social change

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I could’ve been there — I could’ve been at the marathon, cheering on friends and strangers as they crossed the finish line. I could’ve been there, marveling at the resilience of the human spirit, celebrating the strength and determination and passion that the sport of running demands. Marathons represent some of the most incredible things about humans — hard work, dedication, the ability to go on when things get really hard. The bombing destroyed a day of celebration and excitement, of positivity and patriotism as well. I could’ve been there, and the victims could’ve been people I knew. Perhaps that’s what made it so chilling. This was a bombing in our backyard, not far away, affecting our communities, not ‘them.’

In the wake of the disaster, what has been most heartening has been the reaction of this community — my new home, in Boston. People created a spreadsheet to offer up beds at their houses for marathoners who were stranded, and perhaps most inspiring — some marathon runners kept running after the finish line and went straight to the hospital to donate blood. I admire the first responders, the people who took time and money to help others in a time of need.

My heart goes out to all those affected, and I mourn those who were killed or are in critical condition at the hospital. Attacks like this should never happen, and I only hope there will be no stereotyping, no backlash against minority groups as a consequence.

And the reaction that I loved most, perhaps, was this photo project by a filmmaker/photographer in Kabul: To Boston, From Kabul, With Love. It really represents the best of humanity — it shows compassion from people for whom these kinds of attacks are a sad daily reality. It reminds us how connected we all are, how much others can care about us in the U.S. despite the hardships they have encountered. I only hope that we send them the same love, back. 




(All Photo Credits here, Click here to read more about the project).



“You don’t judge a society by how they treat the powerful, but by how they treat the poor and incarcerated.” 

“What matters is not just what’s in your head, but what’s in your heart.”
— Bryan Stevenson

I recently had the chance to attend a wonderful conference on “rebellious lawyering.” It offered the opportunity to step out of the law school campus, reflect on my passion for public interest and social just lawyering, and come back with a renewed perspective.

Before law school, I never would’ve dreamed I’d utter the words, I love civil procedure and property, nor would I have realized that reading cases would become second nature, or that I’d learn to love the socratic method. Law school, for me, has been about learning to love such unexpected, unfathomable things – and learning to find joy in the mundane as well as the inspirational.

Yet, law school has worn me down, too. It has worn down my courage to do big things, to dream big for the world. It has reduced innovative ideas to creative arguments, playing out on paper and in speech, but rarely in action. This conference brought me down back to earth — to action. More and more, I crave fewer words and more doing.  More and more, I realize that those who talk the talk, often don’t walk the walk. Your eloquent arguments on either sides of a social issue mean little if you do nothing to change the world. Your intellectual prowess must be matched by hard, hard work to improve laws, policies, services and institutions impeding justice.

Brian Stevenson said: one of the most important things you can have is proximity. Proximity to the poor. Go out of big offices in New York and DC; go to the South, where services are badly needed and inequality is even more rampant. And I’d add: go to the global South, too, to be proximate to the poor. This conference brought me back to these basics, and inspired me to keep working hard. To be more proximate, and less distanced. And indeed, to speak less, and do more.

And even further, law school has also broadened my outlook in many ways, rather than making it more myopic. In the international development field, there is such a divide. We care about alleviating poverty in India or Cambodia or Rwanda, but what about here in our own backyards? We care about sexual assault against women in the DRC and Afghanistan, but what about the assault on women’s bodies here at home, every day? For me, this has been one of the most frustrating things about social justice work. I view social justice and human rights issues as deeply inextricable. Especially in the area in which I work: to expand access to justice to the poor, especially women and girls who have been subject to abuse and violence. 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced some sort of violence. And the justice system is unequal not just in Haiti or Bangladesh, but also here in Boston, in Washington, in Alabama, in and across the United States. Law school has helped me see this even more clearly – the deep connections among local and global injustices. In that sense, I think it has made me a better advocate. For if we don’t understand what’s happening here at home, and if we don’t work to right those wrongs, how can we truly move away from the savior syndrome? I think that more of us ‘international development’ advocates must start by looking in our own backyards, before going across the globe to right wrongs. 


I recently attended a wonderful event at Harvard in conjunction with the Harvard College Women’s Center and on campus students and student groups. It was a discussion of the faces of rape and gender violence in South Asia – Bangladesh, Pakistan, India – and it featured the voices of young Harvard students, Ph.D.’s and graduate students from the subcontinent. They discussed many intelligent things — the issue of masculinity & its problematic link with domination in society — the issue of child protection services and lack thereof in India — the history of partition and war, and rape as a tool of mass war crimes and subjugation of a society — the problems with the justice system — the issue of keeping sexuality hidden so South Asian families do not talk about these issues — the fact that we need more open communication, sex education in Indian schools. All such good points. At the end, however, the group decided to form a Task Force to issue ‘recommendations’ to the Indian government in the wake of the Delhi gang rape. To be frank, I didn’t think much of this at the time; I glossed over it as yet another initiative coming from this extremely active university, constantly buzzing with some task force or other.

