Ria Singh Sawhney ’17 LL.M.
2016–2017 Human Rights Fellow
As a law student at the University of Delhi helping coordinate the efforts of Students for the Right to Food, Ria Singh Sawhney ’17 LL.M. knew early on that she had made the right decision to pursue a legal career. During a much anticipated meeting with a member of Parliament (MP) to advocate for a bill for the right to food, Sawhney presented the group's extensive research from field surveys conducted across six Indian states. But the MP’s only response was: “Do you even know how to make rotis?”
“He dismissed me because I was a young woman,” she explains. “It made me want to equip myself with enough knowledge of the law and policy that I could speak back to this kind of power.”
Sawhney became a Columbia Law School Human Rights Fellow in order to study law in an interdisciplinary manner, with a greater focus on policy. She is taking courses on human rights, criminal law, and privacy and surveillance law, while also doing hands-on work with the Human Rights Institute.
Sawhney began her journey as a philosophy student at St. Stephen’s College at the University of Delhi. But soon, she wanted to engage in the ideas of injustice that she was reading about. As a law student, she helped establish a juvenile justice and child rights clinic, and held workshops on constitutional rights for marginalized youth. “It was really interesting to have young children engage in issues about equality, and for them to think about how to level the playing field for everyone,” she says.
After earning her law degree in 2013, Sawhney went into practice in the chambers of the esteemed attorney Nitya Ramakrishnan. As an advocate, she worked on high-profile national security trials and appeals, criminal defense matters, and public interest cases, including representation of performance artists from the “magicians’ ghetto,” a community highlighted by author Salman Rushdie in his book Midnight’s Children. Having dabbled in theater herself at St. Stephen’s, Sawhney helped challenge an urban redevelopment plan that would displace the artisans from their homes. In 2015, she left practice to work with the United Nations Development Programme as a consultant on research on welfare legislation, and then with Know Violence in Childhood, a global learning initiative, as a legal consultant.
“I wanted to step back and look at the role that law plays in social change,” she explains.
After graduating from Columbia Law School, Sawhney hopes to one day return to India to practice human rights law, and to teach. “I want to find ways to understand the problems that my country is facing, and how we can work collectively to make progress,” she says.