Because human rights are universal | Lauryn Oates | TEDxVictoria

so I've been passionate about human rights in Afghanistan and especially the rights of women and girls since 1996 which was the year that the Taliban took power in Kabul and became the government and imposed their system of what came to be called gender apartheid over women and girls in that country but it wasn't until a few years later it's whole shortly after the end of the Taliban regime that I got to go to Afghanistan for the first time and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and I smelled the air and I thought I'm in just the right place and then I went back fifty more times and this is the Afghanistan that I've come to know I think a place that lies in pretty stark contrast to the image that we usually have of Afghanistan it's not a place where we get to hear the good stories too often but the bad things that you've heard about Afghanistan are mostly also true it is a country that's experienced staggering suffering and poverty and war and loss of life and of course physical destruction and you can see in these pictures some examples of that so the top left photo is a picture taken in the 60s by an American University professor who lived and worked in Kabul with his family as many foreigners did back in those days at a popular picnic spot outside Kabul and then that's what that site looks like today and the bottom photos showed the royal palace in Kabul Darla maan palace and and impact that war had on it but this is sort of the story that we know a little bit better and we don't often get to hear that for every tragedy in Afghanistan there's also been a triumph and for every villain there's also a hero and I've been very fortunate and privileged to have worked with many such heroes in the education sector in Afghanistan brave students and teachers who show up at their classrooms every day when they're often risking their life to do so my work is focused on supporting the the quality of education and to do that I work on literacy programming and teacher training and community libraries and I do that with an organization called Canadian women for women in Afghanistan among others and I didn't start working in education I was doing human rights work and I moved to education very deliberately because as I talked to Afghan women they told me we don't need anyone to tell us that we're entitled to rights we know that inherently but we can't access our rights without education we won't have any power anytime unless we learn how to read and write so I want to illustrate that idea to you by telling you about some research that I worked on with UNICEF a couple of years ago so bear with me I'm a kind of a data nerd as you'll see and I hope that I'll make this a little bit exciting so mix surveys multiple indicator cluster surveys are done every five years in developing countries by UNICEF to see how countries are doing in meeting the Millennium Development Goals the nd MDGs the eight goals that you see here and they look specifically at the situation for women and children so Afghanistan did a mix survey in 2010 and 2011 and it was really unique because of its coverage it actually collected data from every single one of the countries 34 provinces even the really insecure ones and it included about 13,000 households 22,000 women and 15,000 children under the age of five and collected background characteristics for all of them so things like the households level of wealth level of education if they lived in an urban or rural area and we looked at over 80 different indicators in human development in these nine different areas so things like did the household have access to clean water was there soap was there a toilet where children vaccinated were children in school when did they start school did they drop out of school and so on and as I sat down to pour over these mounds of data and prepare to write this report I quickly noticed something remarkable a very remarkable pattern can you guess what the single greatest predictor for nearly every single one of these indicators was education it was the educational level of the mother specifically you could just set your watches by it that the more educated a mother was the more likely she was to give birth in a in a facility with a skilled attendant present so a doctor or a nurse or Midwife so she was more likely to survive childbirth her children were more likely to survive infancy and childhood they were more likely to live in homes with access to clean water and proper sanitation they were less likely to be involved in child labor they were more likely to be in school and to stay in school they were less likely to have childhood illnesses or infectious diseases and more likely to have books in their home and all of this together told us that women the more educated they were the longer they lived the healthier they were the wealthier they were and so were their children besides this there is other data from other parts of the world that shows a strong link between population growth and the status of women we know that when girls drop out of school they marry earlier and then they start childbearing earlier and so they have higher fertility throughout their life and today our planet is heaving under 7 billion people it's not a tenable situation and the population council has projected that if women in the world's least developed countries delayed childbearing by an average of five years that would lead to a 37% drop in the current projected growth rate for global population then there's the economic impact if girls in Kenya on average completed grade 12 that would add 27 billion dollars to their economy during their lifetimes three hundred and eighty three billion is the amount that's lost in potential lifetime income from 4 million adolescent mothers in India and in Nigeria if girls had the same employment rates as boys this would add nearly 14 billion dollars to their