by Valérie Bah
During these 16 days of activism, we also celebrate Human Rights Day, a day for which the United Nations has proposed the slogan, “365,” suggesting that the world should embrace the idea that every day of the year should be Human Rights Day.
It’s an apt theme, given the fact that earmarked days can send the message that the public should accept atrocious norms most of the time as long as it occasionally organizes high level ceremonies or sets aside five minutes of silence. Similar criticism has been levied on the celebration of International Women’s day and Black History Month in the US. Commemorative days imply that the majority of the time belongs to a wretched status quo.
The same could be said of the geographical provenance of human rights, sometimes dismissed as a “western” construct. I will illustrate with examples from two countries in Africa.
Recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), more than 200 Congolese human rights defenders signed off on a press release denouncing politicians for framing them as enemies of the state. The press release complained about a campaign led by DRC politicians to paint them as traitors and destroy their public image in light of an unfavorable human rights report.
In the context of “Opération Likofi (‘punch’ in Lingala)” a DRC government campaign to reduce the incidence of violent crime in Kinshasa, these Congolese human rights observers have drawn attention to extrajudicial killings and summary executions which took place throughout the campaign by publishing their findings.
The report of these Congolese human rights defenders came on the heels of other damning reports on Operation Likofi filed by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) which resulted in denials from the Minister of the interior and the expulsion of Scott Campbell, the UN envoy for human rights from the DRC. These reports were mostly dismissed by politicians as foreign interlopers. Even the local media has taken this stance. Several newspapers have published cartoons depicting foreign and local human rights defenders as absurd defenders of criminals.
(Translation: “Go away, Campbell!!! You’re creating more problems than solutions…”)
The article linked to this comic exSource: digitalcongo.net
In Togo, widows face abusive rites, including seclusion, and sometimes forced sex, although the nation is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its constitution and family code make provisions for the protection of women’s rights, indicating a schism between traditional and adopted laws.
In light of this, a civil society organization, Association de femmes pour la santé et le dévelopement (ALAFIA), which strives to promote girls’ education, livelihoods for women, and access to reproductive health, has lobbied community leaders, including queen mothers, to curb practices and traditions that harm widows.
Through two years of advocacy, ALAFIA was able to change laws in several cantons to abolish these rites. In one of the locations where they operate, a head of canton abolished long widowhood rites.
An interesting aspect of ALAFIA’s advocacy is that, though they rely on donors outside of Togo, they refuse to see it as an externally-imposed initiative, but rather as a movement driven from the inside.
“We have found strategies to promote the perception that this is an external initiative,” said Berthe Adzoavi Tattey from ALAFIA, dismissing the suggestion that the fight for human rights is associated to any particular identity. “For example, even Christian religions have come in from outside (of Togo) and denounced certain practices.”
Today is Human Rights Day. Even so, it is Togo’s Human Rights Day; it’s the DRC’s Human Rights Day; it’s our Human Rights Day.