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Johanna DeBari, Intern at Physicians for Human Rights

BY Johanna Debari


Johanna DeBariThis past summer, I had the privilege of serving as an intern for the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) from May 26th-August 19th in Boston, Massachusetts. It was an incredibly formative experience, both personally and professionally, and one I will not soon forget. I was given a variety of tasks from research projects for op-ed documents, to developing programs, and even writing my own blog as well. All along the way, I learned so much about the field of advocacy for survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones, the struggles organizations and first-responders face in providing aid to survivors, and some of the important work being done by PHR to support survivors and promote a survivor-centered approach to sexual violence prevention.

While PHR specializes in documentation of mass atrocities overall, the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at PHR more specifically aims to forge coalitions among regional medical, law enforcement, and legal experts in the DRC and Kenya, with the goal of increasing local capacity to collect admissible evidence for the purposes of prosecuting crimes of sexual violence. In addition, the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones (SVCZ) conducts cross-sectoral trainings on chain of custody and collection of forensic evidence for legal, medical, and law enforcement officials. You can read more about PHR and the SVCZ here.

In accordance with these program goals, my duties as an intern included researching, some assistance with grant writing, program development, and various writing projects. Most of my projects involved researching information on sexual violence in sub-Saharan African countries, as well as elsewhere throughout the world. I even had an opportunity to conduct research on the prevalence of medico-legal evidence, and why it is deemed necessary for prosecution in cases of sexual violence, but not in others. There was always a new and exciting project to be a part of at the Boston office, and it seemed like there was never a dull day. I always felt like I was a part of “something bigger,” working alongside real change-makers and helping with projects which would have a lot of influence on the national and international communities.

One of the projects I took a leadership role on was developing a Listening Tour of Boston non-profits, hospitals, and other organizations dedicated to providing assistance to victims of sexual violence in the Greater Boston area. The goal of this project was to network between the SVCZ program and these local organizations. It was also designed to give the SVCZ program the opportunity to learn more about struggles organizations face domestically in both aiding survivors, navigating the legal process, and preventing sexual violence in Boston. It would involve meeting with representatives of each of these organizations and discussing possibilities for future partnerships and instances of collaboration. Since PHR’s work is mostly international, the SVCZ team thought it would be fruitful to build connections domestically and to gain insight from organizations engaged in the same causes.

Finally, I think the most exciting part of my internship was getting to do what I do best: write a blog! After sharing my TED talk I gave last April with the SVCZ team, they asked me to expand my ideas about a survivor-centered approach to sexual violence prevention in the U.S. in a blog post. While this was an incredible opportunity, writing this piece was a challenging experience. I had to present my ideas coherently, adhere to PHR’s stylistic guidelines, align the piece within the themes of PHR’s work, goals, and foci in other blog, and all while making sure I stayed true to my voice reconciling each of these facets. I eventually crafted a piece I am proud of, and which my former colleagues at PHR enjoyed as well, which you can read here. It was an important learning experience both personally for developing my own writing style and voice, but also learning how to collaborate with other individuals who have different ideas and who have different visions of the blog. This writing project was an important way to better develop my skills as a writer, practice self-advocacy, and learn more about writing for different audiences. Although I benefitted from all of the projects I did at PHR, this project was by far my favorite.

And of course, this opportunity would not have even been possible for me without the help of the Human Rights Institute. I am grateful for their never ending support, and especially with supporting my professional development through this internship. I am fortunate enough to belong to a community of scholars, activists, and “change-makers” who have always encouraged me to follow my dreams. At PHR, I became a part of a new community of dedicated human rights practitioners, who inspire me to continue engaging in human-rights-related work, helped me hone a particular set of skills, and showed me an important application of putting human rights theory to practice. Overall, interning at PHR was an incredibly rewarding experience for me as a student, a person, and also as an up-and-coming professional.