“Why waste time teaching people about their human rights when they’re hungry?”
It’s a reasonable question, until you witness the expression on the face of a woman in a remote rural African village when she learns she is officially, legally equal to a man. And that her husband does not have the right to beat her for the slightest infraction; or confiscate the fruit of her daily, back-breaking agricultural work so he can get drunk with his friends. Or until you assure a young woman who has been raped that the police have a duty to investigate the assault, once she reports it.
Network for Africa works in places where, at first glance, you might think there are other priorities. But information is power. That is why we supplement our training on literacy, vocational skills, health, hygiene and nutrition with sessions about human rights.
If you want to equip people to transform their life chances, you must give them the confidence to assert their rights as human beings. Everything else flows from this most basic cornerstone, including the right to ask local administrators why the government budget allocated to local clinics and schools have never arrived. Rights equal citizenship, and citizenship is the power to hold officials accountable, to organize with like-minded people, and to speak the truth.
Many leaders sign up to international treaties and conventions because they don’t wish to stand out from their peers. They like the cloak of respectability and status that comes from attending UN summits, mixing with politicians and diplomats from more powerful nations. But once they have signed up, it is up to the rest of us to make sure those rights have some meaning, and are enforceable by citizens. That is one reason why the UN annually marks December 10th as Human Rights Day.
Dictators prefer their subjects to be kept in the dark about their constitutional rights. They use ignorance, fear and hunger to control the population. Similarly, some men deliberately keep their women ignorant and illiterate. But once you equip people with the awareness that they have rights, and that they are equal under their country’s laws, you unleash a tsunami of human potential. This is doubly so in traditional, rural societies where women are raised to believe they have no rights, and only subservient duties to their fathers and then their husbands. Being told you are worthy and valuable is one step on the road to self-confidence and taking control of your future, and that of your children. Surely that applies as much in our Western, supposedly developed world as it does in Africa.
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