Today is Blog Action Day.
This year’s theme: Human Rights.
As teachers, we quickly tired of teaching our students lessons that they had evidently been taught several times before. They knew all the obvious answers – stay in school, drugs are bad, don’t have unprotected sex – and many seemed to comply with these rules more out of practicality than true understanding, if they complied at all.
Difficult to watch and disheartening to admit.
In an effort to bring something new to the table, we opened up our Civic Participation teacher’s handbook. As a starting point, we decided to teach a class on human rights to a group of thirty-odd sixth graders. I thought it was fairly basic stuff. The subject matter could be as general and simple as we wanted it to be, perfect for a class for which we were prohibited from teaching sexual health education.
I started with the question, What is a right?
Blank stares. Not uncommon, but nonetheless disconcerting.
Ever the determined volunteers, we struggled through a definition: a right is something that you are morally or legally entitled to. (As you can imagine, the words ‘morally’, ‘legally’ and ‘entitled’ also required a definition.)
We told the children to imagine that they had been washed up on a desert island. The people who pre-existed them on this island had no experience of society as we know it. Each child in the classroom had to write a list of ten rights that each member of the island should be entitled to. The concept completely baffled them. Equipped with several of my examples of appropriate rights, most of the class struggled to come up with even one of their own.
I was exasperated. After a brief moment of panic I readjusted the lesson plan and improvised for the remaining half hour. I called an end to the ‘island’ exercise and resorted to a ‘raise your hand if’ activity.
Raise your hand if you think children should be able to go to school.
Raise your hand if you think everyone should be allowed to live in a house.
Raise your hand if you think everyone should have the same rights.
And so on…
At the end of the class I walked around to pick up the bits of paper that the children had left behind in their hurry to get home. The hour lesson had left me feeling drained and a little hopeless. It didn’t help that most of the scraps were still blank or simply listed the numbers one to ten.
There had been a group of three girls sitting off to one side in the class. They were much older than their classmates and could neither write much more than their names nor understand English. I had assigned a bright boy from another table to help them commit their ideas to paper. When I found their piece of paper lying on the table I did not expect anything more than the blank papers the rest of the class had left behind.
Those three girls, plus their scribe, had compiled a list of about five or six rights that they had decided should be universal. Unfortunately I don’t have the original copy, but I can still remember some of their suggestions.
Everyone should be able to go to the police.
Everyone should be able to read and write.
Everyone should be able to go to school.
The nearest police presence to the school is a two-hour, 15 kwacha (1.77 GBP) journey at the very least. The very girls who had written that “everyone should be able to read and write” could not write anything but their names and simple sentences copied or committed to memory. To see that they so valued their schooling and a legal presence in the community was a huge reminder of why I was there.
We continued to teach human rights lessons to all of our classes. We taught child rights, women’s rights and human rights at the schools and the clinic. The subject was unchartered territory to the majority of the students and I often felt that they didn’t understand what we were teaching them. I can’t be sure that our students have retained anything we’ve covered in their classes but I suppose we have to start somewhere…
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by the United Nations in 1948 and accepted by all UN member states, but what good is such a document when such a large proportion of the world’s poor is unaware of its existence or its significance?
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
The UDHR itself recognises “teaching” and “education” as fundamental ingredients in the success of the Declaration. In the half hour documentary A Path to Dignity, we see the huge impact Human Rights education has had on a number of individuals and communities across the planet. In Zambia, I saw that we still have a way to go.
A Path to Dignity: The Power of Human Rights Education is a UN sponsored short film documenting the importance of Human Rights education across the globe.