How to carve out a career in human rights law: Chevening Alumna shares her insights

An interview with Grace Malera, Chevening Alumna and Ombudsman of the Republic of Malawi, on how she got to where she is today and what advice she has for Cheveners seeking to pursue a similar career path.

Grace Malera has pursued an impressive career path since her Chevening Fellowship. She is a practicing lawyer focused on protecting the human rights of citizens in Malawi, having risen to the role of Ombudsman of the Republic of Malawi and Commissioner of the Malawi Human Rights Commission. She has also worked as a leader in the non-profit sector, heading up both Action Aid International in Malawi and a UK Aid-funded programme on violence against women. At the heart of Grace’s career is an unwavering desire to stand up for the rights and dignities of all people.

We spoke to Grace about how she got to where she is today and what advice she has for Cheveners wanting to carve out a career in the field of human rights law.

How did you figure out what career path you wanted to follow?

Growing up I was always passionate about standing up for others and the desire to treat people from all kinds of backgrounds with respect and in a humane manner. At that time, I did not quite have an idea of all the terms such as equity, fairness, and non-discrimination. However, by the time I made it to the University of Malawi I was naturally drawn to study Law. It was at this time that I developed a great passion for human rights and an interest in using the law as a tool for achieving social justice and equality.

Then my experiences on the Chevening Fellowship Programme sharpened my interest in human rights work further. It exposed me to the role of international human rights mechanisms, like the UN, as well as the cultures and human rights perspectives of the other fellows.

Most importantly, the Chevening Fellowship made me grow as a leader – I was able to return to Malawi and assume a very senior leadership role as Executive Secretary of the Malawi Human Rights Commission and since then, as they say, I have grown from strength to strength.

What do you think are the key factors that helped you rise to where you are today – and that might help other Cheveners too?

I would cite hard work, determination, dedication, confidence, resilience, a strong work ethic, and defining and focusing on goals as the key ingredients that have seen me rise to where I am today. I would also cite the continuous desire to keep learning and enhancing my competencies. Although I am mindful that what works for me may not necessarily work for others, I believe that these key ingredients are the prerequisites for success in a range of fields, from business to sports.

Looking back at your career so far, is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?

Yes, there are some things that one can only learn through experience. For example, how structural and deep-seated some of the cultural factors that influence inequalities and human rights violations are. It is only when you have really worked with peoples’ lived realities, only when you have implemented programmes where the impact seems to take forever to be seen, that you realise that real transformational change comes out of long-term strategic programming. And you realise that there are usually no quick fixes. As a result, you learn and cultivate a level of patience and conviction you wish you had had in the first few years of your career.

What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

Work hard and diligently, as if your life literally depends on it; get proactive and intentional in seizing career growth opportunities (I have my enrolment into the Chevening Fellowship Programme and others to show for this); always work on improving yourself in terms of knowledge and skills; and where you can, you must venture outside of your comfort zone.

Finally, what advice do you have for Chevening Alumni who are hoping to carve out a career in the field of human rights?

I would advise them to go with their passion and their aspirations, and to define and set some goals which they must remain focused on. A career in human rights is one of the most fulfilling careers there is if you want a career with diverse areas and roles, and if you want to make a difference in ordinary peoples’ lives and hold governments to account.

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