Our new “Why I Do What I Do” series spotlights awesome individuals and what drives them to pursue work abroad.
For Aarti Kapoor, there was only one way to get from Bangkok, Thailand to northwestern Cambodia: Hitch a ride on a pickup truck.
“I’ve got photos of getting on the back of a pickup truck with local people, with chickens, with melons, and all kinds of stuff,” she says of her first trip to Southeast Asia back in 2002. People would hop onto the backs of trucks and simply bang on the side to tell the driver to go, she recalls.
It was a far cry from taking the tube in London, where Kapoor, 36, formerly worked as a barrister—a career path that was destined to head in a different direction once she learned that her friend was heading to multiple countries in Southeast Asia.
“I didn’t even know where Cambodia was. But 10 days before she was leaving, I just asked if I could come with her. It was just a pull that I can’t describe. I just jumped on the flight with her. It was just really strange and amazing, and wild and crazy, but really energizing."
After spending a month in northwestern Cambodia, Kapoor was introduced to people working at an NGO in the capital city of Phnom Penh. The organization worked with women in the sex trade, including sexually exploited and trafficked women, and was in need of a lawyer who could help with research and advocacy. They asked if she wanted to be that lawyer.
“I said I’d think about it, but I knew then that it wasn’t a choice. Really, it’s funny that there was no doubt in my mind that’s what I was going to do."
Kapoor returned to London to pick up her belongings and was back in Phnom Penh a few months later; she spent the next four years there. The certainty she felt about working in Cambodia was a sharp contrast to the doubt she’d felt while completing her law degree at the University of Manchester.
“I think I was quite confused. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew why I wanted to be a lawyer. It was clearly about justice for me.” Yet as she was going through law school, she lost sight of that original motivation.
“I think I got a bit caught up with what everyone else was doing rather than listening to myself internally. I started working for a commercial law firm in the U.K., but it was also clear to me that I was really interested in social justice issues. I’d get into huge debates with people about gender issues or race issues or equality issues or poverty issues. Formally speaking, I was going to be a barrister—I wanted to go and do commercial law—but actually the real me was going off with my friends and having debates about social justice issues.”
Kapoor’s four years in Cambodia coincided with an especially signifcant time: bills on child protection, child sexual exploitation, and human trafficking were being drafted by the government.
“It was a really important time because there was a lot of activity going on. There was a lot of media attention that started coming to Cambodia documenting sexual exploitation, especially around children. When I first arrived in Phnom Penh it was relatively common to see foreigners in bars with children. There was quite a frenzy around what everybody should do about this."
Kapoor was right in the fray of the legal overhaul. In addition to advising on the legal process for victims of trafficking, she was commissioned by the British embassy in Cambodia to propose a law to the Cambodian government on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. She also drafted a model law on trafficking, which was used by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime a few years later.
“We made so much progress in those years," she says.
Despite the difficulties of working in a sector where she was faced with the realities of shocking abuse on a daily basis, Kapoor says seeing that abuse was not the most difficult part of the job.
“It’s like when you’re a doctor, you know, you are prepared to see blood and cutting people’s skin. You ask me to do that, and I’d faint; just thinking about it now I’m getting queasy. I guess when you’re a lawyer, or whatever profession you’re in, there’s a part of you that is prepared for that. You know you’re in a role, and you know you have to stay in a role in order to do the work. Of course, it’s really disturbing and there’s some things that I still remember very vividly, like seeing footage of, you know, children being raped. Seeing video footage of stuff like that, even now, I’ve got goosebumps just remembering that."
Kapoor’s experiences inspired her to ask some difficult questions.
“How do we behave when we see human suffering, and when do people feel the compassion and when don’t they? How do we tap into that compassion, and how does that compassion relate to ourselves? I was seeing this horrible human suffering going on and I had compassion for it, and I felt like I had a role and I was acting in my role. But what I was also seeing was other people not fulfilling their professional role in the face of human suffering.”
Today, Kapoor lives in Bangkok—her time in Cambodia inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in leadership and organisational analysis with the Grubb Institute.
“It’s one thing to go and do your job, but what if you’re not doing your job properly? What other motivations are getting in the way? That’s what I’m actually looking at right now in my research project. Because if we can just unlock that and work out why people aren’t being as effective as they’ve been or could be in the face of this human suffering—we would just reach another level. We would be able to make so much more of a difference in the world.”
When asked if she intends to stay in Thailand or return to the U.K., she says it’s the work, not the location, that’s more important to her.
“Whatever I do, as long as I’m useful—as long as I’m able to help make this world a better place—it will be OK.”