December 9, 2009
With human rights comes change
Htoo Paw, a human rights activist from Burma, grew up without any knowledge of her rights. She describes life in her rural village under the rule of Burma's military regime as a polarized chaos of random violence and government neglect.
"In my village, we always thought it was normal for women to be raped, normal that villagers are arrested and killed without any reason, for people to do forced labor. In my village, the government does not provide school to anyone. So for people in my village, this is normal life. We think this way because we've had to live with this situation since my grandparents' generation."
Ending the human rights blackout
For millions of people around the world today, the very concept of "human rights" is nonexistent. The inalienable rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—life, safety, food and water—are in many places, an abstraction, at best. And without knowledge of their rights, people are vulnerable to all means of abuse, and likely to view situations of unspeakable horror—as in Htoo Paw's case—as "normal."
But grassroots organizations around the world are working to end the rights blackout, teaching women and girls, workers and refugees, sexual minorities and people living with HIV/AIDS that the abuses they are experiencing—while pervasive—are unacceptable, and giving them the tools to defend their rights.
Htoo Paw experienced this revelation when she went to the Thailand-Burma border in DATE and joined AJWS grantee Karen Women's Organization (KWO), an NGO working with Burmese refugees in camps in Thailand. "I had the chance to learn many new things," she says. "I attended different trainings and learned about human rights, democracy and other government systems. But [these concepts] were only in books…I had never experienced them in my own life."
When Htoo Paw returned to her village for the first time, she saw things through changed eyes. "This time," she recalls, "I wasn't the same person as I was when I had left. I saw the children working on the farms, I saw the people who were sick. There was a young woman who got malaria, and she died. She should not have died—if there was a health clinic, it could have been cured. But there is no medicine, there is no clinic." Her indignation has led her to devote her life to educating others about their rights, empowering Burma's women to speak out against the injustice around them and work toward a changed future.
Asserting women's rights through community education and advocacy
For women around the world, violence and the threat of violence impact not only their right to safety and well-being, but women's right to work, to education and to participate freely in community life. In many countries, social norms condone violence against women and abuses are enacted with impunity, going unreported and unchallenged. In Uganda, for example, according to the country's 2007 Demographic and Health Survey, 60 percent women aged 15-49 experience physical violence and 39 percent sexual violence.
In an effort to change this, AJWS grantee Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) works in communities in and around Kampala and partners with organizations across Uganda to teach men and women about women's rights and change attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate abuse. The organization has transformed family life in many of these communities, demonstrating that education can change deeply-rooted social norms.
In Makindye Division, Kampala, one of the communities in which CEDOVIP runs its AJWS-supported human rights training program, women who formerly endured daily beatings as a fact of life report a decrease in violence and greater equity in the home.
A local organizer, Hope Turyasingura, explains: "Much of the domestic violence was happening because people didn't stop to think about it, talk about it and get information about it. There was a lot of ignorance. Now we have been bombarding people with information that makes them think about the choices they are making… We used to just think violence was part of normal life as a woman. Now the community knows that this is a violation of women's rights and that it actually hurts families."
CEDOVIP has empowered women to speak out in their own homes and in their community. Kiwanuka Scot, a participant in the trainings, says: "Before the project, I was not aware of my rights. But now I do; I don't condone violence in our relationship like I used to. When my husband shouts at me, I speak my mind and let him know how I feel. Now he realizes and accepts that there is need for better communication and respect."
She says that the trainings have enabled women in her community to access legal rights that they never had before: "Now, people are aware that domestic violence is a crime and are not ashamed to report to police. Neighbors now handle domestic violence as their own problem and not just the individual's. They do their best to see that women are not violated."
By educating community members about domestic violence, CEDOVIP is helping to change women's status in the family and in society: Men are more receptive to women working outside the home and generating income. Many parents are starting to provide girls with schooling. And in some cases, women have gained rights over land and property that they never had before.
Hope says that her entire community has been transformed: "People are organizing themselves and making their own actions against violence. Men are talking to each other about these issues more and women now have more solidarity."
In addition to education, CEDOVIP organized community members in a campaign to outlaw domestic violence. Their first success came in 2007 with the passage of Uganda's first bylaw against domestic violence, enabling survivors in Kampala's Kawempe Division to prosecute perpetrators. CEDOVIP leveraged this breakthrough to advocate for passage of national legislation, and in November of this year, Uganda's parliament passed the Domestic Violence Bill. CEDOVIP is currently mobilizing its communities to lobby for implementation of the act and to ensure that people understand and act upon these rights.
A successful model worldwide
Human rights trainings are making this kind of impact in communities all over the world.
In Guerrero, Mexico, AJWS grantee Tlachinollan Center for Support to Indigenous Peoples of the Mountain, works with indigenous peoples of the most marginalized regions of Guerrero state. In addition to providing human rights trainings to teach people about their rights, Tlachinollan also provides legal assistance to individuals who are the victims of human rights abuse and raises public awareness about egregious violations. Tlachinollan's work is recognized in Mexico and internationally as an outstanding example of human rights defense in a context of significant poverty, marginalization, exclusion and political violence.
In Honduras, AJWS grantee Asociación LGTB Arcoiris de Honduras (Arcoiris) ("Rainbow"), conducts human rights trainings as part of its comprehensive approach to promoting and defending the human rights of Honduras's LGBT community. The youth-run organization employs a peer-led approach, with LGBT youth teaching each other about topics that include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Honduran human rights law, stigma and discrimination, gender, sexual health, economic and civil rights, arrest and the penal process, and HIV/AIDS.
In this fifth year of AJWS support to Arcoiris, the organization addressed the worsening pattern of human rights abuses and hate crimes against LGBT people in Honduras through a combination of research, advocacy and leadership training. After conducting and publishing a study of hate crimes in the country, Arcoiris will convene marches, forums with government and civil society, and public demonstrations in order to catalyze action by public institutions to address hate crimes. The organization is also providing advanced training in international and national human rights norms for 45 of its oldest and most experienced peer educators.
In Ghana, the Center for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana (CEPEHRG), has worked for more than a decade to train young people about human rights issues and to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Ghanaian communities. A participant in CEPEHRG's trainings sums up the impact of human rights training:
"I see a brighter future for my generation because the project helped me gained more insight into human rights. [The program] makes my community see clearly the human rights abuses taking place and helps us take action to bring about change."