Yesterday afternoon I attended an event by the NGO Committee on Human Rights. The topic of discussion was “Women Empowered by Learning, Knowing, and Owning Human Rights as a Way of Life.” There were so many different topics discussed that it was really hard to understand what the purpose of the discussion was.
The first speaker, a Human Rights Advocacy Champion, declared her strong dislike of the statement “every human has rights.” This might seem unexpected, but it illustrated her point very well. The reason why she dislikes the statement is that individuals throughout the world do not know what this means. Humans do have rights, she stated, but they must “own them and live them.” This is how “Human Rights Learning” was introduced. It only took a few seconds before the audience was exposed to an example of Human Rights learning. The speaker asked us to recite out loud, as a group, a shortened version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She would say the article number and the rest of the room would recite the condensed version of the article. This made me feel uncomfortable. It reminded me of certain practices of indoctrination that have become infamous during the last century. When we were done with this exercise, the speaker had us repeat, as a group, one more thing, “There is no other option but Human Rights.”
After this, the group attempted to describe the difference between Human Rights Learning and Human Rights Education, which to be completely honest, I still do not understand. The next speaker was a man from Benin. He explained that while education can seem elitist, learning is a process of getting knowledge throughout life and therefore more appropriate to daily life. This man also stated more than once that “all Human Rights are equal,” as if the right to life and the right to participate in one’s government were equally important. The group stressed the importance of differentiating between Human Rights Learning and Human Rights Education but the only distinction I could grasp was that learning was the absorption throughout life of the idea that each person is a subject of rights. Yet the group did describe necessary classes for Human Right Learning so the distinction between both was unclear.
The confused state in which the event left me was not only caused by the lack of clarity in the distinction between Human Rights Learning and Education, but also by the contradiction about the universality of Human Rights. The third speaker was Kishore Mandhyan, the Deputy Director, Political Peacekeeper, Humanitarian Affairs, Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General. He stated that Human Rights are “in our genetic being,” that we have to discover them and that they are naturally there. He discussed his mother and father , Pakistani refugees in India who never heard of Human Rights but were completely embedded with them in their understanding of how to approach others. Near the end of the event, however, the first speaker once again addressed us. This time, like Kishore Mandhyan, she stated that dignity is a universal thing, that the group “discovered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in everyone’s life;” yet she proceeded to say that Human Rights have to be given to people. She then used a metaphor of Human Rights as a frame. Yes, according to her, Human Rights are to frame every word that one writes or speaks. The test is whether the word fits within that frame and can bring about the realization of Human Rights. The contradiction, I think, is evident. If Human Rights are universal and innate, why must they be given to people?
The speaker also said to give Human Rights to children and let their mothers know that their children will not be what they, their mothers, might want them to be. The problem with this is that this is a violation of the parents’ Human Right to educate their children which is stated in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She concluded by informing us that we had just received Human Rights and should go out with high shoulders to give Human Rights to others. After the event I overheard a university professor say that she would go back to her school and have the student repeat these exercises.
The moderator concluded with what she thought was a rhetorical question, “ wasn’t this a stimulating and inspiring event?” Regrettably my answer was “no.”
On Monday the 5th of March, Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) Nigeria hosted a very interesting event entitled “Women’s Burden of Unsafe Abortion: Implications for Nigeria’s Development.” The panelists mentioned many of the troubles encountered by African women and the girl child. They highlighted those relating to sexual oppressions like the rampant rape and incest that occurs. Another example of a country with this problem is South Africa which has some of the highest levels of reported rape incidences and a significant amount of these involve incest. “It is actually estimated that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read,”-Carolyn Dempster.
Rape and Incest in countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa has been linked with the belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin cures HIV/AIDS. As a result, many girls are prey to the pandemic and suffer from stigmas relating to HIV/AIDS and adolescent pregnancies. The panel advocated for the legalization of safe abortion in Nigeria. They proceeded to show a very graphic video that addressed the implications of unsafe abortions to women in their country. The panel recognized the power that lies in storytelling and used this tool to display the conditions that African women face.
Empathetic groups of Nigerian women were stirred from amongst the audience and many told their stories during the question and answer session (Q&A.) The majority of the women who spoke after the panel suggested many alternative solutions for Nigeria’s problems. Cries for more abstinence education and for the involvement of the mother and the family in the lives of young women were heard time and time again. Instead of advocating for quick solutions for vulnerable women, the majority of those who spoke during the Q&A time suggested taking care of the problem’s roots. The plea that predominated was ” PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE.” The audience was very realistic about the problems that lead pregnant young girls to have abortions. A woman mentioned that most of the girls who think they are forced to have unsafe abortions come from poor parentage. “Exposing these girls [to this] is the biggest crime for them getting into trouble in the first place.” Joy Ozingwe touched on the stigmas related to teenage pregnancy, arguing for the necessity of “promoting of the sanctity of life.” There was a consensus on the need for mentorship to the African girl child that comes from the elderly female about her sexuality. Another woman said that mothers have lost value because of poverty and hence subject their children to various risky sexual activities. Many also mentioned issues relating to the girls’ vital need for male figures for this learning process. If men think of themselves more as mentors, they may be able to retreat from the abuses of rape and incest mentioned above. The role of family communication as a means of prevention for complex scenarios that cause unsafe abortions was largely supported by the audience.
