On first impressions and perceptions

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

Africa has some of the most progressive human rights legislation in the world. This is what made me optimistic and hopeful when I came to The Gambia to work as a legal intern for the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA). I was ready to learn more about human rights in the region, and excited to apply this to prospects for human rights development in other parts of the world where such instruments do not even exist.

Indeed, many people seem surprised when I tell them just how progressive human rights are here – on paper. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, for example, which has been ratified by 53 countries (all AU member states except for South Sudan) guarantees that “[a]ll peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development.”[1] Such a collective right would likely never exist in the European or North American context – and indeed, it does not (yet). In addition, the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on women’s rights guarantees the right to a safe abortion.[2] The African Youth Charter also sets out the duty for the state to “institute comprehensive programmes including legislative steps to prevent unsafe abortions.”[3] No other major human rights instrument even mentions abortions.

The realities on the ground, however, are quite different. I was asked by the IHRDA to draft a document on prospects and challenges for litigation of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa. Despite the codified right to a safe abortion, it has been estimated that only 3% of abortions in the region were safe in 2008.[4] In the same year, 14% of maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions,[5] and around 1.7 million women in the region are hospitalized annually for complications from unsafe abortions.[6]

Similarly, despite the collective right to a generally safe environment, in addition to the rights to property and housing guaranteed by numerous human rights instruments, many people are forced off their land thus deprived of their entire livelihood. Whether this is in the form of expropriation or the government turning a blind eye to police action or the actions of private parties is irrelevant. Depriving someone of their land is often to deprive a person of every material and non-material good in the world. Children cannot go to school, families have no source of food or clean water, and people lose their right to dignity. The harm is compounded by the lack of possibilities for redress. All of this is tolerated despite clearly and unequivocally violating core human rights instruments.

They call The Gambia “the smiling coast”. I can imagine this name is pretty self-explanatory. People here are in good spirits. Make no mistake, The Gambia is a developing country and there are many problems. But the people I’ve met are kind and happy and incredibly helpful. There are a few phrases that you’ll hear Gambians tell you, repeated as if refrains of the country’s unofficial national anthem. Countless times I’ve been told ‘you are welcome!’, not in response to my ‘thank you’, but as if to usher me into their country and culture. I’ve also heard ‘black or white, it doesn’t matter, we are all people’ and ‘you know, here in The Gambia, we are poor but we are happy.’

I met a friend on my way to the beach the first week I was here. A few days ago I was having a JulBrew (local Gambian beer) with him on that same beach in the evening. He is an autodidactic Gambian from a small village. His life was not easy growing up and he did not have many opportunities, so he taught himself about books and politics by poring over whatever he could get his hands on until he understood every word. In a moment of uncharacteristic despair that night, he told me: “you know, they call it the smiling coast. People seem happy and carefree. But people are hungry. There are a lot of people that you meet who will go home and be sad. Life is not easy here.”

It was a heartbreaking moment of honesty that reflected much of my work experience at the IHRDA. It may seem trite to say ‘not everything is as it seems’, but maybe sometimes we need to be reminded of that, especially in the field of human rights where grandstanding and self-congratulations are rife.

This is not to say that I am pessimistic – far from it. I believe human rights can and has made huge differences in countless peoples’ lives. (For a dash of optimism, check out this article on the reduction of famine around the world.) But I have found that it is important to constantly remind myself that human rights work deals with just that – humans. A legal instrument is only as effective as the people who enforce and respect it. And a human right is only as powerful as the life it has changed.


[1] African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 27 June 1981, 1520 UNTS 217 art 24 (entered into force 21 October 1986).

[2] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 13 September 2000, 1 Afr Hum Rts LJ 40 art 14(2)(c) (entered into force 25 November 2005).

[3] African Youth Charter, 2 July 2006 art 16(2)(i).

[4] S Singh,Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009).

[5] World Health Organization, “Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2008”, 6th ed (Geneva: WHO, 2011).

[6] S Singh, Hospital admissions resulting from unsafe abortion: estimates from 13 developing countries (2006) 368 Lancet 1887.

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