Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Cultural Rights, Human Expression and Social Inclusion

Education about Difference. The working session stressed the need for information exchange and education "across issues." However, the provision of the information and education should not be the sole responsibility of excluded groups; all women and all women’s groups should inform and educate themselves about the concerns facing other issue-based groups.

Education about difference, both ethnic and cultural, but also difference in relation to disability, should be incorporated at all levels, from primary school onwards, in the formal and informal sectors. The group stressed the need for information and education on different cultural backgrounds in order to foster respect for difference.

The participants underscored the importance of "making difference visible," particularly in relation to deaf women and argued that "not being heard" means "not being visible."

However, the need for information can "pressurise members of discriminated-against groups." We need to be aware of this and make the effort to inform ourselves. A member of the lesbian community said that "lesbians are continually expected to provide support for themselves and information for those outside, on top of the pressure of the decision of whether, when and how to come out." Participants felt strongly that it is up to women’s groups to inform themselves within their work about the human rights of other women and to embrace the needs of women from minority groups including those of lesbians.

Likewise, four members of the deaf community in the working session strongly stated their frustration that deaf women are expected to take on the identity of the hearing community. Hearing people rarely approach deaf people for information. The burden remains with the deaf community to pay the price for their lack of access—both economically and socially in terms of a lack of knowledge of "deaf culture" in the hearing community. The lack of awareness among hearing people is a major obstacle to deaf women accessing their human rights on many levels. Deaf women, for example, face particular problems in relation to health and access to health services.

Deaf women must be acknowledged and supported in the role they are playing in providing information to hearing people so that they do not continue to bear all the costs. It is important to recognise that "disseminating information is often a matter of resources"— the politics of scarce resources where the least visible communities have the least access to resources and are therefore more likely to remain invisible. Shireen Huq pointed out that in Bangladesh, for example, there would be no resources to fund and provide signing services for deaf women to take part in any political gathering.

The group discussed possible strategies to "inform ourselves of the problems facing excluded groups." Education has a large role to play as a tool for change. However, education can also act to reinforce the status quo and we must guard against this possibility. The formal education sector needs to learn from the informal education sector which by definition is more inclined to be responsive to the needs of marginalised groups and individuals.

In the context of communities that are deeply divided, as in Northern Ireland, or where were social exclusion is systemic, as in the case of the Traveller community, there is a particular need "to reach beyond the actual curriculum" and to create situations where "we can learn from each other."

Furthermore, there is a need for action-oriented research around issues of difference and social exclusion that will inform mainstream education. For example, Ronit Lentin reported on a research project she is engaged in for the National Committee for Development Education on "Experiences of Ethnic Exclusion in Ireland" which will lead to the production of teachers’ action packs to be used in primary school classes.

Networking across Issues. Networking among women within specific communities is an important means of communication, information dissemination, and building solidarity. One example given was of Traveller women who get the information they need from other Traveller women – this points to a strength within the Traveller community which can be built upon to advance human rights objectives.

In this context, women networking across issues is also important. In particular, as a central means of "building solidarity among women, informing ourselves and sharing and increasing our power," participants in the working session proposed a focused strategy of working with women across issues. Traveller women’s groups, for example, would link with deaf women’s groups in order to increase solidarity and power.

The working session concluded that the most effective strategy to advance human rights in relation to cultural difference within our own work is to collaborate with other goups that are focused on a specific issue or that work with a particular community. This would

Working with other issue-focused groups requires respecting the diversity and difference while working together on common human rights goals. Such work across issues can be done through art, for example, which does not recognise borders or through religion (although the Christian message alone was thought not to be adequate). In the context of working together we also need to recognise the constraints that may be present for different groups; working with rural groups, for example, may involve addressing problems of isolation, access and transportation.

Using a Human Rights Framework. Although Human Rights is a Western concept and, within Ireland, a concept of the "dominant ideology," we should not be put off by it. Shireen Huq (who participated in the working session as a resource person) argued that the human rights framework must not be condemned because of its Western origin. However, we must address not only civil and political rights, but also social and economic rights. The two cannot be separated even as we engage in human rights work. In the first instance the dissemination of information and provision of education about our rights need a financial base. But there is also a need for economic means to obtain the rights at a practical level – knowing your rights is not sufficient without the economic resources to access and enjoy those rights.

Another important idea that needs to be further developed and advanced is the indivisibility of human rights. For Traveller women, for example, not having access to basic facilities is a major human rights issue. Similarly, people with disabilities experience social exclusion because of the failure of government and society to ensure access to basic amenities. However, a number of participants pointed out that even if Traveller women did enjoy greater economic rights, they would still be discriminated against because they are Travellers; they need their political and civil rights to fight discrimination and yet one set of rights (political and civil) is not more important than the other (social, economic and cultural).

Resources. Resources are needed in order to provide information, education and other services, such as telephone help lines. However, resources ought to be sufficient to ensure that services are made accessible to everyone, for instance deaf women and children. Another example given was that of refuges for women who experience violence. Often they do not cater adequately for Traveller women; they are constructed by and within settled communities.

Building Solidarity and Affirming Differences among Women. Shireen Huq shared the Bangladesh experience of International Women’s Day when women with different political beliefs marched together. For example, mainstream members of the women’s movement marched together with women working in prostitution despite the ongoing debate and lack of consensus within the women’s movement in relation to prostitution. This was the first time this was achieved in Bangladesh. Such a strategy offers an opportunity of visibilising difference and showing that it need not automatically mean conflict.

The group recognised that in Northern Ireland "different ways of growing up make it difficult to discuss beliefs across the divide." Furthermore, "in order to be able to conduct open and honest conversations across divides people need to feel safe." We need to focus on what is required to foster that sense of safety and ask ourselves "what happens when women do not feel safe?"

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