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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Let’s uphold human rights in our homes
Unless we do that, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world’
Published:
December 02, 2022 03:20 AM GMT

Updated:
December 02, 2022 03:38 AM GMT

For almost all of human history, most men and women had no rights, only duties.

You had to be born rich and powerful, a member of the "right" caste, race, class, sex, or religion to have rights at all. And even then, the whim of a local monarch or the misfortunes of war could wrest these privileges and leave you a slave, a serf or dispossessed.

Indeed, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (d.1679) indicated, men were savage beasts to each other.

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The French Revolution of 1789 changed all this with its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”

It declared that all “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (Article 1), which were specified as the rights of liberty, private property, the inviolability of the person, and resistance to oppression (Article 2).

Much later and in our own lifetimes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) took place in 1948, at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco.

"Most of those nations who advanced the cause of human rights were themselves guilty of the gravest transgressions"

It was a time when the world was still reeling from the monstrous revelations of the Nazi concentration camps, a standing indictment of man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings.

And yet, most of those nations who advanced the cause of human rights were themselves guilty of the gravest transgressions where the rights of others were concerned.

In 1948, Stalin, the Russian dictator, was still sending his fellow citizens to the Gulags, the largest network of hard labor camps ever devised. Those he did not work to death, he summarily executed.

Britain and France were colonial powers, known for their exploitative practices the world over, and for their racist attitudes towards their subject peoples in India, Africa and South-East Asia.

And the United States itself was rampant with hostility towards its blacks, its indigenous peoples and people of other races.

So human rights, attractive enough on paper, were still far from being respected and practiced the world over.

Which are the major areas where human rights are not observed? Two come to mind immediately: race and gender.

Race is insidious: whether in the segregation systems of so many Western countries, or in the caste system of India, racial injustices are omnipresent.  They destroy the egalitarian bases of society and have no place in a functioning democracy.

The UN High Commission for Racial Justice has a four-point agenda which it encourages all its member states to implement:

  • Step up: Reverse cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action
  • Pursue justice: End impunity for human rights violations by enforcing the law, and closing deficiencies of trust wherever they exist.
  • Listen carefully: Ensure that the voices of those of different ethnic origin and those who stand up against racism, are heard, and that their concerns are acted upon
  • Redress: Enforce accountability and redress past grievances.

Gender inequality is one of the oldest and most pervasive forms of inequality.

For centuries and across cultures, it has caused the discrimination and exclusion of women from social, political, and economic life. It has also blocked women from leadership roles and has led increasingly to gender-based violence. 

Women face increasing “intersecting inequality.” This means, on top of being mistreated because of gender, one is also discriminated against because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, disability, income and occupation. As a result, we now have even wider gender and racial gaps.

"Where human rights are concerned, societies, where religions hold sway, are usually the worst off"

Gender inequality is mainly responsible for poverty, as in the expression “poverty has a female face.”

Women have fewer resources, less power and less influence compared to men, and can experience further inequality because of their class, ethnicity and age, as well as because of religious and other fundamentalisms.

India has long been regarded as one of the world's most unequal societies for women, and largely unsympathetic to gender issues.

When the whole world has awakened to feminism's appeal, why is it that Indians have been unable to free themselves from the shackles of outdated social practices and traditions?

Is it because their social structure is dominated by kinship patterns, where patriarchy rules supreme?

Where human rights are concerned, societies, where religions hold sway, are usually the worst off.

In part, this is because of the stranglehold of a tiny oligarchy over the larger body of believers. In other words, wherever leadership is vested in priests or teachers, usually men.

So whether it is Hindu priests who promote caste segregation, or Muslim ayatollahs and their control over women’s bodies, or the Christian hierarchy and its pedophile scandals, it is this oligarchy which dictates the lives of women.

For centuries the Catholic Church believed that “error has no rights,” and persecuted those it considered unbelievers and heretics through its Inquisition and the practice of excommunication.

"In today’s pluralistic democracy respect must be accorded to each individual, no matter what be his or her background"

The Church has also been criticized for its efforts to manipulate political decisions and governments, for its rigorist views against contraception and homosexuality, for its opposition to women’s rights and the involvement of many of its clergy in the sexual abuse of minors.

But we no longer live in a feudal world. This means that in today’s pluralistic democracy respect must be accorded to each individual, no matter what be his or her background. This is human rights in practice.

With dialogue and negotiation as operative principles, we can more easily accept the diversity of truth, and respect for different opinions.

After all, where do universal human rights begin? Not in the public square, not in parliament, but in the home.

So let’s start with a few basic questions: are the rights of women and children respected at home? Are courtesy and respect shown to all at home, or is there hostility shown towards the sick and the elderly? Are women beaten and abused? Are children neglected? Are the domestic servants underpaid and cheated of their rightful dues?

Eleanor Roosevelt, whose contribution to the UDHR in 1948 was seminal, was so right when she said;

“Unless these rights have meaning there, in our families, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia