This interview was conducted over email with Isabella Szabolcs, a Strategic Communications Consultant in UNAIDS’ Human Rights and Community Engagement Department, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Szabolcs earned a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from Duke in 2014.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): What has been your path to your current position? 

Isabella Szabolcs (IS): I discovered my passion for human rights when I participated in DukeEngage’s program in India. While living with an inspiring host mother, I witnessed the implications of being a victim of gender-based violence and the debilitating stigma of divorce in a patriarchal society. Shocked by the inequalities she continued to face as well as those of a caste-based system, I realized I wanted to advocate for the rights of victims like her and raise awareness to such abuses. I later participated in the DukeImmerse in Chile program, where I had the opportunity to travel and examine human rights violations that had occurred under Pinochet’s dictatorship as well as current ones against the indigenous population. It was under the valuable guidance of Program Director, Robin Kirk – a former journalist – that I came to realize how critical journalism could be in raising awareness and hopefully changing the lives of victims.

As a result, after I graduated Duke, I pursued a Master’s of Journalism at Northwestern University and specialized in investigative video journalism. When I graduated, I began my career as a video journalist reporting and producing investigative and breaking news videos on a range of political and social justice issues. However after reporting on countless abuses, I became painfully aware that all I could do as a journalist was raise awareness and hope for change. I wanted to have a greater role in ensuring that vulnerable individuals could access justice. In search of more advocacy and policy-oriented work, I interned at The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and then at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland, where I later became a consultant. At OHCHR, I developed advocacy strategies and content to publicize human rights reports and the work of the UN monitoring mechanisms. I also interviewed experts and victims, and worked closely with human rights officers to identify pressing human rights issues, highlight how to address them and mobilize public action. One of my most fascinating projects, for example, was working on the pivotal 2018 Myanmar Human Rights Report with the Fact-Finding Mission. Given Facebook’s prominent role in the crisis, we were tasked to conduct extensive research on how social media was used to fuel hate speech and incite the Rohingya genocide. This experience was very valuable as I saw the real-life impact and importance of the UN human rights mechanisms’work. Eager to learn how to change harmful policies and laws, and assist governments in complying with their international obligations, I then pursued a Master of Laws (LL.M) at the University of Edinburgh.

After graduating in the fall of 2020, I started my current position as a Strategic Communications Consultant in UNAIDS’ Human Rights and Community Engagement Department back in Geneva. I now work within the human rights legal and policy team designing global and country-level communication strategies to galvanize governments to implement human rights-based approaches in their response to the AIDS epidemic. I also work with country offices to promote the elimination of HIV-related discrimination in laws, policies and practices.

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

IS: I work on tackling stigma and discrimination against people living with or vulnerable to HIV/AIDS in justice systems and in healthcare, education, workplace, community and humanitarian settings. Eliminating HIV-related discriminatory laws, policies and practices in these sectors is critical to ending the AIDS epidemic as it limits individuals’ access to prevention, testing and treatment services. In addition, I also address intersecting social and gender-related inequalities that make certain groups – such as girls and young women, sex workers, LGBTI people, people who inject drugs, prisoners and migrants particularly vulnerable to HIV due to discrimination. As such, my work covers a range of human rights issues, including the right to non-discrimination, women’s, children’s, LGBTI, and refugee rights, as well as the right to education and health, to name a few

To address these forms of discrimination, I design global and country-level communication strategies and content to mobilize governments to change policies and practices, and reform laws that are stigmatizing and discriminatory in the context of the HIV/AIDS response. This involves promoting UNAIDS-led initiatives that strengthen the ability of governments, the private sector and civil society to protect HIV-related human rights. I also design advocacy campaigns that aim to change stigmatizing and discriminatory beliefs and behaviors towards people living with and affected by HIV.

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

IS: I’ve become very cognizant of my own implicit biases and the importance of always questioning and working to consciously change them. Working in human rights has also at times been emotionally challenging due to the atrocities I’ve seen and heard about directly from victims. However, it’s the reality of these violations and their impact on people’s lives that makes the work so important and meaningful. Furthermore, the chance to able to work abroad is fascinating because you meet people from every possible background and from all around the world.

GM: Do you see room for improvement in your professional fields engagement with human rights issues? 

IS: Yes, the United Nations system has realized the need for reform in order to streamline processes, increase transparency and become more efficient in implementing its mandates. The larger system in general would also greatly benefit from employing younger and more diverse generations who would bring fresh perspectives and innovative strategies in tackling human rights challenges. Although hard to change, another major barrier to the UN’s work, is its limited power due to significant political and funding restraints.

GM: How has COVID impacted your work? 

IS: COVID has spotlighted the alarming extent to which human rights violations can set back public health responses. It’s put at the forefront the valuable lessons learned from UNAIDS’ human rights approach and the importance of grounding health responses in human rights in order to effectively tackle global epidemics.

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

IS: I would highly recommend students to seek on-the-ground opportunities (e.g. internships, volunteering or field jobs) abroad where they can immerse themselves into human rights work and connect with communities as well as activists, journalists, lawyers and policymakers working to combat abuses. I would also recommend they contact as many different professionals in the field so that they can learn about the different paths you can take and areas of human rights to specialize in. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to share their stories and offer their advice! 🙂 Most importantly, follow your passion!