Human Rights and Words that Burn
What comes to mind when you think of human rights? Perhaps shocking footage of violations on the news, provocative headlines in the press, or treatment you have witnessed or experienced. Surely there will be time enough to talk about such things when children grow up?
It may be tempting not to talk about 'serious' human rights with children. But for me, human rights are a joyful thing and entirely appropriate to talk about in school. I think of children enjoying the rights to play, learn, be with their families and friends and be safe. For me, human rights are about discussing, and putting into action, values that I hold very dear: equality, freedom, fairness, respect.
The Language of Human Rights
One of the most hopeful, inspiring and, frankly, extraordinary texts to have ever been written is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) adopted on the 10 December 1948. It's the treaty that guides our work in all that we do - protecting human rights for everyone, everywhere.
Here’s a video made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UNDHR. It's a good introduction to human rights for younger children.
We must put human rights at the heart of our schools. This means increasing knowledge and understanding of what human rights are, empowering those in our school communities with the skills to uphold and defend rights, and fostering human rights values through every aspect of school life.
Educating about human rights
Let’s start by answering the question 'What are human rights and why should children know about them?' If you were asked by a child ‘what are human rights?’, what would your answer be?
My advice when seeking a quick, clear overview of human rights in the UK is to turn to the brilliant RightsInfo. Here, they explain that there are some universal freedoms that should never be taken away from us, no matter who we are.
Our children have rights, our colleagues have rights, we have rights… Surely we should be shouting about them? We have a duty to be talking about these rights, because explicitly engaging with human rights values and articles gives us all a common language. And it is the language of equality, fairness and hope.
Human rights are relevant to every child and adult in a school community, and talking about them encourages celebration of what we enjoy and are entitled to.
Empowering us to know our rights
If we know our rights, we can celebrate enjoying them, we can claim them for ourselves when they are denied, and we can defend them in solidarity with others who are at risk. In short, we can be agents of change. And with this agency comes a sense of an empowerment which we know fosters hope, wellbeing, motivation and change.
However, knowledge is not enough, and social action requires skills. Let me touch on some of these skills and how they may be developed in the classroom, and as an English teacher I’m going to focus on literacy.
Literature and human rights
Here’s Ross Collins reading the book out loud.
In this story we discover a mouse who just can’t move the bear that’s sitting on his chair.
I want to say something about the bear. I suspect all of us, of whatever age, rather identify with the mouse in this story. Hard done by. Angry. Frustrated in the face of circumstances we can’t control. But I want to advocate for us all – not just children – putting ourselves in the bear’s shoes. Many of us are on a journey of recognising our own privilege and our role, however seemingly passive, in perpetuating inequality. Empathy is our route out of our blissful ignorance.
Reading books clearly offers everyone the chance to develop and nurture critical thinking. Not only is it empowering, but the activities that foster them in the classroom are among some of the most creative and enjoyable.
Campaigning for human rights
Of course, Amnesty is a campaigning organisation. Our millions of supporters are skilled at organising and taking action. Our children will be most empowered if they are able to transform their knowledge, understanding and values into action for themselves and each other.
Our primary pack has an activity that really is no different from what experienced campaigners and campaigning organisations like Amnesty do all the time: they develop a theory of change.
In fact, the mouse from Ross Collins’s book reminds me of myself and many other activists who are full of brilliant, creative ideas for protesting injustice, but don’t always start by working out what will be most effective. These skills of analysis, creative thinking and decision making are absolutely within the grasp of young activists.
Valuing human rights
You know as well as I that the lived experience of many of our children is one in which their rights are not enjoyed. Recent research has been carried out into the impact of discrimination, harassment and hate crime on children and young people because of attitudes towards their gender, race, religion or sexuality.
Teachers and librarians have access to ever diminishing resources and I know only too well the challenge of getting new texts into the classroom. However, children and young people need to be allowed to find themselves in a range of texts.
And if the texts don’t exist and money is short and time is short… you have a whole school of storytellers, of artists, and hopefully, activists. Allowing them to access each other’s voices is a way of celebrating those voices and actively asserting their equality.
Words that Burn
At Amnesty we believe in action, and we have activists from the very young to the very old who send messages of solidarity to people around the world who have had their human rights abused and denied. These messages bring hope and comfort to people in the direst of circumstances – we know the impact that they have because the recipients and their families tell us.
Our young activists are amongst the most creative and artistic in their acts of solidarity. This is why we're running Words that Burn, a national project for young people to explore and express human rights through poetry.
Recently we had the pleasure of hosting a reading from Dean Atta at our London office. Dean is a performance poet from London, and his poem 'I come from…' celebrates the things that make him who he is. When I gave this talk in January we collectively came up with our version of I come from….. which is available below.
We shared both Dean's poem and ours with Azza Soliman, a women’s human rights defender in Egypt. Azza has been persecuted by the Egyptian government for over 30 years, simply for being an activist. She has provided legal aid, support and literacy lessons for women in poverty and survivors of abuse; for this, Azza has had her assets frozen, is banned from travelling and is facing a prison sentence. We shared our words with Azza to give her hope for the year ahead.
It’s a reminder for us that words have the power to bring hope and recognise dignity - and that the rights we all have as humans form the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in our world.
- I come from...
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.