With the first presidential debate happening tonight at Hofstra University, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the candidates stand on the issues I care about: human rights, reproductive rights, international trade, and labor rights. This is not, however, a post on the candidates. This is a post on rights and litigation, on grassroots activism and tea. This is a post about a woman named Sukti Dhital.
Please excuse me for fan-girling, but Dhital is pretty much the coolest person I’ve ever met. Born in Kathmandu, Dhital experienced what she calls an “unconscionable level of inequality” particularly plaguing women and other marginalized communities. As a child, she moved to Flint, Mich. and watched her friends’ parents lose their jobs at the General Motors plant, one after one. Coupled with a crumbling educational system plagued by budget cuts, Dhital knows first hand the loss that comes with economic inequality. She is also a graduate of Northeastern University, class of ’06, and is the deputy director of New York University’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. She also is a co-founder of the legal empowerment organization Nazdeek, which is based in both Delhi and Assam, India. Today, I got the chance to hear her speak as a Daynard Public Interest Visiting Lecture at Northeastern’s School of Law, and as always, I took to Twitter.
Dhital spent some time at the ACLU on the Reproductive Freedom’s Project working with women held in detention (i.e. prisons, immigration) but moved on to what ended up being a 7-year stint in India focusing on reproductive rights. She broke major ground in getting the India government to recognize maternal health–specifically, the right to survive pregnancy and childbirth–as a human right. Which leads us to the Tea Gardens of Assam.
Garden is somewhat of a misnomer; they are plantations used by some of the biggest international beverage companies such as Twinings, Tetley and Lipton. And despite the India’s progressive constitution, says Dhital, tea garden workers often don’t know their rights. For many workers, who are often the children or grandchildren of plantation workers, there is no other option–a lack of education kills any hope of social mobility so workers are financially dependent on the plantation owners, but even that isn’t enough.
To truly have sound human rights policies, you have to look to the intersections of policies and build community paralegals “because you will not always be there”, says Dhital.
There are many lessons that can be taken from Dhital’s work in Assam, and luckily, she’ll be speaking again on Wednesday at Northeastern University, as part of a roundtable discussion titled 101 Ways to do Human Rights:Fusing Technology, Grassroots Lawyering & More. If you can’t make that, I’ll be there, tweeting again, because work like this matters.