Legal Unit. Here, we catch up with her on the importance of having a strong network of women, the particular moment we are facing now and what makes her feel #INCHARGE.
I used to volunteer as a Youth Worker supporting socially excluded young people in my hometown of Nottingham, England. My life was catapulted into the world of migrant and refugee rights when I met two lone children looked after by local social services. A child who had witnessed the massacre of his family and another who had been detained and tortured by his State authorities because of his father’s political activities. Both children were alone in the UK, incredibly vulnerable with little education provision or medical support. I tried to offer support but there was nothing to guide my work and doors closed everywhere I turned. I reached out to internationally recognized children’s charities in London, but they were puzzled by the myriad of complex immigration laws in the UK, often advocating for policies and practices that didn’t necessarily translate into practice on the ground. I went on to qualify as a lawyer but quickly found that, for most professionals, these children were migrants first and children second. Legal processes treated them like mini adults and professionals lacked any understanding or training about their experiences or their development and support needs as children forcibly separated from their loved ones or fleeing war, conflict or exploitation. This needed to change. It’s been an honor to work with an all-woman team pioneering legal and policy reform in this field and to then witness these successes impact practices in Europe and beyond.
Can you speak to the particular moment we are in now and some of the challenges that migrant and refugee children are facing?
Images of children being washed up on the shores of Europe in 2015 disturbed hearts and minds globally – but sadly this is not a new or dying phenomenon. Children and women fleeing war, human rights abuses, exploitation and modern slavery continue daily. We watch from afar disturbed by the state of the world and our role in it. But when these children, women and families arrive on our own shores how quickly the tables turn. They soon become ‘economic migrants’ trying to flout ‘our’ immigration laws. The images we see and stories we hear of atrocities happening in their countries of origin are somehow no longer related. The culture of disbelief permeates our systems, media and society – it’s an infection that destroys the compassion and love that fills the hearts of many. Worst still, how soon we forget the rights of humans to live and work in countries they have long called home. Children born in the UK, Europe and the North Americas; parents and grandparents who have helped build our countries and run the services we need to prosper - all forced to live ‘invisible’ or ‘undocumented’ lives in terms of civil and legal status because ‘we’ decide that they should not be granted immigration status or citizenship to live alongside us. It can be difficult to do anything abroad but there is always something you can do in your country, city, town or village. To help advocate for the rights and entitlements for all.
Can you explain why working together is so important and what advice you would give young women looking to expand their network?
Vital Voices is a global network of incredible women forging and pioneering positive social change around the world. An inspiring unity and sisterhood rooted in the simple notion that together women can support and inspire a just and fair world for all. It’s a global lifeline of female support and inspiration. I’ve laughed, cried and conquered my fears through intimate and even momentary discussions shared with women in the global network. Female leaders from the business sector who have offered their time to share learning and resources and politicians and activists ready to listen, teach and connect me to colleagues with shared visions. It’s priceless.
My advice to young women who wish to expand their networks: be you, speak your truth and celebrate others. We have a tendency across all industries to craft prescriptive approaches to meeting and connecting with others. But as humans it’s hard to connect to a ‘pitch’ and harder to turn away from passion and humility. You’ll be surprised by who is listening and when. Better still, who’ll be championing you to others when you’ve also done the same. But of course, there’ll be times when you’ll need to pitch that bad ass idea – my advice then: be fierce and clear with grace.
You were awarded The International DVF Award in 2017. Can you speak to what that experience was like and how it has impacted your work?
There are moments in your life when you feel you are part of something truly special. To receive an award at the UN, sitting side by side legends like Diane and Jane Goodall with the iconic and soulful sound of Andra Day singing “We Rise Up.” To continue discussions into the night embraced by the New York skyline and make lifelong connections with other amazing women. It was surreal and life changing.
Diane’s support, her graceful approach to her philanthropic work and the beautiful moments I’ve shared with her when she’s powerfully described her mother’s story of survival during and after world war two inspired me to reflect on my future work. Since the award, I’ve been working alongside female leaders in the UK to pioneer a new leadership programme for emerging leaders across the Women and Girls sector to help facilitate a stronger and bolder gender justice movement in the UK led by a generation of skilled, empowered and generous social leaders. I’ve also published an online book on the value of lived experience in social change – recognizing that people with direct personal experience of social injustices have a unique form of human wisdom and insights to help inform and lead positive social change in society. Survivors and Leaders with Lived Experience often lack the support, networks and resources to take forward their work and ideas. I’m currently working with social purpose organizations in the UK and US to build stronger connections between Leaders with Lived Experience and other incredible social change-makers working across the business, public and not-for-profit sectors. All a program of work I’m calling “We Rise Up.”
We love mantras. Do you have any words that you live by?
Remember the human in human rights; the woman in women’s rights and the child in children’s rights.
Legislative and policy reform is vital for a just, fair and equal world - but without love, human connection and understanding and meaningful involvement of the communities we serve in our work - we risk human rights debates being a preserve of court rooms, academics, policy makers and media moguls with little connection to everyday people. This can divide not unite humankind. We need to strengthen our human rights DNA from the bottom up and understand its importance for the evolution of humanity.
Did you always know that this was the kind of work that you wanted to do? Did you always know the kind of woman you wanted to be and have you become that woman?
Wow. Now you’re making me think. Okay, so no, no and no. And it’s taken me a while to appreciate that. The world would also be a very mechanical space if we all knew exactly what and who we would become. I followed my heart, soul and moral compass. I witnessed something unjust and I decided to do something about it. I guess you’re either a person who believes there is nothing you can do to change things or there is everything you can do to help change things. I’ve always been the latter. Becoming a lawyer was a mere byproduct of the injustices I witnessed. I wanted to do something about the lack of laws and policies to protect vulnerable children and then hold those in power to account when they made unfair decisions. I went onto find and craft those laws but also help professionals understand who we were serving and why. It’s not that difficult if you know what horizon you’re walking towards. In terms of the woman I want to be and become…I’m still enjoying the journey.
What advice would you give young women who know they want to make a difference and are looking for ways to find their own purpose and direction?
Find your passion – something that makes you spark. It can be a spark ignited by love, compassion or anger. Whatever it is, commit to it. Then learn or apply a craft that can help or pioneer change. The rest will follow. Sometimes this spark can smack you in the face. Other times you need more time to reflect and explore. I find writing helps. When I write without noticing the time, I know I’m being guided by the spark inside.
Finally, what makes you feel #INCHARGE?
When I’m driven by my passion for social and economic justice. It’s my fuel and nothing can knock me down when my heart, mind and soul is fighting for a just and fair society.