economy every single year we also have research drawn from Wars around the world that tells us that when peace agreements are drawn up without women that those peace agreements tend to break down faster than those that have women at the negotiating table and the largest extant database on the status of women in the world today which was put together by a researcher named Valerie Hudson and her team found a very strong link between state security and women's security so when their team looked at factors like a country's level of democracy or its level of wealth or its ethno-religious dynamics they didn't find anywhere such a strong correlation as they did when they looked at a state's level of peacefulness and how well its women were treated so women and girls matter and if the moral argument doesn't convince you then this hard evidence should that state stability and poverty and just about everything else has a causal relationship with the status of women but we can't change the status of women unless we change their access to quality education so we'll never manage to reach those eight Millennium Development Goals and especially the first goal eradicating extreme poverty if we don't do better on number three changing gender inequality and number two achieving universal primary education we know that countries cannot move out of poverty unless they address illiteracy the track record so far has shown us that countries need to reach a threshold of about 80 percent literacy rates before they can leave poverty permanently behind but in Afghanistan literacy has been one of the more sluggish indicators there's actually been huge progress made in a lot of different human development areas I'll just give you one example of maternal mortality so during the Taliban maternal mortality in Afghanistan was 2200 so the measure is per every 100,000 babies born 2200 women died in childbirth and at that time that was the highest in the world and it was a conservative estimate and to give you a measure of comparison in Canada the numbers 1212 women who died in childbirth per hundred thousand babies born so today in Afghanistan that number has dropped to 329 which is still very very high but it's dramatically improved from the time of the Taliban but we just don't see that kind of progress with literacy still today only one in five young women can read or write and young women are supposed to be the age group where literacy rates are are the highest and this isn't for lack of literacy programs or funding or rhetoric about women and girls education it's because the way things are going it's just not working and in the mixed survey that we did in Afghanistan one of the more shocking findings was that even for girls and women who had some education who went as far as grade six in primary education only 30% of them could read a sentence shown to them by the surveyor so what this told us was that either they lost their literacy after leaving school or they never had their literacy in the first place despite some schooling so it was with this in mind that we at my organization Canadian women for women in Afghanistan in partnership with the Linda Norgrove Foundation which was founded in memory of a slain aid worker in Afghanistan Linda Norgrove and with some funding from US aid started a program called Afghanistan lolly or Afghanistan reads and we wanted to try an experiment we asked what would happen if we put a library in every literacy classroom and if we trained all the literacy teachers how to also be librarians so we tried this in 21 literacy classrooms and 32 high schools in six provinces in Afghanistan so shortly after the program launched I went out to one of these classes in a village called boot rack and I sat in the class and it took no time at all for me to see that these women were functionally literate so I pulled some of them aside and I asked them how long did it take you from the point where you could read nothing to how you can read now and their answers varied from two to three months which is unheard of in literacy education and I was suspicious so I went to other villages and I found the same thing they were becoming functionally literate in two or three months and I asked them what impact is literacy having on your life and they gave me all kinds of answers one of them said I've become independent now I can go places by myself because I can read the street signs another told me that it was as simple as just being able to read the label on a medicine bottle and give her child the right medicine another said that now she can help her son with his math homework and she's more respected in the family because she can do this another said that she started attending village council meetings and that she feels confident to do that now because she said I have the right words I know how to talk like an educated person and one girl who was so confident because she had learned to read and write and now thought she could do anything had decided to transition into primary school and then go to university and become a doctor and one my favorite told me that she just wanted to read her husband's text messages and see see what he was up to so they have all their different reasons but literacy had opened a door for them and it's like dr. Seuss said that the more that you read the more you will know the more that you learn the more places you'll go so reading is ultimately about freedom it's about the freedom to go places and see things and learn and to think and criticize and analyze and to question and to imagine to imagine a different kind of future for yourself and literacy is the key that opens that lock that leads to things like mobility and independence or taking part in local politics or accessing healthcare just to name a few and besides that it's the fundamental right of these girls and women to be able to go to school but here thousands of miles away from Afghanistan we haven't always done such