The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” These rights are indivisible and interdependent, meaning “one set of rights cannot be fully enjoyed without the other,” according to the UN.
Each year on December 10, the United Nations recognizes Human Rights Day, which commemorates the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The landmark document—which turns 75 this year—lays out fundamental human rights to be universally protected and has been translated into more than 500 languages.
In recognition of Human Rights Day, we sat down with Gayatri Patel, SIS/MA ’05, WCL/JD ’05, to discuss her time at SIS, her 20 years of experience in the human rights field, and the advice she has for students and graduates interested in human rights work.
Building on Human Rights Interests
Patel knew early in life that she wanted to pursue a career centered on human rights. As a high school student in the 1990s, Patel can remember the discrimination toward people with HIV/AIDS, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Of that discrimination, Patel says, “It [HIV/AIDS] sparked that sense of social justice and being actively involved in trying to make change for people who are discriminated against or harmed by policy.”
Patel’s interest in human rights would eventually combine with a desire to work on foreign policy issues, and she knew the “two places that were best suited for that in the US are either New York or DC.”
Patel eventually settled on DC and enrolled in the JD/MA program at American University, where she simultaneously earned her law degree from the Washington College of Law and her master’s degree from SIS.
During her time in the program, Patel focused on gender and women’s rights issues as well as international humanitarian law. Through courses like Complex Humanitarian Emergencies at SIS and International Humanitarian Law at WCL, Patel’s ongoing interest in humanitarian issues continued to grow.
“What led me to the JD/MA program is that I really wanted to work on a body of issues surrounding human rights,” Patel said. “The program had a legal component to it, but it also had a-substantive-understanding-of-the-issues component to it. And so, the JD/MA program kind of gave me the ability to bring those together.”
In her three years at AU, Patel developed a strong understanding of the underpinnings of humanitarian and development issues, as well as the legal complexities of humanitarian law.
Charting a Career Path
After graduation, Patel was selected as a finalist for the Presidential Management Fellows program, a prestigious leadership development program that provides finalists with an opportunity to start their careers in government service through a two-year, full-time fellowship at a federal government agency. For Patel, the PMF program served as an “entry point into the US government,” and she served at the US Department of State working on human trafficking issues.
Patel said the five years she spent at the State Department were “incredibly formative,” particularly as a new graduate: “I was 25 years old, a brand-new graduate, and I was already given a great deal of responsibility. I traveled to 38 countries around the world representing the US government and working with foreign governments on their legal systems and social services. That was really a jump into the deep end of policymaking, and it reflected how the skills I was taught and the background that I got at American really contributed to my being able to do that work and grow.”
During the early years of her career, Patel also spent time working in Egypt—first as a human rights officer for the State Department and then as a director of legal programming at Africa & Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA). At AMERA, she worked directly with communities of refugees and helped them gain legal status and access resources.
After returning to the United States in 2013, Patel spent two more years at the State Department before transitioning into advocacy-focused work at CARE, an NGO whose mission is to “save lives, defeat poverty, and achieve social justice.” In her more than five years at CARE, Patel served as a senior policy advocate before becoming the director of gender advocacy. In that role, she represented the organization before Congress to lobby for gender equality in US foreign assistance, development, and humanitarian policy.
Most recently, Patel served as the vice president of advocacy and external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission. In her role, she was responsible for defining a policy agenda at the intersection of gender equality, women’s rights, and humanitarian responses. Patel and her team worked through UN and political channels like the US government, Danish government, and Norwegian government to promote policy and humanitarian responses to crises that respond to the needs of underserved groups. She described the process as “incredibly challenging, but mission driven.”
“The world is seeing unprecedented levels of humanitarian crises and really still trying to figure out how to address crises as they affect underserved and underseen populations—like women, girls, and LGBTQI individuals—and make sure that humanitarian responses are actually responsive to their needs,” Patel explained.
During her time with the Women’s Refugee Commission, Patel said she was able to leverage the understanding of humanitarian and development issues she developed at SIS to “really lobby Congress for changes and improvements in foreign policy.”
“Find What Drives You”
Throughout her career, Patel says she’s been fortunate to have “so many opportunities to pursue rewarding work.”
“It’s been really fulfilling to be able to bring together colleagues and partners across a variety of different subject areas and functions to advocate on specific issues,” Patel said. “I’ve done a lot of galvanizing and collective advocacy around gender-based violence, and seeing those partnerships and those coalitions come together around a particular idea or a particular point of policy that we want to push for has been really fulfilling.”
She added: “Even if we didn’t get the policy [implemented], the fact that there’s this mass swell of support around it—I find that invigorating.”
For SIS students and graduates considering a career in human rights, Patel says it’s important to be “personally motivated and driven by the work you’re doing.”
“It’s a big field. The issues that are within the wide realm of human rights that motivate and drive you—lean into that,” Patel said. “You don’t have to be a human rights generalist. You can specialize; you can really go with what you’re passionate about.”