Human Rights Advocacy: A Cause Worth Committing To

An Interview with Maria D’Onofrio, Advocacy Officer at 
Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice
The IIMA Human Rights Office conducted an
interview with Maria D’Onofrio, Advocacy
Officer at Istituto
Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice (IIMA) and Secretary General of the
International Catholic Center of Geneva (CCIG)
. On September 22nd D’Onofrio sat on
the Panel Discussion on Youth and Human Rights during
the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council. As a young women and a
former intern of the IIMA Human Rights Office, we asked D’Onofrio to share the
story of her personal empowerment and how this led her to become a permanent
human rights advocate in Geneva.

IIMA: VIDES International is an NGO that works
with young volunteers that is promoted by IIMA. How did your involvement with
VIDES begin? What drew you to this organization?
Maria D’Onofrio: That’s a good question… it was
basically by chance. When I first heard about VIDES I was doing an internship
in the consulate of Italy in Brussels… I knew it would be a three month
internship so I was looking for work that would come next. I found that there
was an opening [in the Italian] Civil Servants Program, aimed at involving young
people in promoting active citizenship… VIDES was one of the NGO partners. So
among the different projects I found that this one focusing on human rights
would reflect more what I had studied and what I would like to commit to… I
[served for] one year… and then I stayed… [What] was most interesting about my
time with VIDES was [what] the organization was doing but also the contact with
the other volunteers. We were totally different people. Even in my orientation
for VIDES with other Italian volunteers, I still found that we were very
diverse. Also the fact that not all of them were Catholic… I enjoyed seeing
that a Catholic inspired NGO was not only open to Catholic people… as long as
one had this idea of doing something, of volunteering for the common good, this
would speak to the VIDES identity.
IIMA: At the end of your speech on the Panel
discussion on Youth and Human Rights you said that, “Empowered youth will find
ways to make human rights a reality for the rest of society.” Could you
describe the road of your personal empowerment and how this has brought you all
the way to the UN?  
MD: I always liked to work with people. Even at school I had this idea of
gathering people around a project, I felt that working together with others
would empower the project itself… On the other hand… one thing I thought was
crucial was how I was raised, how my family helped me out to express myself…
I felt involved in whatever decision my family would make for me or for us [ever]
since I was a child. I think this has an impact because when you feel like you
can participate in something, you also feel like…it belongs to you and you are
more prone to commit… Even if I was not aware of it at that time, now that I
look back, this was crucial and influenced the way that I related to people of
my age or older than me. I didn’t feel fear in approaching others. [Another
experience was when I was] 15 and I served as an animator and educator for a
group of younger kids in my parish. It was a good experience in terms of
responsibility… you had to set an example… comply with tasks, a schedule… it
helped me [commit] to something that was not strictly for me or my family
“I felt involved in whatever decision my family would make… since I was
a child. When you feel like you can participate in something, you also feel
like…it belongs to you…” – Maria D’Onofrio
IIMA: What inspired your interest in
human rights? How did your upbringing contribute to that?
MD: I don’t really know how this happened. My university studies definitely
[played] a part… I think what attracted me the most [about Political Science]
was the idea that I would study different cultures and different countries, and
open my [horizons]. During my studies, [I found that] human rights was a cause
that was worth committing to… My professor of international law helped me
[discover this interest]… I was looking for a thesis [topic] in international
law and she said, “Why don’t you do your thesis on the last Report of the UN
Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General?” I
agreed. I found myself writing my thesis on a report which was describing
thousands and thousands of human rights violations—almost reaching the level of
genocide. It was tough, they were really [descriptive]… it was a fact finding
mission, interviewing victims. It was quite… strong… but I think it was an
important step in terms of helping me know what I wanted to work on in the
future. And then the last step which, was the most important one, [involved] me
working [at IIMA] where I actually could see how this was in practice, not just
the legal framework… This is what motivated me to continue.
IIMA: As a woman, what are the characteristics
it takes to be successful in a career of human rights?
MD: Women working in [human rights] are very tough and very determined…
very focused, very motivated… But there is something [singular] regarding the
contribution of women… I think that when you work in human rights there is also
always some sort of personal contribution and it can be very demanding,
sometimes even overwhelming. When you are a woman you have work, family,
babies, etc.—either you are organized or you cannot get it. It’s not like going
to another office with a fixed schedule—you enter at 8 a.m. you get out at 4
p.m. and that’s it—I mean you are in contact with people from other parts of
the world with different schedules, different times and also very strict
deadlines… so you have to be very flexible. This is part of the “multi-tasking
woman” profile.
IIMA: Thank
you for your time, Mrs. D’Onofrio. We wish you the best of luck with your work.
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