a great job of defending that right of others to access rights like education rights that we've really come to think of as expected for ourself in our own society so back in 1996 when the Taliban came to power I was a ninth grader and the first thing that I ever did in defense of the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan was to draw up a petition a crudely worded petition I was I was 14 so I'd only made recently made the jump from you know being focused on boys and school dances and things like that to the Taliban and women's rights in Afghanistan but I took this petition with me to school and I asked people to sign it and most people did but one teacher of mine refused to sign it and he said to me it's none of our business how they choose to treat their women and I couldn't believe my ears but it definitely was not the last time I heard that it was just my first confrontation with cultural relativism and to this day nothing makes me as angry other than the Taliban's treatment of women and girls as our own indifference here where our rights and privileges are so well protected and even more so than indifference when we actively are making excuses about not speaking out but not in and I'm still angry and I actually once had my anger management issues made very very public when I had the unique experience of seeing my own huge round face on the cover of 24 hours and on the sides of buses and on newsstands for about a week in Vancouver so everyone knew I was angry and I'm still angry and I'm still being told to mind my own business and and being called you know names like imperialist and purveyor of hegemonic discourses and stuff like that and you know people will tell me that human rights that democracy that gender equality our Western values but can you think of anything more arrogant than claiming those values as ours alone when the front line of those values today is in countries like Afghanistan where people are actually dying in defense of those values so people would tell me that the idea of human rights is a construction it's just part of our own cultural worldview and not part of others but what is in fact constructed is culture culture is made by humans and humans can change it and humans do that all the time it was once part of our culture for women not to vote and for girls not to study and for women not to work outside the home and we laugh at those ideas now and we would be horrified to hear someone express those ideas in the 21st century but were somehow less horrified when we hear the same sad about a place like Afghanistan we forgot that we once once waged those same struggles and that rights were not given they were taken and now it's the turn of others to take theirs so culture is not innate but I've come to believe that human rights are and I'm going to share with you my argument for that which is in fact based in science and specifically in the way that we humans reacts to pain and others when we witness pain in others whether it's something as gory as watching someone cut off their own arm sorry for the spoiler if you haven't seen this film or as minor as getting a paper cut we have a really physiological reaction to seen pain in others you wince your stomach clenches and that's because that's genetically coded within us we're designed to be that way because it's been in our evolutionary interest to avoid pain and suffering in not only ourselves but those around us to protect our our household our tribe and likewise to promote joy and welfare and pleasure in ourselves and in those around us and in the same way we are programmed to from want to promote empathy in others and we all have the same stuff pumping through our bodies molecules like oxytocin which triggers feelings of trust of affection of compassion of generosity and especially of empathy and that's why you laugh when you see a baby smile and that's why I Afghans do that the same way as we do it here so we're all born with that capacity to recognize and respond to pain in others and to have empathy for others but we're also really good at smothering that because we can't take in all the pain of the world and so we find all these strategies we can block it out and ignore it or we can respond to it with empathy in action or we can activate excuses like cultural relativism which let us off the hook from doing anything and we frankly just do that too much and the risk in doing that is that we fail to see ourselves and others and the Inconvenient Truth at the end of the day is that we're all the same and we all want the same things wherever we live and these girls and girls like them all over Afghanistan have been threatened for wanting to go to school the Taliban have burned down their schools they have murdered their teachers they have thrown acid on girls on their way to school they've poisoned their school wells and they've threatened their parents for having the audacity of wanting to send a daughter to school but you know what they go to school anyways and there's no more louder message that they could be relaying to us that they have the same values as us that they want that right to education that we already have in our own society and we need to do a much better job of speaking up for them because beside that they're the best solution that we have to solve so many of the world's ills they're they're huge solution staring us in the face there's simply a smart investment and the Taliban already know that and that's why they're so scared of these girls so we need to catch up to that and also recognize the power they have and continue to give the Taliban a good reason to quiver at the sight of schoolgirls so I'm gonna leave you with the message that you need to live in it and think it and repeat it and always act on it with empathy that human rights are universal so thank you very much

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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