Heather Barr

Heather Barr is the acting co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. She has conducted research in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea, on issues including child marriage, girls’ education, violence against women, refugee and prisoners’ rights, and human trafficking. She is currently looking at technology and gender.

She joined Human Rights Watch in 2011 as the Afghanistan researcher, after working for the United Nations in Afghanistan and Burundi. After law school she litigated for discharge planning for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities in New York City, and founded an alternative-to-incarceration program. Before law school, she worked with homeless women. She is a graduate of London School of Economics, Columbia Law School, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Seattle Central Community College. You can follow her at @heatherbarr1.

Heather was profiled for ATLAS by Mélissa Cornet. You can read more about Mélissa and her work at the end of the profile.


What drove you to human rights law as a career? And what were your first steps?

I blame punk rock music! Seriously. When I was 14, I got very into music—the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Crass, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, etcetera—which was no easy thing when you live in the woods in Alaska, as I did. The music and the zines (I subscribed to Maximum Rock’n’Roll and they mailed it to me—no internet then) were full of big ideas—anti-capitalism, anarchism, corporate greed and inequality and people’s movements and harm the US was causing in other countries. It was a whole new way of looking at the world. Then I left home when I was 15, dropped out of high school and lived on my own. That was pretty hard sometimes and it made me interested in why people are homeless and how homeless people get by. 

After I got my bachelor’s degree (thank you community college!), I got a job working in a New York City shelter for homeless women who had both psychosocial disabilities and substance abuse problems. At first I thought about becoming a social worker, but that job convinced me that the problem was not so much that my clients need to change, but that the welfare, housing and health care systems need to change--and if you want to change the health care, housing and welfare systems, you might need a law degree more than a social work degree.

There was one moment that crystallized it. I was in a terrible welfare office in NYC where you had to go to file initial applications, with a client whose English was not great and who had severe disabilities. We waited for hours, and finally she was called--only for the clerk to say she had the wrong document and could not apply. My client didn't understand what was happening, and I stuck my face in the window and asked what was going on. The worker responded: ‘I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to her. Who are you--her lawyer?’ Hell yeah, I thought. And I went to law school.

I only went to law school because I was interested in human rights. I think I would have skipped being a lawyer before taking a corporate law job. But it was tough. I wanted to be a public defender but New York Mayor Giuliani had slashed their funding and there was no hiring that year. I applied for lots of fellowships and didn’t get any. They were very competitive and I was rough around the edges and wanted to work with prisoners, which was not attractive to most fellowship programs. 

It was incredibly lucky for me that the Open Society Foundation started a fellowship that year, just before I graduated, focused on criminal justice. I applied and got one, and it changed my life. I applied to work at the Urban Justice Centre representing people with psychosocial disabilities in the criminal justice system in New York. I had become interested in this while working in the shelter, seeing many of my clients arrested repeatedly for things that were results of poverty or symptoms of illness, problems that should not be dealt with in the criminal justice system. The OSF fellowship funded my work but also exposed me to a whole world of activists working on prison abolition and racial justice, who taught me so much. I had a two-year fellowship, but the OSF people helped me learn how to fundraise and I kept raising money and continued this work for another five years. If you want control over your own career, raising money is not that fun but it can give you amazing autonomy and ability to realize your own vision. So I feel lucky to have started learning those skills early on.

During those years I worked on two main projects. The first was a class action lawsuit, Brad H. v. City of New York, on behalf of the 25,000 people then receiving mental health services in NYC jails each year, concerning discharge planning. Prior to the lawsuit, when you finished a sentence in a NYC jail, you were dropped off at a bleak transport hub between 2 am and 4 am with $1.50 in cash and a two fare metro card, and none of the medication you’d been taking, no prescription for the medication, no referral to a place where you could get medication or treatment, and no help finding shelter for the many who were homeless. If you were on public benefits, the city was very diligent about cutting your benefits as soon as you entered the jail system: your Medicaid, public assistance and disability benefits would all be gone. It would take an automatic minimum 45 days to reinstate those benefits. I spent seven years on that lawsuit; the settlement is still in force. We won several rounds of litigation, and the city settled and is now required to provide people with medication and connect them to services and shelter.  

The other main thing I did was work with the Centre for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, to set up an alternative to incarceration program for people who had a diagnosis of serious mental health illness and had committed felony offenses. We went to court to convince judges that we could successfully support the people in the community, and had social workers who helped people obtain benefits, treatment, and housing and were just there for them. We were promising judges that if people had support we could probably keep them out of trouble. We were mostly successful, and the program still exists. 

