Updated: Mar 12, 2021
By Tahmina R.
“Today virtually every cause seeks to cloak itself in the righteous language of rights”
- Makau Mutua, Kenyan-American Professor of International Law.
At a UN Women event earlier this year in Nepal, a classmate of mine raised her hand and asked what their greatest mistake to this point had been, in administering aid. The speaker’s response shocked us beyond what we could have expected. The organisation had wanted to stop chhaupadi, a Hindu practice where a woman stays outside the home for the duration of her period. The practice has been illegalised, but is still widely practiced in regional areas where these laws are not as strictly enforced.
In an unbelievably short-sighted attempt to stop this practice, UN Women went into a village and knocked down the shed that the women had been using to isolate. They took something away that served a purpose without addressing the cause of it being there in the first place. The next time a woman went to isolate, because she had to sleep outside now, she passed away from exposure.
My infuriated Nepali classmates asked the speaker question after question: “How could you think that would work?” “Who’s idea was that?” “Why would you do that?!” she couldn't give satisfactory answers. The organisation, an effective outsider to the community, had made the decision to administer women’s “rights” in a way that was separate from the women in the community, separate to the religious leaders of the community and without seeking the advice of Nepali lawyers, Nepali NGOs or Nepali academics. Let’s break down why universal blanket statements of human rights are not always the force for never failing good that they appear to be at first glance.
“It’s the European Way.”
From voluntourist groups, to charities handing out pamphlets in your local shopping centre, to major aid groups - there are good, bad and sometimes outright awful uses of human rights rhetoric. It has now become an ideological trump card that can be played to stop any argument. The moral superiority of the person invoking these ideas is untouchable. The first time I encountered this preaching was with James, a student volunteer who was volunteering with a different organisation at the Katsikas refugee camp that a few friends and I were also volunteering at.
One evening he mentioned that no women attended his English classes because their “husbands wouldn’t let them.” Being a group of young women of colour from a majority Muslim background, we could read between the lines of what he said, and could predict where this would go. We asked, “what makes you say that James?”
He explained, “the women want segregated classes, but that’s not the European way. You have to understand that they haven’t been socialised. Many of them are from remote Afghan villages, and have never been in an educational environment" and that "If they want to integrate into European society, they have to learn the European way.” The Spanish lady we were volunteering with agreed with him, nodding and repeating, “Exactly, we are in Europe, it has to be the European way.”
Yes, he actually said all of these things.
Mariam interjected halfway through this tirade of thinly-veiled racism to say that none of the refugees in the camp were villagers, that both her parents and extended family had been educated to a postgraduate level in Afghanistan, and that Kabul University was actually co-ed. But all of this fell on deaf ears.
James was so convinced of the inherent moral superiority of his position that he hadn’t even bothered to question the assumptions that had led him to it. At each point in our argument, he blustered over his answers, confronted, for the first time, by the fact that he’d never questioned these beliefs. He projected these visions of gender equality, rights to education and free speech as distinctly Western. Definitely beyond the comprehension of these people that were too backwards to benefit from his teachings.
By brushing off their requests for segregated classes under the guise of gender equality, he was actually taking away the women’s rights to participate equally in that space. James believed that women had the right to choose; but (and this is the unspoken part) only if that choice fit with his own internal worldview.
If he had taken the time to talk to the women, he would have found out that their lack of attendance was because the adjoining recreational centre had been turned into a shisha den of sorts since the most recent influx of young male refugees, and that the older women no longer felt comfortable in that environment. Irisa, who had been at that same camp ten months earlier, confirmed that back then, the vast majority of people in the classes had been women. It had nothing to do with their husbands, and the man who had put that idea in James’ mind was an unmarried West African refugee who was speaking about a culture that was as foreign to him as it was to James.
The UN Women’s approach of knocking down the shed in Nepal was an example of the kind of short-sighted, unbelievably dangerous approaches taken in the name of better achieving women’s rights. While there, I heard the phrase “women’s empowerment” tossed about carelessly at pretty much every site visit on my curriculum. Putting aside the fact that women’s empowerment cannot just be done, the story is a classic example of the way interventionist aid can often leave communities worse off than before it was bestowed.
