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Duty Bearers Beyond the State: The Role of NGOs in Upholding Human Rights in India

Therese Boje Mortensen

The state is a necessity for implementing human rights, right? Starting her PhD thesis, Dr. Therese Boje Mortensen wanted to challenge the presumptions behind this philosophy, studying the case of NGOs in India. Five years later, we have the results.

In December of 2023, Dr. Therese Boje Mortensen successfully defended her dissertation NGOs as Child Rights Implementers in India at Lund University. Making the decision to focus her PhD thesis on India and human rights came naturally to her, as she had previous experience from both fields. She had also traveled the South Asia region and studied Hindi at university.  

“I have always been interested in learning languages and wanted to do fieldwork in a region where Hindi is spoken”, Therese Boje Mortensen says.  

She describes the life of a doctoral student as exciting; an opportunity to independently plan the years ahead and being your own boss. The purpose of her PhD was to explore the role of non-governmental organisations as “duty bearers” of human rights and challenge the idea of the state as the only important actor in the process.  

“In theory, providing human rights is a responsibility of the state. But if you look closer, the state can have different roles. I wanted to specifically examine the role of NGOs.”

While earlier studies had delved into the topic of 'duty bearing' of human rights, this had mostly been done within the fields of international law and philosophy. The focus had mainly been theoretical. In relation to this, Therese Boje Mortensen wanted to apply and contribute with a more empirical approach.  

In 2019, she embarked on her first fieldwork trip, travelling to a small Indian city in Madhya Pradesh. Her case study was Childline, India’s national child helpline and a hybrid organization that is financed by the central government, managed by a foundation and implemented by small NGOs.  

“I worked at Childline six days a week in exchange for the opportunity to interview the NGO workers”, Therese Boje Mortensen explains.  

While the duties at Childline kept her busy and the free time was scarce, she acknowledges the importance of actually travelling to India and working in the field.  In addition to her ability to speak Hindi.

“You can read all you want about how things work, but it is always different when you visit in real life. Given that the majority of people did not speak English, knowing Hindi was crucial for my fieldwork”, Therese Boje Mortensen says.  

Therese Boje Mortensen thesis

Starting out, she planned her PhD thesis to be a kind of anthropological study, but a worldwide pandemic forced her to change direction. In early 2020, Therese Boje Mortensen arrived in Mumbai for her second fieldwork trip but it turned out shorter than she expected.

“I had just started out and made some contacts in Mumbai but then COVID hit. So, after just one month I was forced to return home.”

Even though her doctoral thesis did not contain as much fieldwork time as she expected, the main focus on India and human rights remained throughout the process. Recently, when reading through her initial PhD proposal from 2018, Therese Boje Mortensen was surprised to see that so much of her original thoughts and plans have now materialized. Throughout the process, she never lost her motivation but emphasizes the importance of sharing the office with other PhD students who know what one is going through.  

“I believe all academics have some kind of impostor syndrome. You just have to do your best.”

So, what about the role of states when it comes to implementing human rights? What are the conclusions in the PhD thesis? Well: NGOs matter.

“The state is not a simple entity that does or does not implement human rights. It works in complicated ways with NGOs, who sometimes merge with the state and sometimes pressures it. To understand how human rights are implemented, we need to study how all these different actors actually work together", Therese Boje Mortensen says. 

"And without NGOs, a lot of children in India would not have access to the rights that they now have.”  

During her time as a doctoral student, Therese Boje Mortensen also served as the SASNET Coordinator, organizing and hosting academic events. She will now step down from the role as a Coordinator, as new challenges lie ahead. She will be missed by the SASNET team and we wish her all the best!