Keep your trousers on, women of Malawi

Last week a number of women were beaten and stripped in the streets of Blantyre and Lilongwe because they were not wearing “traditional dress.” Women are protesting – as they should. And let’s be honest: everyone should be protesting this type of vicious attack on a person’s dignity.
To the men who perpetrated this act of violence, shame on you. Malawi is a beautiful country, a place I called home for two years and remains close to my heart. Shame on you for making this yet another story added to the list of abuses women face around the world simply because of who they are. I speak from having lived in Malawi for two years at a time when the government was in transition from the longstanding “His Excellency the Life President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.” I was living in Zomba in 1994 when the law preventing women from wearing trousers was finally repealed. I clearly remember walking to town one day to buy my groceries and – gasp – I actually saw a woman wearing black trousers standing next to some men at a bottle store (bar). I hadn’t seen a woman wearing trousers in several months – I admit I couldn’t stop staring.  But that was eighteen years ago.
I should also point out that in my first week living in Malawi, as I was walking down the main road from Zomba to Blantyre, I came across a boisterous group of men and women celebrating after a wedding. As per tradition, the men were wearing women’s skirts. I don’t remember any women beating up on the men because of the way they were dressed.
Stop it, guys. Take your anger elsewhere. It’s bad enough my native country is doing a lame job at respecting human rights; don’t let it happen in Malawi too. Take a cue from the preamble of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: “Recalling that discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity…” Just stop it. Let them be. 

Everyday rights

January 22 marks the anniversary of my mother’s death. Sucks. It’s been four years now. But it’s not a day to mourn – at this point, being sad would no longer be because I mourn her, but because I’d be feeling sorry for myself. Not going to happen. If I did that, my mother – had she still been kicking around – would tell me to stop being such a sissy.

Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.
At any rate, I want to remember her on this day by looking back at her take on human rights. She was a secretary, a receptionist, a stay-at-home mom, and eventually an old woman who occasionally went bowling and gambling with other old women. Her perception of human rights was essentially created the same way it is for most people: learned through experience, not through any formal education or training on international human rights conventions. So here’s what she knew, written up as “everyday rights” that guided her life, and if you know nothing about human rights, think again, because you probably do. For each “right” below, I’ve put in references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other human rights conventions.

1. Speak up when you’re pissed off (Sure it’s a right. Think Art. 19 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”)
In retrospect, I realize she did this quite frequently. If ever she felt she was not being treated fairly (by a mechanic, a salesman, anybody), she’d go on a rant in French and accuse the person of discriminating against her because she had an English name. Those on the receiving end of her vitriolic attacks always ended up on the losing side of an argument and acquiescing to anything she said. Even at the ripe age of 65, she went down to the local mall and protested with a bunch of other demonstrators and wound up speaking on the radio. I can’t remember why she demonstrated – must have been to protect the English language of the rights of seniors – but I do remember her fiery attitude afterwards. She was pumped at getting mad for a cause. Her demeanour unquestionably screamed, Don’t mess with me, Buster Boy.

2. Always look after the best interests of the child (Think Art. 18 par. 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: “Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”)
This one’s a no-brainer. She was a pit bull when it came to defending my rights and my brother’s rights. A good education, good health, enough food, water, you name it, there was nothing we went without. There were limitations, however. She made me ingest an unacceptable quantity of lima beans in my youth. Every single bite was disgusting. There had to have been a more palatable alternative.

3. A woman can do anything a man can do (and should never be discriminated against because she is a woman. Think Art. 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women that defines discrimination: “…’discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”)
She was a single mother with two boys. No further explanation required.

4. Don’t discriminate. But if you do, try your damnedest to change. (Art. 2 of the UDHR on non-discrimination: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”)
I like to believe that we – the collective we of planet Earth – are becoming gradually more tolerant and accepting of our differences. I’m more tolerant and accepting than my mother was, and hopefully my kids will be more accepting than me. Here’s an example of the way she thought: when the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, I phoned her from my home in Malawi to reassure her I was fine. Her response: “Are you getting along well with the natives?” I cringed at the outdated reference, but I know she meant well. It’s not to completely fault her – she was influenced by her generation while also shaping her own values and attitudes. When it came to accepting others, well…it was best not to talk about gays and lesbians; no taxi driver who was a “foreigner” could possibly know the streets of Montreal as well as a real Montrealer; all [insert ethnic minority] were cheap; every [other ethnic minority] was smelly; [those others] were rude; and as for me having a Chinese girlfriend – yikes that was a conversation-killer. The years passed and she did mellow out a lot. Perhaps mellow isn’t quite the right word. As she learned more about different cultures, either through TV or the changing ethnic landscape of her neighbourhood, ignorance manifested as subtle racism evolved into uncertainty, understanding, tolerance, and eventually acceptance. Most of the time.

5. Give (making sure that you do your part so that strangers live in dignity, Art. 1 of the UDHR).
I know, giving isn’t a human right. In the final years of her life, my mother decided to give money to charitable organizations that did humanitarian relief work. It was the first time she’d done so. A small gesture to be sure, but it symbolized a recognition that, despite living a life with a fair amount of significant hardships, she found room to give to others less fortunate. The gesture was Article 1 of the UDHR, plain and simple: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood […and sisterhood].”

