Sian Lea, Managing Director of the Shiva Foundation and graduate of ULaw’s GDL, discusses how a passion for human-rights and advocacy has influenced her career.
Throughout my BA, I became increasingly interested in human rights and the idea of advocating on behalf of people who may have had their rights abused. Law seemed like a natural option. While I was studying my MA, which was in human rights, I became more interested in the law modules. For my thesis, I conducted a legal analysis of whether international criminal law could be effective in holding perpetrators of mass rape to account. Following my MA, I studied the GDL at ULaw.
There were a variety of factors that influenced my decision to study at ULaw. It was a reputable institution for studying the GDL and other institutions seemed entirely focused on commercial and contract law; I wanted more variety in my studies. It was also down the street from UCL, where I studied my MA, and a friend of mine had given it a strong recommendation. It was the only choice really.
I have two particular memories of studying at ULaw. I met my partner while doing a moot trial in the first couple of weeks of class (he was in the same class as me, but this was the first time I remembered meeting him). And second was my success in the criminal law module. I really enjoyed this course, felt that I understood the law and believed I had done really well. These feelings of achievement were validated when I received the results from my exams. Ironically, contract law was my second highest mark.
I’ve always been drawn to social justice and human rights. I would call myself an empath – I’ve always felt for others who were hurt or wronged, most often to the point of action. I’m fiercely motivated by inequity and unfairness. Throughout my education I was fortunate enough to learn about the deep-rooted systems that create social injustice and perpetuate human rights abuses. I was also encouraged to think creatively about how these systems of oppression could be fought. Once you learn about these issues, it’s hard to look the other way.
I worked in youth education at the British Red Cross for a number of years - this experience started with an education project on international humanitarian law. My time here was very enriching however, I wanted to move away from the neutrality that embodies the Red Cross movement and work in human rights, which by its nature is political. There was a job opening at a legal aid NGO in Cambodia, helping victims of human trafficking – it seemed like a great place to start. I was there for eight months, supporting on all communications and internal systems for the organisation. My role was quite varied – from drafting funding applications to writing case studies to delivering lectures on the topic to university students. It was an eye-opening experience and helped me understand the inner workings of a grassroots organisation.
I am currently the Managing Director of Shiva Foundation. We are a corporate foundation, which means we get the majority of our funding from a corporate entity. Our mission is to prevent human exploitation by working with those fighting it. In order for us to achieve our ultimate aim of an end to human exploitation, we are looking at what causes exploitation and addressing it. We work with business, government and NGOs to make change happen.
A normal day in my role consists of anything and everything. It can be very administrative, managing the budget, paying suppliers and various HR tasks. It also involves a lot of relationship management, which is a great part of the job because I get to work with and learn from the best in the field on a day-to-day basis - that includes my team. I also do a great deal of strategy - making plans for and overseeing new projects. And as the Managing Director, I’m accountable to our trustees, I represent the organisation at relevant events and meetings and I contribute to national anti-trafficking efforts as an expert on the topic.
During the pandemic, we have had to consider risk management in new areas we previously never considered, such as identifying new funding streams. Historically, we have been funded by the hospitality industry, which is unfortunately on its knees right now. However, it has also stayed the same in that I am still responsible for keeping everything ticking over and ensuring that we continue to deliver our projects and report on our progress to our stakeholders. While the timing for some projects has changed to adapt to the pressures our business partners are facing, others we hadn’t previously considered have come to the fore.
Working in the anti-trafficking space can be incredibly emotive for those who come into regular contact with stories of exploitation as part of their day job. We are one-step removed from this, which helps. But for those who are on the frontline, setting boundaries, having an outlet and prioritising self-care are important, I’d imagine. For anyone working in a fast-paced and high-pressured environment, which a lot of NGOs and legal environments are, my advice would be to pick your battles (you absolutely cannot win them all), use your allies (you cannot do everything alone), and have an end to your working day.
Boundaries are so important. Working round the clock isn’t as efficient as some may think. I have a one-year-old who helps me with that. I’ve always liked variety and have actually thrived when I have multiple ventures at the go. I plan in time for other things I enjoy, like yoga, volunteering, side-projects and of course hanging out with my daughter. I am a planner, so I use those tools in my work and life and then I try to set boundaries.
One highlight of my career involves the UN. Being interested in human rights for so many years, I’ve always been intrigued by the UN as an organisation. In 2018, Shiva Foundation launched a toolkit for hotels to tackle human trafficking as part of a conference co-organised by UN Women on business and human rights; I was able to sit alongside esteemed leaders in the business and human rights world and deliver a presentation on my work. The event also took place at UN Women Headquarters in New York. It was a moment where I felt like all our hard work getting to this place was being recognised. The toolkit has gone on to influence a number of hotels and help victims of trafficking as well, which is further affirmation of this piece of work.
In terms of goals and ambitions - I want to continue working in anti-trafficking. At some point I hope to move back to Canada and work there for a while. That’s about it. My main aim is to continue to be part of the solution. For those looking to work in broader human rights, I would encourage students to find an area they’re interested in and pursue that. Do not be afraid of pigeon-holing yourself, find your interest and learn everything there is to learn. Speak with people who are working in that space and find out what they know. Don’t be afraid to show your inexperience or to ask for help – people in this space have built a career in helping and educating others.
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