After seven years of that work, I wanted a change. I went back to university, as a Fulbright scholar in the UK, and did an LLM in international human rights law. When I finished that program I didn’t want to go back to the US or stay in Europe, but I was happy to go anywhere else. I was going through a divorce, and felt very free and eager for a new life. I ended up at the UN where I stayed for almost six years, in Burundi and Afghanistan and, briefly, Bangladesh and UNDP’s Iraq office in Jordan. So I changed from working on the US to being a guest in other people’s countries. I found the UN a maddening place to work, but I loved having a global perspective on human rights, and seeing a connection between how my client was treated in that Manhattan welfare center and the struggles of marginalized people around the world. 

I was in Afghanistan, and really fed up with the UN, when I leapt at the chance to move to Human Rights Watch. At the UN, I felt overpaid and ineffective and muzzled by diplomacy. Human Rights Watch has been a better fit for me—I am happy to be paid less, worked hard, and expected to get the facts exactly right and then be as outspoken as I want.


What have been the high points of your career thus far?

It has been an incredible privilege to get to meet the people I have, especially through HRW but also earlier in my career. I did a lot of backpacking when I was younger, including a year and a half travelling mostly alone in Africa and Asia. I wanted to learn everything about the world, and I still feel that way. My current job is kind of a dream job for a grown up backpacker. I get to move across different countries and communities and meet people whose lives are so different from my own and have a chance to ask them to trust me with their stories, whether they are trafficking survivors in Myanmar, out of school girls in Afghanistan, married children in Bangladesh, women who survived family violence in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, or women in prison in France. So I guess my high point is getting to do a job I care about and where I learn every day. 

But you owe people a huge responsibility when they give you their trust. You have to make sure they don’t face harm for speaking with you, and you have to use the information they give you to do everything you can to try to make a difference, somehow. It is often painful for people to describe what happened to them. Local activists might help you and trust you as a partner. You have to do whatever you can to be worthy of that trust. That’s a heavy thing to carry around. 

There aren’t a lot of champagne moments. When Human Rights Watch issues a report, the impact is often incremental. A report is not like a law suit; you don’t get a moment where the judge says you won or you lost. With a report, sometimes there’s clear impact and sometimes there isn’t. Even if there’s a breakthrough, chances are there are local activists who have been working on this issue for decades, and you came in and hopefully you contributed in a helpful way, hopefully you helped amplify their voices. But they were there before you and they’ll be there after you, so your job is to complement their work.


What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career, and how did you tackle them?

Sexism! I don’t know any female lawyers that haven’t encountered sexism. When I was a young lawyer I used to overdress. I hate high heels and haven’t owned a pair in years, but in high heels, I’m 6 feet tall and can look down at men when they’re being condescending. I also wore suits all the time--I hate them too. I would go to meetings where I would be the only person in a suit because it felt like such a struggle to be taken seriously as a young female lawyer. So these were ways to overcompensate and put on your armor in the morning to be ready to go out and fight. Of course, I had it easier than lots of other people—female lawyers who are women of color or LGBT or have a disability encounter layers of discrimination much greater than what I faced. But it was still hard. Including that moment when you realize that the man in the office next to you is paid way more.

When I was a young lawyer, almost all of my mentors were men. The first time I had a female boss in my law career was in Afghanistan when I had been a lawyer for ten years. I had some great male mentors, but it’s hard when you don’t have women to support you or as role models. Even at HRW, a few years ago we had a conversation about who you would talk to if, for example, you experienced sexual violence at work, and I realized that when I started at the organization my reporting line was five men and no women. That’s changed now. I’m sure young women now still face a lot of gender discrimination but I hope they have more female mentors than I had.

Being a parent while having this job is another serious challenge. My daughter is 5 and I travel too much. I have too many conference calls when it’s bed time and dinner time. My partner is a journalist and travels a lot too so we do a lot of relay parenting, I rush back from Myanmar so that he can go to Afghanistan. We had a week once where I was in Afghanistan and he was in Iraq. I joked that there must be a parenting award we could win for that. It’s really hard. But my daughter knows a lot about the world around her and sees us both doing work we’re passionate about, and I think that’s a good thing.


How would you say being a woman in contexts like Afghanistan influenced the way you worked? 