So far, these everyday rights have worked just fine for me.

2012 – Suck it up and survive, or: reasons to be hopeful

I have never been one to make (and subsequently fail to live up to) any New Year’s resolutions. Although I would like to go to the gym often enough so that the cost of an average workout does not exceed the cost of a case of beer.
With a new year upon us I can best sum up my outlook as: The planet’s screwed but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to save it, and thankfully some people are still trying to do this but more of us should get out there and do something. I know it isn’t catchy but it’ll have to do. As I reflect on the title of this blog, A Change Is Coming, I’m reminded that change (for the better) won’t happen on its own; people have to make it happen.
The end of the year is always an opportune time to reflect on the past and hope for a better future. This should happen every day, not only now, but I guess most of us are too busy. Plus if all we did was reflect on the past and hope for the future, we wouldn’t be doing anything in the present. So as the year comes to a close I’d like to take stock of things. I have every intention of making this a top 10, but we’ll see if I can manage at least five things.
Here’s what I want for 2012:

  1. As an ordinary person, I know can make a difference in this world on my own and with others, including huge numbers of strangers who are just as pissed off at how things are as I am. I should try harder to make a difference.

How this can happen: On my own, I could try to be an Internet sensation and make a YouTube video of me dancing with a penguin that would go viral and make me (or at least the penguin) popular for a week. This would make 1 million people feel good for about 30 seconds or the length of the video, but I can’t make a career out of it. So for the moment, and over the next year, I’ll try to make a difference on my own by blogging more about things related to human rights that bug me or interest me, that discourage me and enrage me or that give me hope for a better future. My Christmas wish list to Santa covered many of these issues: a Canadian government that selectively shuns human rights violations internationally while ignoring its own actions here, including its discrimination of First Nations communities; killings, detentions and arbitrary arrests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt; African despots who have clung on to power for too long; discrimination and violence against the LGBTIQ community; and Obama reneging on campaign promises such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I’d add to that increasing sectarian violence worldwide, violence against women, trafficking and exploitation of children, internal conflicts around the world that kill thousands every year, violations against migrant workers and their families, human rights abuses by transnational corporations, and the shameful reality that we know we are destroying our planet but those in power are unwilling to make the right decisions for our own sake and for the lives of generations to come.

OK so I didn’t quite get to five things, only one, but I like to think of it as all inclusive.

Believing in human rights education
I believe we (collective “we” of planet Earth) can make our lives and the lives of others better by learning about human rights, so I am a firm believer in human rights education. For many people who lead a nice life and don’t need to worry about having their rights egregiously violated (like me), learning about rights is a destabilizing reality. You realize that so many others in this world do not have the same liberties and freedoms and ability to live a full life of dignity. Learning about human rights violations elsewhere leaves you feeling privileged/guilty/blessed with what you’ve got, and can also push you to act out of empathy and respect for others to help them live a life as full as yours. I specifically say empathy and respect rather than sympathy because the latter term relegates the dynamic of those who have and have not to one of pity and charity. Rights are not about charity; rights are basic obligations that states have for all of us to live equal in dignity and rights. I don’t want to help someone living in poverty because I feel sorry for them. I want to help them because it’s their right to live a better life, and we (collective “we” of planet Earth, but also “we” as in governments) have the ability to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions within our lifetimes.
Human rights education is just as essential, just as vital for those who live a life of dignity and equality as for those whose rights are violated. Everyone needs to know about human rights; human rights are not just a trendy topic in university classes, human rights education is not boring (at least it shouldn’t be); human rights education is unavoidable, it cannot be ignored. The events of the past year, in particular with the Arab Spring and worldwide Occupy Movement – are a clear indication that average citizens can rise up and demand their most basic rights – freedom, life, security, equality, and are ready to sacrifice their own freedom in order to achieve these rights for others. The courage of ordinary people defying guns, bullets and tanks in the streets of their hometowns to defy the oppressive despots leading their countries should be incentive enough for the rest of us to get off our collective asses and express our indignation at the failure of our political leaders.

The most impoverished are the strong ones
Worldwide, human rights violations affect those living in poverty the hardest. An estimated 1.7 billion people around the world are living in poverty – it’s an unavoidable statistic that affects everyone. I have seen, though never experienced, conditions of poverty in many parts of the world. However, the crap I see that shapes and defines people living in poverty is only a partial reality of their lives. Living in Africa for four years, I saw enough poverty to leave me incapable of facing it for the first two years in Malawi and give me a fair share of nightmares upon my return to Canada. But I also left wondering how so many people kept going with a strength I found remarkable. If there’s anything I want to learn from others less fortunate, it’s how they keep going with a strength of character to suck it up and survive. Whether through faith or will or courage or love or instinct or a mix of all that and more, the most awe-inspiring part of the human condition is found in places where living conditions are the most deplorable and those oppressed are being violated by others embodying the worst of human nature.

As I look forward to a new year, I remain conflicted as I was last year at this time: hopeful for a better future, but discouraged by the violence, poverty, human suffering and willful degradation of the planet. But the resolve of so many to stand up for their rights, to suck it up and survive and strive for a more hopeful future where their rights are respected, pushes me a little further towards the hopeful end of the scale. That’s enough to keep me going for another year. To all of you, a happy and prosperous New Year. A change is indeed coming.