I am in my last year at Columbia University, majoring in Human Rights. My internship with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) broadened my horizon as it has provided me in-depth knowledge of the human rights issues in India and about the work done by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As Fall 2020 was my last semester of my junior year, I was panicking about not having enough internship experiences and the pandemic only worsened the situation. However, through Columbia Global Center I was able to find some internships that aligned with my interests. YUVA was one of a few I had applied to and luckily, I was offered an opportunity to work with them. As YUVA worked in India, a country that I am not very familiar with, I was very interested in working with them.
Prior to Columbia, I was involved with NGOs in South Korea, and my time at Columbia made me wonder about the work of human rights NGOs in developing countries. I was roughly aware that in India, the human rights violations were very different in nature and hence, needed a very strategic intervention.
I kept hitting roadblocks as I did not understand the context very well. For example, I remember asking my internship supervisor about the use of bamboo in the monsoons which I later learnt was used to support housing structures. What is common to me was not common in India, but there was never a moment where I questioned the universality of human rights.
As I understand, the key issue in India is poverty. Human rights violations overwhelmingly occur often, and NGOs like YUVA are strategically working to support the empowerment of vulnerable communities.
It would be ideal to have the government become more human rights friendly to help its citizens, but until then YUVA is playing a critical role to help those who are easily forgotten. At YUVA, I was responsible for drafting a document to address human rights issues in India as well as the outlines of international standards of human rights to explain the differences. From writing a draft, I was able to closely study YUVA’s various strategies and interventions.
COVID-19 has magnified the inequalities and pre-existing problems which marginalised people have been experiencing. The work of YUVA is a beacon of hope, trying to advocate for those whose voices are never heard. Though YUVA focuses on many issues, what caught my attention the most were their advocacy efforts for right to adequate housing and life, including right to food. Both are one of the fundamental rights that must be protected before all. It was saddening to find out that India has been failing to provide appropriate remedies for those who face eviction and homelessness as well.
The food rationing and how the Indian government handles it was an eye opener for me; food rations exist in India, but the access to food ration requires paperwork that many people troubled with poverty cannot produce. Something that was meant to be helping people was, in fact, provided with a glass-ceiling. YUVA tries to help them in many ways: helping them with legal assistance and entitlements among others. As these matters are urgent issues, it is appropriate to approach this issue in-person level as well as political level.
Advocating for upholding child rights is another one of YUVA’s subjects. There are many incidents where children do not have access to safe spaces within the cities. YUVA’s approach to these issues vary depending on the challenges faced. Approaching local government officials in person along with children and youth representatives to take forward advocacy efforts has been one of the ways in which YUVA has tried to push for their representation in city building efforts.
Having pointed out earlier that it would be ideal for the state government to step in and provide assistance, upon thinking further about what I have learned from my education at Columbia and comparing scenarios in India with Korea, I could not help but question myself whether there will be a time for NGOs to take a backseat. My answer is realistically perhaps never.
South Korea, which has developed exponentially under authoritarian administration, was once one of the poorest countries in the world. South Korea’s geographical importance also led to increasing interest in the country and foreign funding. The work of human rights NGOs were present throughout the development, but mostly absent due to dictatorship, until the success of democratisation. I am deeply saddened but confident to say that behind development, there were numerous human rights violations. Development was prioritized over democratization, and some of those who protested for democratization were even killed.
India is a lot different. India’s long history of poverty has allowed NGOs to settle in. New regulations are making it difficult to access foreign funding, but I want to articulate the importance of NGOs, like YUVA, who protect the fundamental human rights that are easily violated in the context of poverty and development.
This internship has left me with many thoughts and I have learned a lot from it. It was my first time working remotely and I have to say managing work in different time zones was not easy, as I have been dealing with three time zones: EST, IST, and KST. The flexibility that YUVA provided was particularly helpful. Interestingly, saving time on commute has benefited me, as there has never been a “running not to be late” or tiresome due to too much walking. The saved up time from remote working was what allowed me to keep up with everything. Courses, internships, extracurricular activities, and personal events were all possible to be kept up with because of the flexibility of YUVA, professors, and many others in this pandemic.
What is vital and inspiring about YUVA is the effort to sustain the result of their advocacy and better promote democracy. YUVA’s work is not limited to advocacy or providing aid but education and awareness, especially among local communities and children. The daily lives of people in slums are exhausting; it is easy to forget about the necessity of political participation. YUVA’s effort to educate and remind the people in slum about democracy deserves to be celebrated.
Donggeun Lee, B.A.- Human Rights at Columbia University. Donggeun interned with YUVA from October 2020 to December 2020.