Fatima, a lady from Lebanon, presented another question that is worth considering. She asked,” Why we fight issues of marriage before the age of 18 and we are not fighting sexual intercourse before 18 years?” Her question was important but the panelists did not sufficiently address it or the majority of the other questions. It would have been very helpful to hear more from the panelists on the organization’s stance on issues relating to abstinence, communication, chastity and sanctity which were resoundingly supported by numerous members of the audience.
Overall, the event was extremely eye opening because the members of the audience shared with each other their customs and culture, and advocated traditional ways of approaching matters relating to sexuality. The women were bold enough to speak out and to show that they had hope for the future generation. The final comment made by a lady in the audience certainly left the crowd roaring as she said, “I understand this is the 21st century and I do not want any mother or any woman to think that there is so much civilization out there that they can no longer pay attention to values.”
A distinguished Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe once wrote in his most renewed literary work, Things fall Apart, ” One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.” He described how imposed Western values led to social and psychological disorientation of traditional African Society.
A lady at the parallel event hosted by Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) Nigeria at 56th Session of the CSW made an interesting point about abortion laws in her country. She talked about the current law which is modeled on the British Offences against the Person Act of 1861. It permits an abortion to be legally performed only to save the life of the woman. Section 297 provides that “a person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation…upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life if the performance of the operation is reasonable, having regard to the patient’s state at the time and all the circumstances of the case.”*1 After stating this, she went on to talk about how this law contributed highly to the discussion of “Women’s Burden of Unsafe Abortion: Implications for Nigeria’s Development.” She finished by reminding the audience that this a British adopted law and that since then the British had reviewed their laws. She strongly felt that the Nigerian government should follow the actions taken by the British government since it had initially acquired its laws from that country.
I personally felt that since the Nigerian’s gained Independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, in defense of their national sovereignty there is no need to continue to follow suit with the reviewed English laws. They should focus more on reviewing their new laws on the basis of the values and views of its nation. The women who spoke in the time that was devoted to the audience for questions and comments were very much in favor of observing the “sanctity of life of the unborn” and opposed to implementing policy that would deal only with the symptoms of the disease. They want the government to address the problem from its roots. They advocated for increased attention to places that aid pregnant women through methods like adoption programs for unplanned pregnancies, education of young women, restoration of their names in society through support groups and more programs that promote family communication.
It seems like countries feel coerced by their circumstance to compromise their values. Many have felt like Chinua Achebe, that developing countries are being left with very little choice between their values and their need for funding or certain types of aid. There is a dilemma but as the author mentioned, there are very strong tests of nations integrity. It is important for nations to maintain their traditional identity as the key to what separates their nation from others.
*1- Population Policy Data Bank maintained by the Population Division of the Department for Economic and Social Affairs United Nations Secretariat. www.un.org/esa/population/publications/abortion/doc/nigeria.doc
Day One of serving the International Youth Coalition here at the United Nations, I was given the chance to watch a film, which was presented by the Holy See Mission. The movie, which is called, Nefarious: Merchant of Souls; shows an in-depth behind the scenes portrayal of the sex trafficking and legal prostitution industry. The dangers of sex trafficking is dangerous, but also an area which is not given much focus and attention during meetings at the United Nations. Nations are legalizing prostitution (even as you sit here and read this blog, one country around the world is legalizing prostitution), and the legalization of prostitution has shown to increase the sex trafficking industry. This increase has gone unnoticed by local authorities and state governments because of the secrecy and limited resources in protecting these women from pimps and the mafia.
When a regular, everyday John Doe or Jane Doe sees a prostitute on the street we (not all but some if not many people) become disgusted and call the prostitute names such as whore and slut. Little do these everyday people know that a prostitute can be caught up in a network of illegal sex trafficking and being forced into prostitution; it is hard for an everyday individual and local/state authorities to distinguish between a commercial prostitution and a prostitute engaged in sex trafficking. For many, prostitution has now become a way of life and not something they wanted to do. No woman on this earth believes it is their personal duty to engage in various sexual acts for the payment of money, shelter, clothes, food or anything of value really.
Sex trafficking occurs and has gained strength through legalization of prostitution and this form of legalization has put thousands to millions of young women at danger. The danger ranges from physical, spiritual and mental harm. Young women are being forced and coerced into the sex industry leaving them scarred and afraid while men are making profit. We cannot continue to keep risking the lives of women through the legalization of prostitution. We must keep fighting the battle of legalization of prostitution so these young women from the favela’s of Brazil to the streets of New York City to the slums of India can live a pure life and become educated and help usher in a new world of young women as sisters, parents, aunts and grandmothers.
As, Margareta Winberg, the Former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden said, “I believe that we will never succeed in combating trafficking in women if we do not simultaneously work to abolish prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women and children.” We (man and women alike) should take up the battle of protecting women and children from the harms of the sex industry. And as Mother Theresa once said, “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” We as the International Youth Coalition must continue to help various missions and NGOs fight the battle against the legalization of prostitution and sex trafficking industry.