UN Programme Officer | International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)
Tell me about your current job. What does it entail?
I work with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), where I am a UN Programme Officer. As the UN is so big, I manage a specific area, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and I also support advocacy efforts at the Human Rights Council.
The UPR is a mechanism which reviews the human rights situation of each of the 193 member states of the UN. Part of my job is to bring this mechanism to LGBTI civil society. Sometimes at the UN, things seem complicated, and people think that the mechanisms can be difficult to use. Most of the time this is because they don’t know how to use them. My job at ILGA is to make it simple. I let people know how easy it is to access this mechanism.
We start by making a submission, which is a report that civil society presents, explaining the situation of LGBTI human rights in their country. We then propose recommendations that states should make to their own country, and share strategies with them on how to advocate, both within their own countries and in Geneva. We are with them through every stage of this mechanism.
How did you get involved with ILGA?
I’m Colombian and I’m a lawyer, with an emphasis in international public law and a master’s degree in human rights law. Five years ago, when I was working with the Colombian government, I was promoted as an International Affairs Adviser managing all human rights mechanisms – from a thematic perspective- of both the United Nations and the Inter-American System of Human Rights. I was also in charge of some of the bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, including the UPR. When Colombia presented its second review of the UPR, I oversaw the preparation for Colombia’s UPR review and got to travel to Geneva with the high-level delegation led by the Vice President of Colombia. This allowed me to know and understand the government perspective on the UPR.
Additionally, for my master’s, I wrote my thesis on transgender women deprived of their liberty in Colombia. Then I saw the job description for the UN (UPR) Programme Officer. They were looking for a person who had experience working on the UPR, but who also had knowledge about LGBTI persons. My dissertation, and the fact I had worked with LGBTI civil society in the government, and the experienced that I have had on the UPR made my application to ILGA stand out.
Has your career felt quite linear or have you had to make your own opportunities?
I’ve built my career since school. I remember loving Model United Nations as a teenager and realising that my career had to be within that framework, especially human rights. At university, I considered studying political science or international affairs, but ultimately opted for law, to gain a broad perspective. I discovered that the courses I enjoyed most were related to international public law, immigration law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law. I applied for all the related opportunities, which led to me to getting a job on the Presidential Programme of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of Colombia and then a job here at ILGA in Geneva.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
If you’re asking for a specific role model, I think it’s everyone and no one. In your life, you find a lot of different people that inspire you, in a personal way but also in a public way. I don’t follow the paths of specific individuals, but of course I can’t deny that people like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr, have always been on my mind. I have also been inspired by a lot of people who have surrounded me at my life and at work. Every time I receive a human rights defender here in Geneva, they inspire me with their stories, courage, actions and achievements. Being here at this moment makes you think that you are at the right place at the right time, fixing this huge world one grain of sand at time.
Where do you see your career in the future?
I would like to further respect for human rights, both in my country and worldwide. I would like to do it by directing or coordinating a team that is committed to that same cause. I’ve learnt a lot in the past five years, and I have enjoyed working with the government, the UN and in an NGO. In the future, I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of going back to work with my government. But my work here at ILGA is not done yet. I still have a lot to learn and a lot to give to my programme and to this association.
In your first year at ILGA, what are you proudest of having achieved?
In June 2016, the Human Rights Council appointed the very first Independent Expert against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. My organisation, along with other partners’ organizations, was part of this amazing process. Everyone in the world mobilised to work with their governments to vote in favour of the creation of this Independent Expert. It was amazing to be part of this huge process and family. Looking back to my earlier jobs, I also feel very proud of having been part of the government which brought out the peace process in Colombia. Even though I was not directly involved, I do think we were building the path to achieve it, either by making public policy, or by recognising the challenges that we as a country had.
What skills make you good at your job?
I work better under pressure and thrive on responsibility. Whatever you give me, I can handle it and deliver in a positive way. Those are the skills that have brought me up to this point, since the very beginning.
What is a typical day like?
It depends on the time of year, because my work has peaks and dips. A calm day would be me checking my emails, then attending a staff meeting, working on long term projects or publications, having a call with a human rights defender from any part of the world who wants to know something about the UPR and me explaining how we carry out our advocacy work and how to engage with the UN. On crazy days, I could be at the Human Rights Council delivering a statement, or receiving numerous calls from people across the world, or supporting human rights defenders with their advocacy or searching for advocacy opportunities.
What would you say the biggest challenge is in your professional career?
The biggest challenge would be that not everyone understands your fight and your struggle and where you come from. I’m an African Descendant woman, and that is tough to be in a world like this one. Sometimes doors are closed because of who you are, and occasionally people don’t understand that, no matter how hard you try to explain to them that racism and discrimination still exist.
Within the foreign policy sector, women are still underrepresented. Do you notice this imbalance in your work environment?
Not at ILGA, but in the foreign policy sector yes. Looking to last year, even though that we had the chance to have the first woman Secretary General, it did not happen. For me, it is quite shocking that none of the 8 Secretaries has been a woman. In some spaces there is a misperception that men should be the ones handling specific topics, though there are plenty of women who are qualified to do them.
But now, more frequently, we have witnessed the participation of women in different and important spaces, from peace processes, to development and expert committees, but we still need to continue to work on that.
Do you have any ideas about how we might best rectify this issue?
It’s getting better gradually. Now you see that every time you exclude not only women but also other communities that have been under-represented, people make their voices heard. We need to continue claiming spaces and be in those spaces, apply for those spaces, to continue raising awareness. We need to shift the stereotypical ideas around gender roles.
Do you have any advice for young women starting out in their careers?
I know that it sounds cliché, but follow your dreams. A lot of people told me I could never achieve what I wanted to, but I did. For many people, working in Geneva is easy. For me, it wasn’t. Moving away from my country and being a woman, a black woman especially, meant I had a lot of intersectional elements to deal with, elements which people use to tell you that you won’t make it. I even had a teacher at law school who said that the people of my colour never graduated from that university. But I’ve overcome these struggles and obstacles and I’m here. Whatever you want to be, you are going to be. It might cost you a little bit more than you think, but with effort you will achieve it. I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years, but I hope I can come back and read this blog and say that I did it.