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ODESSA T STA MARIA
I don’t think I’ve ever clearly articulated to anyone my agenda for Nepal. I’m here to pursue my life’s passion of hearing about people’s disappointments and finding spaces for them in this thing called the human rights framework.
I am completing my Masters in Human Rights and Democratization, hence the past nine months have been spent listening to lectures and poring over journal articles to know, understand and restate the concept of greed, suffering, and compassion in a legal, scholarly way.
While I am enthralled by academic vanities greatly aware of their purpose, there comes a point when the activist in me screams, “Bhayo!” Enough! Time to head back to the work of tweaking the process and making pedestrian language relevant to the game of the powerful. First stop on the journey back to Nepal, where the combination of dealing with everyday people and research work on the federal constitution tells me I’m off to a good start.
Here’s an illustration of the language disconnect: as a student of international human rights law, one is taught the dominant view that not every wrongdoing counts as a human rights violation. A human rights violation requires a specific actor (the state) and the breach of a treaty or some customary law. But as a human rights worker in the field, how does one explain to a woman, repeatedly battered by her husband and has very limited choices for relief, that what she undergoes is a crime but is not necessarily a human rights violation?
She is human, she does have rights, and she certainly felt violated. Sure, it’s mostly semantics. But the disconnect bears implications on who owns the language and how much transformation real life stories would have to undergo in order to be actionable in this field we dare call human rights.
Perhaps it’s part of human rights work to challenge oneself, to always think in such a way that bridges the disconnect, to navigate the human rights framework with real stories in mind, to be on a personal crusade and create more favorable norms whether domestically or internationally.
How do we make sure that Ghimire, the taxi driver who drove us to Lumbini, mentioned that he only gets 20% of his everyday proceeds while the car owner gets 80%, secures a better deal? How will the new constitution protect informal labor? How will it ensure that “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” (Article 23, Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UDHR)?
How do we make sure that Nomita has an equal shot at getting top honors when throughout her school life she has been disadvantaged because of her low caste?
How do we make this kind of discrimination punishable? How do we uphold that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” (Article 1, UDHR)?
How do we convince young Sushmita to stop fearing an impending marriage with a man she barely knows? How do we make sure that marriages are always “entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses,” (Article 16, UDHR)?
The language of human rights is actually useful when perceived sans the intellectual snobbery, when read with a view of accommodating rather than alienating, and when spoken as a language not only of the educated few, but of the majority — especially the most vulnerable rights holders who should be true masters of human rights.
The writer is currently studying Master of Human Rights and Democratisation at the University of Sydney and is in Nepal for the second semester.