The long-lasting impact of this so-called “aid” is that it erodes the trust between these communities and their own local governments. My Nepali classmate explained that, “when something is successful the NGO takes full credit, and when something goes wrong, it is blamed on Government incompetence.” After two decades of conflict, Nepal has worked hard to earn its place as one of the fastest developing countries in South Asia, and their 2015 Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. This kind of trust between a people and their government takes decades to build up.
When communities are allowed to work toward progress, with an understanding of their own needs, there is so much potential for true, sustainable change. In January last year, a young woman suffocated in a menstrual hut with her two young sons from the fumes of a fire she had built to keep them warm. Her husband was charged with a criminal offence (because this practice is illegal) and after her funeral, the entire community rallied to knock down every single shed and hut used for chauupadi in their locality. In just over a week, forty-seven huts and sixty sheds had been pulled down. This is the kind of behaviour that creates long-lasting change.
Freedom Doesn’t Come for Free.
People at every level of the aid food-chain are willing to quote passages and rights stated in the most widely-accepted treaties while ignoring their inherent political use (and sometimes, abuse). The stories I have shared above show how we need to critically question the assumptions made in the creation and implementation of human rights. All three major treaties of the human rights movement (the UDHR, ICCPR or ICESCR) fail to recognise the economic realities of the global community that these blanket rights seek to serve. At the time these key human rights treaties were written, the majority of the Global South was under exploitative European colonial rule but, interestingly, not a single one of the treaties use the terms, “capital, market, colonize, imperial...[or] liberalism” (Mutua 2016: 168).
We don’t live in a world where people can be given blanket human rights and benefit from them without addressing structural inequality first (watch Parasite!). This idea is outlined very well in the book ‘Poor Economics’ by the 2019 Economics Nobel Prize winners, Abhjit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. Rather than trying to theorise how people in poverty should be able to pull themselves out of it, they started with a clean slate and dedicated over a decade of grassroots research to understanding how people stuck in the “poverty trap”, as they called it, manage their money. It turns out that it actually has nothing to do with a lack of resourcefulness or willingness to try. They proved that poverty was not a failing on the part of the poor but a product of a system designed to keep them down to make the rich richer.
When I was in Nepal, one of out site visits included a visit to a Nepali brick kiln where we witnessed exploitation of the sort that Western students like us were likely never see again, to the point where the question had to be asked: “why were we there?” Studying modern slavery in international law and Nepali law should have been enough. There was no need for us to see it. But in answer to our horrified objections afterwards, my professor said “but, if this experience means even one of you goes on to work in human rights, then I think it is worth it.”
Honestly, I haven't made up my mind about that. Were we empowering the future dismantling of the systems of structural oppression that allowed us to be there in the first place - or were we playing into them in a way that only increases the separation between us and them?
Navigating This Space
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been getting more and more caught up in spirals of ethical dilemmas until my head swims. Everything from why are they here, to why am I here, to why do we or I or anyone have any right to insert themselves into a story that has been unfolding for centuries without them?
The reality of band-aid solutions and inequality hits harder than ever.
That said, in searching for moral purity in the aid space, we cannot be so paralysed by principle that we end up finding fault in everything and doing nothing. We don’t have all the answers, but we must do the work to critically examine and upend our assumptions about the misuse of human rights to justify any and all kinds of behaviour. Like the assumptions that lead to James teaching a male-only English class or to UN Women victoriously knocking down a menstrual hut with no other plan.
Universal human rights are the most appealing alternative to religion for the secular world. But like religion, human rights are not a force for never-failing good; their inherent goodness depends on the way they are realised.
Lead Editors: Irisa R. and Palwasha A.
Andrea Nightingale, ‘Bounding Difference: Intersectionality and the Material Production of Gender, Caste, Class and Environment in Nepal’ (2010) 42 Geoform 152.
Locals Tear Down Chhaupadi Huts Amid Wide Concern Over Deaths in Sheds’, The Himalayan Times (online), 17 January 2019 <https://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/locals-tear-down-chhaupadi-huts-amid-wide-concern-over-deaths-in-sheds/>.
Makau Mutua, Human Rights: Hegemony, Law and Politics (State University of New York Press, 2016).
‘Nepal Man Arrested Over Death of Woman in ‘Menstruation Hut’’, BBC News (online), 6 December 2019 <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50691387>.