“HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCACY: AN AVENUE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE”
-Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
It is good to be here today!
It is indeed a great privilege and honour to be invited to deliver the keynote address at SAMPRATHI 2012 the two-days National Seminar” on “Human Rights Advocacy: An Avenue for Social Change” organized by the Department of Social Work of St. Aloysius College (Autonomous) Mangalore.
At the outset, I would like to place on record my sincere gratitude to the Principal Fr. Swebert D’Silva sj; to the Head of the Department of Social Work, Dr. Loveena Lobo; to the Convenor of this Seminar, Mr. Roshan Monteiro and all other faculty and students involved in this Seminar.
The theme itself is a very engaging and challenging one. I am sure the deliberations over the next two days will not only give us a deeper understanding of the many dimensions and ramifications of ‘Advocacy’ but would hopefully make each one of us gathered here true advocates, to ensure social change at every possible level.
Having said this, I would like to invite each one of you to come to grips with the theme itself so that the conversations we have in the course of the Seminar will be focused and engaging.
v Meaning of Advocacy:
If we restrict ourselves purely to the dictionary meaning of ‘advocacy’, we would be limited to “the act of pleading for, supporting or recommending; active espousal” and here we are talking about a cause, an issue.
‘Advocacy’ is an ongoing process aimed at changing attitudes, actions, policies and laws by influencing people in power, systems and structures at different levels for the betterment of those affected by the issues.
Advocacy requires a series of well-planned and interconnected areas to be implemented over a period of time.
However, in today’s environment, which demands radical social change at various levels, advocacy is something much more! It pre-supposes at all times a very high degree of Compassion, of Courage and of Commitment.
In the course of this keynote address, an attempt will be made to amplify each of these aspects.
v A historical perspective:
Advocacy perhaps first got legitimacy in the wake of the Second World War. The pain, the trauma, the brutality of it had left peoples and nations scarred forever. The holocaust was surely a chapter that the world would like to forget. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still remains deeply embedded in human memory. So it was fitting that the leaders from across the globe at the conclusion of World War II, unanimously and unequivocally uttered that cry together “NEVER AGAIN!!!” This cry first gave birth to the United Nations and a little later, from the visible unity and commitment demonstrated by all, emerged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
This great Charter which was promulgated on December 10th, 1948 ultimately became not merely a vision but also a mission (a strategic action plan) which was intended to give a more humane and just direction to the world in the years to come.
It was fortunate that our country gained independence in 1947 just when the fires of World War II were dying down. The tremendous desire for social justice and peace for the new- born nation would have been uppermost in the hearts and minds of the Constituent Assembly in the drafting of the Constitution, which remains for every single citizen of the country the bulwark of our democracy.
It was perhaps the vision and commitment of Dr. Ambedkar and his colleagues that ensured in 1949 that our Constitution is rooted in the four fundamental principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. The entire Constitution evolved and revolved on these four basics. It was quite obvious that the whole country was expected to mainstream these cherished values for a more just and humane society for all.
Many decades have gone by since that two year period between 1947 and 1949 when the world in general and India in particular hoped for a new beginning. But as we look back and look at our country today, it is plagued with all kinds of problems at every possible level. Corruption rules the roost; Casteism and Communalism have eaten into the foundations of our democracy. Politics is Criminalized and thanks to what liberalisation, privatization and globalization have done to our economy, blatant Consumerism has become the catch-word of the new generation.
Even as we prepare this address, we are really not sure of what will be the fate of the Central Government in a few days from now. Growing political instability, the advancement of regionalism and the inability of Governments both at the Centre and the State, to address and tackle crucial aspects of a country in middle-age has added to the woes of many millions, very particularly, the poorest of the poor.
What the country desperately needs is social change! We are convinced that human rights advocacy is a time-tested avenue for this.
II. IGNATIAN ADVOCACY:
It is important at this juncture, to highlight the fact that this great institution, St. Aloysius College, Mangalore (which can rightly claim a rich heritage and education of the highest quality) is a Jesuit institution; I too, am a Jesuit and very proud of the fact, without wanting to be condescending or patronizing.
An important, though perhaps, not propagated dimension of the Jesuit way of proceeding is its attempt at advocacy. In January 2010, the Ignatian Advocacy Network (IAN) was born. This network recognized that the Society of Jesus has been, and still is, ‘one of the most widespread grassroots organizations in the world in contact with low-income, disadvantaged and otherwise marginalized people. It also has one of the largest pools of knowledge and research facilities, and is in contact with many people in decision-making positions.’
IAN was created in an attempt to address the problem of disconnectedness of these three major assets of the Society of Jesus. In view of this, one of the papers by Fr. Jimenez (A shared vision of Ignatian Advocacy: Advocacy themes and their linkages) stated thus: “Advocacy covers a wide range of possible actions ranging from social mobilization to direct dialogue with decision-makers. Public advocacy is part of a long process that establishes stable commitments with affected communities, sets up alliances and builds up citizenship in a participatory civil society. The aim is ultimately to promote critical and constructive engagements with the centres of power, and the perspective should always be that of the oppressed and excluded. Advocacy in the Ignatian perspective incorporates elements of contemplation and knowledge of oneself; it is not conceived as a way of acting from outside the subject, but as a process in which our involvement transforms us. Learning how God loves this world, we love it in the same way. All this calls for discerning our objectives, measuring forces, and living out the tension between prophecy and pragmatism. As Turner suggests, our advocacy should be: qualified (competent, helped by research, self-conscious); relational (centered on people, not only on issues, and practiced through encounters); and Ignatian (spiritual, attentive to the presence of God).
