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Human rights for whom? A closer look at elitism and women’s rights in Africa

The problem of ‘top-down’ human rights work is particularly pronounced among the marginalized women and girls who experience the harshest abuses. These individuals are fully capable of becoming rights bearers, but need more information about international and national law. From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Ron, Crow and Golden argue, based on survey data, that human rights language, people and activities are often better established among social elites. Human rights, they fear, has become more of a “toproots” than a “grassroots” movement.

Ron, Crow and Golden argue, based on survey data, that human rights language, people and activities are often better established among social elites. Human rights, they fear, has become more of a “toproots” than a “grassroots” movement.

Gonzalez-Ocantos, however, writing from Mexico City, argues that this “elite accent” is not necessarily bad. After all, he says, middle-class professionals have historically done much of the advocacy, legal, and technical work to promote human rights, especially in post-authoritarian Latin America. 

I disagree with Gonzalez-Ocantos. Lack of knowledge about human rights laws, concepts, and mechanisms is a real problem, especially when viewed through the lens of gender. Women – and here I am thinking particularly of low-income, rural women in Africa – must know what their rights are, both nationally and internationally. After all, they are the only ones who will truly be able to change their own lives for the better. 

In my experience, women and girls from the most impoverished regions of Africa also experience some of the worst human rights violations. Yet, just as Ron, Crow and Golden argue, these women are often unaware of the laws that protect them, in theory. These are the grassroots communities that need exposure to international and national human rights laws, not the social elites.

My views are based, in part, on a recent visit to some of the poorest regions of Ghana, where my organisation, Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, operates a leadership training program for girls. We do this by enhancing these girls’ knowledge of key life issues, including economic empowerment, leadership, and community development.  From these women and girls, I learned that they often face a range of horrific abuses, including gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, forced and child marriage, trokosi - a rite of servitude practiced in some areas of Ghana - and more.

These girls are conscious of the injustices and wrongs committed against them, but they feel powerless to change their lives. Should individuals become aware of their formal human rights even if it appears there is nothing they can do to effect change? 

The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes. The will to change resides in the individual, and human rights programs should try to empower these individuals rather than exclude them. Empowerment, in turn, requires knowledge.

Consider this: Under international human rights law, national governments must codify the human rights principles they have agreed to in their own national laws. This codification, ultimately, will help push governments to respond more seriously to allegations of human rights abuses. It also will provide citizens a platform for raising awareness at home and abroad, among the grassroots and elites.

Programs targeting women and girls should help them stand up for themselves by giving them exposure to human rights principles, laws, and regulations, both at the international and domestic levels.

Just because human rights information is concentrated among elites, human rights protections should not be similarly biased. This kind of concentration will lead to even more bias over the long run, as well as to persistent failures in efforts to involve disadvantaged groups in human rights and development planning and implementation. 

The poor may lack knowledge of formal human rights instruments, but they do not lack the desire for basic human rights protections. They know that they need, and deserve, minimally adequate food, clothing, and shelter. They know they are worthy of dignity and respect. By providing information to all rights stakeholders, including the least educated and the poorest, we give the least advantaged a chance to participate more equitably in their own development.

I would have liked to see Ron, Crow and Golden provide gender-disaggregated information for their survey findings. Are women more or less knowledgeable about human rights?

Ultimately, we must work with human rights advocates, policy makers and officials to translate human rights laws and policies into languages and formats that are accessible to marginalized, non-elite groups. In so doing, we must give particular emphasis to empowering women and girls from disadvantaged communities to address the human rights concerns affecting them most. These individuals must acquire the language and tools to participate in, and ultimately influence, the mainstream national and international human rights discourse.

NGOs are often at the forefront of promoting human rights ideas and training programs, but should be sensitive to the possibility that their work promotes an elitist agenda, rather than promoting the needs and aspirations of the communities they seek to serve. What I see in Africa is a gap between the law and the practical protection of women. We must move from the theory of international human rights instruments to practical solutions that help marginalized people realize and enjoy their rights.

The notion of “human rights” will mean little unless every human being, male or female, is treated with dignity, enjoys equal access to social services, is a participant in affairs of state, and can demand justice when her rights are violated.

To attain this goal, open dialogues between human rights organizations and communities are important. The current top-down mentality must not continue, else we wind up wasting time, resources, and energy.


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