Reflections on Human Rights Education

By Sara E.B. Pierre

One of the things I loved the most about working at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) was observing and participating in their capacity-building workshops. I am a big believer in education, and I think it is crucial when it comes to human rights work. IHRDA gives presentations and workshops as part of its education mandate. They also have a mandate to defend, which they do by advocating on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, and to inform, which they do by building a comprehensive database of African human rights legislation.

There is one phrase in particular that one of my supervisors said at a capacity-building workshop back in The Gambia which has stuck with me. In our Critical Engagements with Human Rights class, we have had many discussions about the tension and overlap between international, national and regional human rights norms. Are human rights a Western concept? The answer is no.

The phrase I remember my supervisor saying was at a capacity-building workshop for police officers/prosecutors and social workers on harmful practices against girls and women. He said that harmful practices against women and girls are not part of African culture; “maybe it was a part of our culture 200 years ago, but if you practice FGM (female genital mutilation) or child marriage in Africa now, you are violating our culture.” I think he was trying to show how culture is fluid, and no one state has a monopoly on the concept of human rights. Yes, we may all have slight differences when it comes to writing laws, and this is a good thing. However, the bottom line is that human rights are universal rights, and nothing, not even claims of practicing one’s actual or alleged culture, should get in the way of that.

The capacity-building workshop was prepared by an NGO called Safe Hands for Girls, in collaboration with IHRDA. The theme of the two-day training was harmful practices against women and girls, and we focused on forced marriage, and especially female genital mutilation, or FGM. This last topic was especially difficult to hear about, as the first speaker went into the painful specifics of the operation, complete with real life images. There were no trigger warnings, but there was a moment of individual prayer before the workshop began. Besides talking about how painful the procedure is for infants, children and women, the speaker also explained that how it is done can lead to complications which affect the health and sometimes the life of the person being operated, especially when/if she becomes pregnant.

 

One of my supervisors at IHRDA spoke about women’s rights in The Gambia. He brought up an interesting point: how even though FGM has been outlawed in the country, and there is extensive knowledge that the practice is still widespread (76% of women in The Gambia have suffered through FGM), there have been no cases brought forward. When he brought up the question of how this can be, something interesting happened. A police officer said there have been no cases brought forward because they do not receive reports or complaints. However, a social worker replied that just the other day someone came to her with a report of FGM, and when they tried involving the local police, the police officer did not want to make an arrest for fear of being targeted by the community. I think this situation is all too prevalent and is very useful for showing the disconnect between the law and practice. To me, it shows that human rights work must be rooted in education, and must be contextual. A top-down approach does not work. If we truly want sustainable change, we must first change the attitudes of the perpetrators of the human rights abuses. In order to change peoples’ minds, we have to get to know them.

 

 

Blog Post 1: First Lessons and Impressions

By: Sara E.B. Pierre

A few months preceding my internship, I saw a news story on my Facebook page about how the President of a small country in West Africa accepted defeat after 22 years of dictatorship, but quickly changed his mind. The President’s name was Yahya Jammeh, and the country was The Gambia – where my internship was taking place in the summer. For a long time after this news, I was not sure whether the internship would happen. In the end, Jammeh was pressured enough to accept defeat and left the country. I did some more research on him before I left for The Gambia. It was only later that I found out how the Gambians I saw on my screen, cheering him in the streets, were forced to do so every time he made a public appearance. Through my work, I started to realize how he ruined the reputation and endangered the health of those he claimed to have personally healed of AIDS, and how terrifying it must have been to live in a place where any member of your family could go missing and be tortured without ever getting any answers.

   

The first week of May I was greeted into the New Gambia. Billboards, T-Shirts and graffiti all proclaimed, “Gambia Has Decided”. I saw people selling smartphone data plans, shoes and fruit on the side of the street, I saw monkeys waiting for a safe time to cross those same streets, and I saw vultures resting on top of the street lights. I ate mangoes every day and soaked in the sun at the beach.

On my first day of work I took multiple taxis which have designated stops, kind like the public transportation system I was used to back in Montreal. After getting lost and telling the taxi driver I was working in human rights, I was dropped off at the African Human Rights Commission. This was not actually my workplace. It was, however, as I would soon come to realize, the place our complaints (“Communications”) would sometimes be sent, seeking redress for those across the continent whose rights have been violated by their government.

Some cases and presentations I have done research for include those advancing the complainant’s right to health, right to work, right to not be tortured, right to education and to freedom of expression. These, and many more, are enshrined in a Charter I have gotten more and more familiar with over the months – the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The part that I find most impressive about this Charter (which was set up in The Gambia itself), is that it not only protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but it also protects group rights (such as the right to a “generally satisfactory environment”), and lays out duties incumbent upon these same individuals and peoples.

After a very friendly Gambian woman helped me find my actual workplace, I realized it was only a short walk away from the Commission. We walked past the roundabout (adorably named “Turn Table”) and found The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHDRA).

I was impressed with the pan-African non-governmental organization even before I arrived in The Gambia. Besides reading about their mission to defend, educate, and inform, what struck me most was how they included professional pictures of staff members, such as the gardener and cook, on their staff page. The idea that justice and the fight for human rights involves so much more than what superstar lawyers do is a big lesson that I am learning. At our staff meeting, we all had the chance to say what we had been working on, whether this had to do with the organization’s website, a conference someone would be presenting at, or making sure we have clean and running water. When everyone’s voice was heard, I felt there was transparency, accountability and fellowship. The value of these things cannot be dismissed because it reinforces the underlying truth that we, those who work to uplift the dignity of human beings, are not there to “save” or “fix” anyone; we are there to build safer and more just communities, and to empower people. And what a better way to project that vision than by reflecting it in the way we uplift our own neighbours?

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.