Alumni Interview with Arpita Varghese

This interview was conducted over email with Arpita Varghese, a Gender and Humanitarian Action Analyst, UN Women, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Varghese graduated summa cum laude from Duke in 2015 with a dual degree in International Comparative Studies and Philosophy. She spoke at Global Ideas, Local Impact, the Duke Human Rights Center’s annual celebration of human rights, on March 31, 2022. 

What has been your path to your current position?

I currently work at UN Women, which is the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls. I focus on humanitarian work at UN Women’s Headquarters and periodically support some of our country offices which are responding to humanitarian crises on the ground.

I’ve been with UN Women for close to six years now. In that time, in addition to my HQ role, I’ve had the opportunity to work in Lebanon, Myanmar, and India which contributed a great deal towards my own understanding of some of the extreme complexities, challenges and needs in a humanitarian setting.

Prior to UN Women, I worked with a few civil society organization – most of which was in research capacities. This included a field-based research programme with a CSO in India which on the need to adopt victim/survivor centric approaches by law enforcement in addressing human trafficking as well as the development of a training programme for the implementation of a national initiative to empower women and children against domestic violence and workplace harassment. For a short period, I also got to work on a Duke project called Project Vox being led by the Philosophy Department – although I shifted my focus towards more international development work after my time at Duke, it was exciting to be a part of such a pioneering effort.

I also got my Master’s degree in Global Governance and Diplomacy from the University of Oxford. I had an interest in issues around forced displacement as well as post-conflict reconciliation going into that program and my time at Oxford really helped me gain an understanding of the global-level discourse on these topics.

Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?

When I look back at the experiences I share above, although it was not evident at the time, the connecting thread has very much been a focus on addressing gender inequalities. I think this just points to the all-pervasiveness of gender inequality – whether we’re talking about the philosophers from the Early Modern period or the increasingly humanitarian crises we are seeing across the globe today.

Gender equality is a fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, … birth or other status.” Gender equality is absolutely critical for us to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted United Nations Member States in 2015.

Yet, there is no country in the world today that has achieved gender equality. In fact, it is estimated that at our current rate of progress, it is going to 136 years to close gender gaps. In my current work, I support UN Women’s response efforts in humanitarian crises – in these contexts women and girls often bear the brunt of a crisis. Violence against women and girls has increased in many settings, their livelihoods are more impacted, they often experience higher levels of food insecurity. Despite the heightened risks they experience, they are often on the frontline of a response to help their communities in a crisis. Yet, when it comes to decision-making power, we see that their voices and expertise is largely overlooked.

How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

I’ll talk about how being in the humanitarian space has influenced me. Humanitarian work is incredibly fast paced. Despite the fact that humanitarian responses have grown larger over the years, needs still far outpace the humanitarian assistance available and time is always, always of the essence. As my manager at work says often, we cannot let perfect be the enemy of good. Be it a piece of analysis on the impact of a crisis or advocacy efforts to channel more funds to frontline women’s organizations, you often must work with very limited resources, information, and always running against the clock. This is while of course ensuring that we uphold the humanitarian principles and ensuring we maintain basic standards such as ensuring we “do no harm.” Both professionally and personally, as the kinds of challenges you face become more complex, I think this reminder to not let perfect be the enemy of good has been an important one for me.

Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues?

In the humanitarian space, there’s been a great deal of improvement in how much attention is given to gender equality over the past few years. There’s increased recognition that crises affect persons of different genders, ages, and abilities differently and that humanitarian responses must be able to address these in a targeted manner. But a lot remains to be done in terms of really translating this to change on the ground. Interventions that specifically seek to address the needs of women and girls are disproportionately under-funded. Much more needs to be done to tackle growing issues like gender-based violence – in addition to responding, more intense efforts to prevent it in the first place. Women and women’s organizations which are leading responses need to be better supported. Overall, as a system, there’s recognition that we need to do better to ensure that humanitarian responses do not leave women and girls behind but rather use it as an opportunity to remove barriers that hinder their empowerment.

What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?

I strongly believe that such a career can be a deeply meaningful and impactful one. But there’s no “one” career in human rights. During my high-school days, I was very interested in human rights but I was under the impression that a career in human rights meant becoming a human rights lawyer. That is simply one of many careers one can have in advancing human rights. I would encourage you to use your time at Duke to explore – in the most inter-disciplinary manner possible – the field of human rights in all its diversity. Looking back at my own experience at Duke, I got to take classes on human rights and arts, be part of a DukeEngage program in Northern Ireland looking at post-conflict reconciliation, present papers on statelessness, join activities organized by the Women’s Center on campus, all of which helped me gain an appreciation for how wide-ranging the efforts to advance human rights can be.


Varghese welcomes questions from Duke students at arpita.varghese@unwomen.org.