In this blog, Siphesihle Tsabedze discusses the role volunteering played in developing skills and knowledge that went above and beyond her law degree – and how that experience, combined with a very developed sense of justice, has given her the confidence to pursue her goal of becoming a human rights barrister.
My school was in Eswatini and it’s a very socially unequal country. I was interested in law because of all the social inequality I could see around me. I was very motivated to do something to help people that couldn’t defend themselves against patriarchy and against the classism that determines your life when you are born. I went on to study at a United World College. Its mission is to make the world a better place by breaking down the barriers that stop people from diverse backgrounds seeing how similar they are. With that background, studying law just made sense to me.
What is the Human Rights Law Clinic? What was your role in it?
The University of Bristol’s Human Rights Law Clinic is part of the Law School and is dedicated to researching and supporting human rights NGOs all over the world to do the work that they need to do. Often NGOs are underfunded, and they can’t afford to employ all the people that they need to do research on the ground and to be fact checking and to be collating information. The Human Rights Law Clinic gives students the opportunity to get involved in that process.
The research you do supports NGOs with the work that they need to then inform their litigation strategies and form their reports to official human rights bodies like the UN, like commissions against torture. I was involved in my second year doing research for the Committee on the Prevention Against Torture in Africa. And in my third year, I was a team leader for research supporting an NGO based in the Gambia that litigates on a regional level there, on all sorts of human rights matters, to the African Court of Human and People’s Rights.
What did taking part in the Human Rights Law Clinic mean to you?
Being part of the Human Rights Law Clinic meant everything to me. I learned a lot about the state of human rights and different human rights cultures around the world, particularly East, Southern and West Africa. I feel like I got to do work that was very meaningful in helping organizations do the incredible work that they do that has a real impact on people that need help.
Tell us about the other volunteering initiatives you were involved in? How did they also help you pursue your passion for human rights?
I also worked for the Freedom Law Clinic and Lawyers without Borders. The Freedom Law Clinic is a UK organization that offers law students the opportunity to get practical experience of how the law works in criminal cases and appeals. I was involved as a student caseworker with a group of eight other students, and we learned all about the criminal appeals procedure in England and Wales and how you write to the Criminal Cases Review Commission for a life sentence on murder. It was an invaluable experience and it helped me decide what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, what areas of law I wanted to get into.
With the University of Bristol Lawyers Without Borders Student Division I found that, again, I went beyond the scope of what my degree required me to know about human rights. It was a way of always being tapped into this field that I knew I wanted to go into. I met so many like-minded people, so many international students, of course, because of the nature of the organization. And I even made contacts within the organization that will be invaluable to me if I ever decide to apply to them. The one project that stands out was a project in Kenya and Tanzania that helped female victims of gender-based violence escape that situation and get help, get the medical attention that they might need. We did lots of research on what, legally, their options were. What protections do these women have? Can they walk into a lawyer’s office ask for legal aid? What were their rights for asylum, for example.
What do you plan to do now you have finished your degree?
Now that I’m done with my law degree, I intend to do the bar practice course within the next two years. I want to be a human rights and immigration barrister. And so, I’m currently building experience working in that area of law, immigration specifically, building my portfolio of client, facing work with vulnerable clients. And I’m volunteering for refugee council as a refugee integration advisor. I do that five days a week where I take on a few clients and help their paid staff manage their caseload, because the UK has a really, really hostile and overwhelmed system of asylum and refugee law.
Where do you see yourself in 5 / 10 years?
In five years, I see myself as a barrister who specializes in immigration and human rights. In 10 years, my goodness, I see myself as an expert, perhaps in one of those areas. I’m not quite sure which yet. I’m very open to learning. I’ll probably have more degrees than I do now, and I’ll probably be very happy with the work that I would have done in between now and then.
Find out more
Don’t forget to read the full Volunteering Week blog series to find out more about the options for gaining real-life experiences of law, in social justice and beyond, whilst studying at the Law School. Find out more about our Law Clinic work and careers opportunities on our webpages.