Human Rights Education, Hot Topics and Turkey Necks

2014-Corobow-ArielleBy Arielle Corobow

The International Human Rights Training Program organized by Equitas for the past 35 years has been a site of participation, learning, teaching, laughter and dance. Participants from all around the world gather to learn from one another and explore methods of human rights education. Over the years, the program and its curriculum has evolved but maintained a strong focus on education and gender.

As a training program for human rights educators, Equitas does a fantastic job of creating a comprehensive manual and emphasising the participatory element of education. Its program starts with the individual and spirals outwards until it involves the greater international community. What interests me is the fine balance of choosing topics of discussion that will engage everyone without being too western centric in nature. How you chose what to teach in a program that brings together such a diversity of participants?

First, let’s consider the plenary session on aboriginal rights. This is the most Canadian focused presentation at the IHRTP and I think one of the most important plenaries because it offers an image of Canada as a country that continues to struggle with, and infringe, human rights. Participants were shocked to hear about the living conditions of some aboriginal communities in Canada and the plight of native women. I think even many Canadians would be shocked if they knew the situation of aboriginal people in Canada and that this reflects a purposeful blindness and silence in our education. What I wonder, however, is whether a Canadian centric plenary is appropriate in a program that brings together people from all over the world. Isn’t it privileging a particular country’s version of the issue?

Another thing that surprised me, as someone with a background in religious studies and gender studies, was that discussions about freedom of religion and LGBTI rights, while addressed, were additional evening sessions. Participants had to sign up for them. In North America, these topics are at the forefront of conversations about human rights. They remain extremely controversial around the world. We can’t ignore them but as one participant said, “maybe there are other issues that are more at the forefront of human rights violations in my country”. While this may be the case, more than 2/3 of participants attended the LGBTI session. The freedom of religion session, while smaller, brought together people who engaged directly with this issue and people who felt religion affects their work and wanted to talk about ways in which to address this underlying issue. These are issues people want to talk about. Are they truly so divisive that integrating them in the actual curriculum would be exclusionary? If you cant talk about it here, where can you?

I didn’t write this entry to come up with answers. There are pros and cons to whatever way you chose to implement “hot-topics” in a training conference about human rights. I think that my own engagement acts as a great example of how our own cultural perspective shapes our study of human rights. What is most important is to be reflective and aware of where these opinions and beliefs come from.

To end, I’d like to retell a small story I heard during my first week at Equitas. While the impact might be lost in the retelling, it was a great way to start me thinking about cultural relativism and the importance of self-reflection.

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There’s a young girl who asks her mother – Mama, why do we cut off the turkey’s neck at Thanksgiving? Is it important?

Her mother answers – I don’t know, we’ve always done it.

The young girl goes to her grandmother and asks her the same question. The grandmother’s answer is the same – I don’t know, we’ve always done it.

As the little girl asked more and more people, she keep getting the same answer. She was sure there must be a significant reason since it was something they had always done.

Finally, the young girl ask her great-great-aunt. Her aunt looked at her and said – It’s simple, the bird doesn’t fit in the oven if you don’t chop off the neck.

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