Well, there are some disadvantages. First of all, you should buy a door stop and put it in your toiletry bag, and carry it with you and stick it under the door of any hotel room that’s giving you a weird vibe, because wherever you go there is an excellent chance that someone is going to try the door handle in the middle of the night. Security considerations are different for women than they are for men. The risk of harassment, of sexual violence, exists for men as well but is very different. The systems organizations put in place for security are often not good at thinking about women; the security person is almost always a security guy, who may not be great at addressing risks women are likely to face. This is work we end up doing ourselves or with our female colleagues.

But there are lots of advantages. Women can usually talk to men as easily as men can, but there is a whole world of discussions with women we can have and men often can’t. I wouldn’t say that male researchers can’t discuss sexual violence or reproductive health or child marriage with women or girls, but it’s harder. There are spaces we can enter, and in some way be part of, that men cannot. This is particularly true in a place like Afghanistan, where there’s so much gender segregation, but it’s true everywhere to some extent, including the west. If you researching an issue important to women, you might go to their homes, or to spaces like shelters or counselling centers, or even a hair salon or a public bath—any space where women talk to each other--and you would be welcomed in a way that a man would not. That’s very powerful, and it means we often have better access to information than men. Men have a harder time understanding what the world is like for half the population.

But human rights organizations don’t always see the value of that access. Human rights work can sometimes seem very macho—all about running into war zones and counting the number of bodies in the mass grave as bullets fly overhead. That work is essential of course--I spent lots of time in Afghanistan looking at airstrikes and civilian casualties and torture. But when you rush into a conflict zone part of what you have to do is think about how it affects women. Is the conflict driving abuses like sexual violence, attacks on girls’ education, child marriage, and trafficking? How has women’s freedom of movement been affected? How are widows and female-headed households getting by? Are women full participants in the peace process? There’s no piece of work that does not have to include understanding gender and thinking about how an issue is affecting everyone. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I think our field is becoming more aware that if you looked at a human rights abuse and did not look at its effects on women then you probably screwed up.


What advice do you have for people, particularly women, who are embarking on a career in international law?

Don’t ever lose your sense of humour: You will not survive looking into the darkest parts of the human soul without a sense of humor and the ability to laugh with your friends and colleagues. 

You don’t have to be polite: I love the fact that Mona Eltahawy starts every speech by saying, « Fuck the patriarchy. » We don’t have to be good girls. Some people deserve rudeness—particularly internet trolls. And sometimes the language of diplomacy is putting icing on a turd. You don’t have to do that.

Be persistent and ferocious: While I was doing my LLM, I spent six months in the computer lab looking for a job. I applied for 83 jobs, and got three interviews and one job. I was in my mid-thirties and had had a whole career that I thought was quite successful in the US but I had no international experience. Sometimes you have to be seriously determined; if you know what you want to do, be relentless.

Be prepared to just go somewhere, even without a job: If you find the perfect job that takes you somewhere interesting that’s wonderful. If you cannot find that job, then consider just going. Save up your money and just go--to Cambodia, or to Mali, or wherever--and figure things out once you get there. That really does work a lot of times. 

Support each other, make friends, look for female mentors, and be a female mentor for other women and girls.

Amplify voices, don’t ‘speak for the voiceless’Arundhati Roy said « There is no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard ». That’s important. If your work allows you to talk to people who have no access to power or to media or to policy-makers and you have the opportunity and the privilege to bring their stories to these audiences, that doesn’t mean they are voiceless. You get to force people to hear their voices.

As women gain more power within institutions, let’s invent new models of leadership. One last thought. At the moment I’m an acting co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at HRW. My co-director is in Washington DC, I’m in Islamabad, and we have very different and complementary areas of expertise and management styles. We talk all the time, and I think do a better job together than either of us would do on our own. I can’t think of a situation where I saw two men co-directing something--though I’ve seen a few other examples of women doing so. Unsurprisingly it was our female boss who had the idea that we should take on this role together. This has made me think about the fact that the organizational structures we work in were pretty much all designed by men. They might not be best structures for us—or maybe for anyone.


Mélissa Cornet is a Researcher for Samuel Hall in Afghanistan, where she focuses on child protection and conducted research projects on child returns from Europe, girls’ education, and the reintegration of returnees. She holds degrees in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law from Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas and in International Law and Justice from Fordham School of Law

Sareta Ashraph