I came home, and then I saw this response from Indian feminists and activists (please read the rest here):

We’re a group of Indian feminists and we are delighted to learn that the Harvard community – without doubt one of the most learned in the world – has seen fit to set up a Policy Task Force entitled ‘Beyond Gender Equality’ and that you are preparing to offer recommendations to India (and other South Asian countries) in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Not since the days of Katherine Mayo have American women – and American feminists – felt such a concern for their less privileged Third World sisters. Mayo’s concern, at that time, was to ensure that the Indian State (then the colonial State) did not leave Indian women in the lurch, at the mercy of their men, and that it retained power and the rule of the just. Yours, we see, is to work towards ensuring that steps are put in place that can help the Indian State in its implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, a responsibility the Indian State must take up. This is clearly something that we, Indian feminists and activists who have been involved in the women’s movement here for several decades, are incapable of doing, and it was with a sense of overwhelming relief that we read of your intention to step into this breach.

At first, I was a bit surprised. Then, I looked more closely at the language of ‘issuing recommendations’ to the Indian government. And as I discussed this with others and thought about the phrasing and the response, I came to realize why this response is so important, necessary & correct, and why it was also so important that I completely missed this issue.

Despite talking about women’s rights and development on this blog, and despite constantly reading about these issues – colonialism, development, the ‘white man’s burden,’ – I missed this problem. I accepted the idea of a “task force” originating from Harvard and did not immediately question the institution. This speaks to, perhaps, how deeply rooted these perspectives and biases are. For those of us who grew up in the West (though I was born in India, I can’t claim to be anywhere close to Indian feminists and activists who have worked to end rape and assault for decades), it is natural and difficult to overcome this perception that we have something to offer. Whether it is recommendations, programs, policies or changes to the way things are happening in the global south, we in the West are simply trained from childhood to think this way. My failure to even question the fact that we, a group of Harvard students, were even remotely qualified to give such advice to the Indian government, deeply disappointed me and helped me confront head on my complicity in this system.

I have no solutions to offer — but I hope this incident helps me think twice when I support ideas in the future that have the effect of overshadowing local leaders/activists/experts in favor of ‘experts’ from the West, and that all of us, as a global community, continue to try our best to think critically and ensure that ‘local’ leaders from the global South are taking the front row when it comes to changing policies and addressing social issues in their own communities and countries. And I hope this gives us all courage to speak out, when we notice a problem like this in institutions we are a part of.


Some excellent thoughts on what it means to be a community lawyer, by Derrick Bell:

“..[S]ome civil rights lawyers, like their more candid poverty law colleagues, are making decisions, setting priorities, and undertaking responsibilities that should be determined by their clients and shaped by the community. It is essential that lawyers ‘lawyer’ and not attempt to lead clients and class…”

“..[C]ommitment to an integrated society should not be allowed to interfere with the ability to represent effectively parents who favor education-oriented remedies…. “

“..many idealist lawyers.. seek, through the class action device, to bring about judicial intervention affecting large segments of the community. The class action provides the vehicle for bringing about a major advance toward an idealistic goal. At the same time, prosecuting and winning the big case provides strong reinforcement of the attorney’s sense of his or her abilities and professionalism…The psychological motivations which influence the lawyer in taking on ‘a fiercer dragon’ through the class action may also underlie the tendency to direct the suit towards the goal of the lawyer rather than the client.”


Why do domestic violence survivors stay in abusive relationships? If you’ve ever wondered — watch this incredible, inspiring talk from a strong woman — someone you may not think of when you envision a typical domestic violence victim/survivor.

Lessons Learned:

  • Domestic violence is so difficult particularly because it involves emotions. Once you fall in love with someone – and envision them as your soulmate – it’s hard to accept that they’re an abuser… even when they hold a gun to your head.
  • Leaving – it isn’t as easy as you may think. In fact, leaving can be the most dangerous thing a victim could ever do.
  • Domestic violence affects everyone – not just poor, immigrant women. But well-educated women who are ivy league grads and investment bankers. It affects men, too.

The concept of legal empowerment seems to be gaining more traction, and I couldn’t be more excited. IDLO has released an excellent new report called “Accessing Justice: Models, Strategies and Best Practices on Women’s Empowerment.” The study is an excellent overview of legal empowerment and its complexities: legal education, legal services, dispute resolution, and its interactions with informal justice system as well as its ultimate impact on women’s empowerment. Here are some of the very interesting findings of the report:

On Violence Against Women in Afghanistan:

Comprehensive statistics on VAW in Afghanistan are not available. “Nonetheless, available data at this stage suggests that the interventions mentioned above have made considerable advances in improving women and justice providers’ knowledge of the EVAW Law and providing women with a user-friendly service to seek justice for violent acts. During its first year of operation, the VAW Unit in Kabul received 300 cases originating from 15 different provinces in Afghanistan. Throughout the year 2010, the number of cases submitted to the Kabul VAW Unit doubled from the first month to the last month. At the end of March 2012, the total number of registered cases in the Kabul VAW Unit was 869.”