III. THE FOCUS:
The fact that, after sixty five years of independence, “human rights for all”, remains an illusion, at least a distant dream, is stating the obvious.
We live in a country that has been gripped by many ills and a whole host of human rights violations, perhaps at every possible level.
Just a couple of months ago, here in Padil, Mangalore, a group of youth who were apparently having a good time together were just bashed up by right-wing extremists; in Madhya Pradesh, thousands of people have been displaced because dams were constructed near their small land-holdings and there was no appropriate land acquisition in place; in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, thousands of villagers have been protesting the construction of a nuclear plant which will not only affect their livelihood but will also be detrimental to their health; in Bombay, sedition charges have been slapped on a cartoonist because he dared to portray Parliament in an insensitive manner; in West Bengal, a man is thrown to jail because he dares to challenge the Chief Minister on a specific issue; in Gujarat, young men, who know the truth are just killed by the police in “fake encounters”; in Chhattisgarh, a great humanist like Dr. Binayak Sen is jailed for his ‘association’ with the Maoists.
The list is endless indeed! One only has to switch on one of our many 24x7 TV channels or open any of our daily newspapers to be aware of the inhuman reality that literally overwhelms us.
Our focus therefore is very clear. Advocacy is about people: their rights and freedoms, the access they need to have to the basic amenities of life and to growth and development. In all these, there has to be a definite option for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and exploited sections of society. Advocacy means providing a voice to these voiceless.
IV. DIMENSIONS OF ADVOCACY
Advocacy has several dimensions and it comprises a whole range of involvements from twittering and signing online petitions to serious study research; through diplomatic and sensitive negotiations and possibly also through very visible and vocal protests.
Let’s then pay attention to some of these dimensions.
Awareness is identifying an issue / concern / problem that should be addressed within society. For example, the issue could be contaminated drinking water, child marriage, or environmental pollution. Awareness also includes researching the issue for a deeper understanding. Awareness is two dimensional: me becoming aware and then making others aware. One becomes aware of a reality through the newspapers, TV programmes, word of mouth or simply an experience. In this first step, one needs to let others know about what is happening, to find out some facts for oneself, to get as much information as possible.
Documentation is basically collecting as much information on the issue as possible. The information may be collected from newspapers, the internet, witness statements, professional opinions, or legal proceedings. It is important to preserve the original documentation so critics cannot claim that the documentation is false. Also, it is important to collect not only information that supports your position on an issue, but also the counter-information so that plans could be tailored to take on the critics, if need be. Documentation also includes photos, videos and other articles that could be used as evidence.
Visibility is being an active person on the issue. To become visible, a person must be present and be engaged with the issue. A visible person participates in events, speaks to the media and networks with other groups. We can easily point out very visible persons in the context of social / political movements. Mahatma Gandhi in the Quit India, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the US civil rights movement and Medha Patkar in the context of the Narmada Dam.
Ownership is essentially taking responsibility for the issue. Ownership includes the moral obligations towards an issue and towards the aggrieved party.
Communication is speaking for / about the issue. There cannot be any advocacy worth its name if effective communication is not an integral part of it. Communication comes in many forms. It may include speaking at rallies, writing articles for the media, creating online petitions or putting on street performances for the public. Communication is any manner in which the advocacy group acts or behaves to inform the public. Communication can even be the absence of communication, for example, refusing to sign a petition or declining to attend an event.
Action is organizing and participating in events that further the issue. Action includes both organization and participation and are mutually important. For any advocacy event, the event must be well planned to be effective. Examples of events include sit-ins, rallies, and other forms of creative protests.
Collaboration is networking with other groups for various issues. When networking with other groups, labor, time and money can be decreased by pooling resources. For example, when two groups work together for an event, they can reduce pamphlet costs because they can create one pamphlet with both groups’ information. Also, the number of volunteers will increase so bigger events can occur, which will bring more publicity to both causes. Recently in Mangalore, several academics got together to protest against the saffronisation of the school textbooks and of the anti-minority bias in them. This coming together definitely generated a lot more interest in the issue and would definitely create the much needed impact.
Yardstick is creating and monitoring the issue’s goals and personal goals. Creating and monitoring goals is an important tool for evaluating not only the success of the cause, but one’s personal progress. By reflecting on the issue and determining how far one has come can help determine where one needs to go. Goal-setting is certainly an important dimension even if we do not reach the desired goals; we at least know where we are heading and how the campaign is going on so far.
Friends, in this Seminar, you are going to delve in various possibilities; the rights of children, of employees, of sub-altern groups, of women, of the disabled, of the unorganized sector the need for greater protection of the environment. The question that will have to be uppermost in our minds during these deliberations is whether we are able to transcend our social work studies and the narrow confines of a classroom into something more engaging and meaningful like advocacy.
Advocacy, we should be convinced is not merely the prerogative of the armed chair academic. It is an essential tool and within the reach of all – from a frightened student in a classroom who is desperately trying to finish one’s assignments or prepares for one’s exams to a courageous street fighter. It does not matter who it is. Human rights advocacy is the need of the hour and it should be used by all of us to ensure social change.
At this juncture, perhaps all of us need to take a cue from our Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore when he prays in his Geetanjali:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit,
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, led my country awake!”
(This key-note address was delivered at the National Seminar on ‘Human Rights Advocacy: An Avenue for Social Change’ organized by the MSW Department of St. Aloysius College (Autonomous) Mangalore on September 25th, 2012)
(* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace)
Address: PRASHANT, Hill Nagar, Near Kamdhenu Hall, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad - 380052