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Defying the odds as first higher education graduate in her family

As part of our Leading Women campaign, Natalie Matranga, a LLM graduate at the University of London, is interviewed by Student Experience Manager Kim Kontos about her experience being the first in her family to go to university. Natalie develops and implements projects that support access to justice and human rights protections for women and girls in Myanmar.

Natalie outside the UNDP office in Taunggyi
Natalie (right) outside the UNDP office in Taunggyi, Myanmar

What were the influences that inspired you to be the first in your family to go to University?

I was the first generation in my family to attend university. My grandfather arrived in England as a teenager after leaving Sicily following the war and he worked as a coalminer and later as a factory worker. My mother is one of five siblings and she left high school to work full time as an office worker. She raised me as a single mother and always encouraged me to take the opportunities that she never had growing up. She always saw education as the key to unlocking a fulfilling and successful life and always encouraged me to attend university. With her encouragement and support I was accepted at Oxford University to study English Language and Literature. Oxford was an eye-opening experience for me, and it helped me see just how wide and varied my career options could be. 

While Oxford was an incredible experience, it was financially difficult. I had to work while studying, which was sometimes hard, but having a degree enabled me to go on to qualify as a lawyer. Working both domestically and internationally, I saw that while many women are able to enter the legal profession, comparatively few progress to positions of leadership and seniority. Judicial positions in domestic courts and international tribunals are still dominated by men and in international organisations such as the United Nations, men continue to be disproportionately represented in leadership roles. This lack of gender parity further inspired me to continue my own education to enable me to progress my legal career. 

Bringing greater diversity to the legal profession is essential. A judiciary made up primarily of men from specific social, economic and ethnic backgrounds does not serve the needs of society, and by enabling more women to take up positions of seniority we see the experiences of women reflected in the jurisprudence of courts and other tribunals. Decisions around the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict and domestic violence as a form of torture are just some examples of how the law is beginning to reflect the voices, needs and concerns of women and helping to bring human rights issues that affect women into the public sphere. Increased participation of women in the profession is essential for this trend to continue and further education delivered in a flexible way is a huge part of enabling women to take up leadership roles and to change the face of the legal profession for the better. 

How did your studies empower you to move forward?

I was in the process of studying my final two LLM courses when I was offered a job as Rule of Law and Access to Justice Officer for UNDP in Myanmar. This was an exciting new role that took me to Taunggyi, a mountain-top city in Myanmar's Shan State. Having an LLM was a requirement for this role and as I had already been awarded a Certificate in International Criminal Law from my initial modules, my employer was happy for me to start work before completing the LLM. I arrived in Taungyyi in August 2015 and continued to study until I sat my final examinations in Yangon in October 2015. 

I specialised in Criminal Justice and Criminology and chose modules that focused on international criminal law, criminal justice policy and international human rights. A big part of my work involved looking at ways in which rule of law reforms can support access to justice for women and I was able to tailor my LLM to focus on the human rights of women and the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict situations. In this area of work, having an LLM is essential. Studying with the University of London enabled me to gain the knowledge that I needed to develop and implement projects that supported access to justice and human rights protections for women and girls in Myanmar. 

What is your background?

I come from Stoke-On-Trent, a city in the North Midlands in England. After studying English Language and Literature and then deciding to qualify as a lawyer, I studied the GDL and LPC part-time and qualified as a solicitor in 2009. I initially specialised in criminal defence and worked in a busy legal aid practice where I represented people accused of committing crimes. During this work I represented people from all walks of life, including many who had suffered abuse and injustice and I developed a strong interest in the ways in which the law can be used to protect rights such as the right to a fair trial. After working as a criminal defence solicitor for a number of years, I decided to broaden my knowledge by working on criminal justice and human rights issues in different countries. and I moved to Cambodia in 2012 to work for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Although I had initially only intended to take a short career break, my move to Cambodia led to a period of almost seven years working overseas after deciding to focus my career on human rights and the rule of law. During this time I also studied the University of London's LLM, completing my degree in 2015. I completed my LLM just as I was starting a job with the United Nations Development Programme in Myanmar. 

Natalie studied our LLM in Myanmar and graduated in 2015 and is interviewed here by Kim Kontos, Student Experience Manager. Find out more about Natalie’s aspirations and why she chose to study independently in Kim’s London Connection Magazine interview with her.

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