On Unwed Women in Morocco:

“Similarly NGOs describe the impact that participating in the legal and human rights education has had on other program participants as a result of unwed mothers’ presence in the groups, as well as the specific program sessions on unwed mothers’ rights. They mention how attitudes of rejection towards unwed mothers were replaced with sympathy and support. On a larger scale, as a result of the program there was a shift from the consensus of silence around the issue of unwed mothers to a shared vision of participants that unwed motherhood is a social reality that must be addressed. One participating NGO noted that the other women started behaving normally towards the unwed mothers and stopped marginalizing them.”

On women’s land rights in Tanzania and Mozambique:

“…[A]lthough paralegal services attempted mediation as the first method for resolving conflicts brought to them by widows and divorced women, they were generally unsuccessful. Resistance to paralegal mediation by husbands or the husbands’ families is likely to be a reflection of the prevalence of contemporary practices of customary norms, as reinforced by local community leaders. Accordingly, at this preliminary stage a sustained focus on strengthening NGO expertise in dissemination, education, legal drafting and practice is likely to be more impactful than diverting resources into mediation. Moreover, cases of dispossessed widows and divorcees tend to legally favor the woman; using mediation, which is often reserved for legally complicated situations or situations in which all parties are legally at fault, is unlikely to be as effective in promoting women’s land rights as unequivocal public court judgments explicitly referring to and reliant on statutory law.”

Read the report in its entirety below. It’s full of incredibly useful and interesting data on legal empowerment and its impact on women!

Accessing Justice: Models, Strategies and Best Practices on Women’s Empowerment


In law school, raising your hand is a competition. Hands shoot up every second, thoughts are formulated rapidly with no room for deep thinking, and the spotlight is on you as eighty of your classmates train their eyes on you — often to raise their hand and proffer a counterpoint in the next minute. Professors call you out (the “socratic method”) and can question you about the minutiae of each case.

This can be a hostile environment, especially for those of us who prefer to think in writing than in speech. At my core, I am a writer. I express myself on paper, not aloud. I am not a speaker or orator, and I lack eloquence in my speech. I am outmatched by others in my ability to think aloud on the spot, under pressure with a volley of questions slung my way. Thankfully, the course culminates in a final exam: testing your ability to write quickly, write a lot, and analyze issues rapidly. My oft incoherent or timid answers in class will not count, and my writing is the final test. For that, I am grateful.

Is this a ‘male’ or ‘female’ way of thinking? Are women less likely to raise their hands in class? I tend to think that there is no inherent ‘female’ way of speaking or acting. Women can be loud, strong-willed, aggressive, passionate, and outspoken, just as men can be. I have met very quiet men and extremely assertive, confident women. Further, is confidence truly correlated with speaking up? After all, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently broke his 7-year streak of not speaking on the bench. Seven years! And I would wager a Supreme Court Justice does not lack confidence, but simply prefers to think rather than fire questions. I shy away from overgeneralizations, stereotypes about an entire gender. Yet, there is certain truth to the fact that we women are exposed to different media messages and socialized to act in a certain way. We are told that it’s more important to be a pretty face than to be a strong, intelligent leader. Perhaps that’s why this is happening in law school:

A male student was 50% more likely to speak voluntarily at least once during a class meeting than was a female student. Men were also much more likely to speak multiple times in a given class meeting. Compared with female students, men were 64% more likely to speak three or more times in a class, and 144% more likely to volunteer three or more comments.

This is why I love Sheryl Sandberg’s message, in her new book: Lean In. 

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg writes in the book, called “Lean In.”

“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

And yet, there are questions, I believe, that must be asked. Is Sandberg suggesting that women simply act… more like men? Instead, should we work together to shape a world where the fastest talker, the most aggressive person in the room, is no longer considered the most brilliant? Are we now simply placing more burden on women to pursue opportunities, rather than shaping a world of equal opportunity? This is an individual, not a structural solution. And I believe this raises some hard questions that we must address before telling women: lean in.


Today, I’m excited to announce a guest post along with Mahfuza Folad – over at the Building Markets blog for the Professionalization of Afghan CSOs project. Here is an excerpt of the post, which focuses on some of the key challenges that Afghan civil society organizations face, how they are overcoming them, and the personal anecdotes of Mahfuza – a woman civil society activist:

Despite the burst of negative press regarding corruption of charities in Afghanistan generated by Three Cups of Tea and author Greg Mortenson’s alleged financial mismanagement of the Central Asia Institute, the reality is that hundreds of courageous and tireless Afghan activists are continuing to lead civil society organizations (CSOs) and are pushing forward a burgeoning nonprofit sector in Afghanistan. Yet they face numerous challenges and limitations unique to the environment of Afghanistan, a nation struggling with conflict, extreme poverty, and extensive resource constraints. Despite the sometimes seemingly insurmountable hurdles, Afghan activists have met these obstacles with impressive ingenuity, passion, and dedication.

Click here to read the rest of the post. Thanks to Building Markets for inviting Mahfuza and I to contribute!