Change starts locally, says Liesl Gerntholtz

Change starts locally, says Liesl Gerntholtz

Human Rights Watch changed my life. It was because of a documentary I watched at the HRW Film Festival that We Talk Women even began. I attribute most of my knowledge of human rights issues to their reports and articles. The festival puts a human face to the stats and although that can be upsetting (I have cried at almost every screening) I find it provides me with a renewed sense of inspiration. I leave motivated to advocate harder and louder for human rights. This year I went to a documentary called Burden of Peace, featuring Claudia Paz y Paz who was the first woman to lead the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Guatemala. People’s resilience never ceases to amaze me and I was truly in awe of her courage.

After the screening there was a little reception that I was able to attend thanks to my friend, Karin. With her encouragement, I introduced myself to the Executive Director of the women’s rights division at HRW, Liesl Gerntholtz. She had started following me on Twitter a few days prior and I was quite excited to meet her, but I think I held it together quite well. People gush over celebrities but for me, changemakers do the trick. She is quite humble about the difference she is making in the world and I’m very grateful I got to do this interview with her.

  1. Can you tell our readers a bit about your journey and how you ended up at HRW?

My last job was the director of a multi-disciplinary centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, called the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre. The centre worked to help women live lives free of violence by providing para-legal and legal services, research, advocacy and strategic litigation. I found the work very challenging and difficult, but also rewarding and inspiring. The work at HRW is similar in many ways, but it’s a larger platform and megaphone that allows me to help to make change globally, not just in my backyard in South Africa.

  1. As Executive Director of the Women’s Rights division, what are some of the biggest challenges you face?

The sheer amount of work that needs to be done – even though HRW is a big and well-resourced organization, we are stretched very thinly, e.g. I have one researcher to cover women’s rights in the whole of Africa and two to cover Asia, so I have to make difficult choices about what to prioritize. You always worry about that work that isn’t being done. I also worry about my researchers – they spend a lot of time talking to women about the worst moments of their lives – they are all passionate and committed to making change for the women they meet, but this work can take its toll and they all grapple with burnout and over work sometimes.

Liesl at a UN panel on Boko Haram

Liesl at a UN panel on Boko Haram


    1. You have been around victims and survivors of grave injustices through your work, is there any one story that stands out for you?

There are so many inspiring women (and men!) that I get to meet in the course of my job. Two stand out for me: obviously Nelson Mandela – I’m South African and grew up under apartheid, so he is deeply inspiring to me as both a victim of grave injustice and abuse and a survivor and leader. The second person is very different. When I worked at Tshwaranang, we decided that we would try to offer employment opportunities to the women who came to us for advice and support – we thought that this was an important value for us. I employed a young woman as a receptionist – she had suffered severe domestic violence and was living in a shelter with her two daughters. She was very shy and lacked confidence but we decided to give her a chance. Watching her turn her life around, the compassion and support she extended to other victims and the way that she became the heart of Tshwaranang was very moving to me. When I left, she had moved into an apartment and was studying at night to improve her chances of getting a better job.

      1. This field of work can be frustrating and emotionally taxing but rewarding. What keeps you going?

I am by nature an optimist, so that helps! I am motivated by injustice and wanting to help change the world for the better, I feel privileged, most days, in being able to do a job that allows me, in a very small way, to help change the world for the better.

      1. If there are a few simple actions people can take to make a difference, what are they?

For me, change starts locally. I started my career by volunteering at a local rape crisis centre. It’s important to work in your own community if you really want to understand how change happens and what people really want and need.

To find out more information about the women’s rights division of HRW, please visit

For local volunteer opportunities, check out Volunteer Toronto and my personal recommendation would be the Toronto Rape and Crisis Center.



  1. […] Division at Human Rights Watch, who I have had the pleasure of meeting before. (Which led to an interview about the incredible work her and her team of researchers do at HRW.) This evening, Liesl […]

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