You can give me the right answer about rights, right?

The second day is over. As I left the workshop rooms, all the facilitators were still working away, preparing for Day 3. It was a busy day, from a visit by the Canadian ambassador and Senegal’s Minister of human rights to an old friend. The latter was a surprise and a pleasant one for everyone. It was my friend Mai, a human rights facilitator who was the first person I co-facilitated with almost ten years ago as part of Equitas.

The participants had a more tiring day than yesterday and grappled with the universality of human rights. In our facilitators’ debrief this evening, the invited participants all mentioned the lack of time to discuss the issues as well as a frustration among some participants at the facilitators’ lack of “positionnement sur les questions.” In other words, the facilitators would listen to everybody but not give the “right” answer. Participants used to being fed the “right” answer wanted more direction from the facilitators.

The facilitators were only doing their job. In a participatory approach, it’s normal to have your own ideas, opinions, beliefs and values thrown back at you. That’s supposed to happpen, and the facilitator’s job (or at least part of it) is to ensure that the learner gets to a point where they can critically reflect on their beliefs and values and maybe, just maybe, change them. But it’s also the facilitator’s job to tell the learner that the road may be a bit bumpy, and they may very well get frustrated along the way.

It sounds straightforward, but there are circumstances where it’s hard – for me at any rate – to keep a degree of objectivity when a participant has a belief that is blatantly contrary to my vision of human rights. The death penalty is the most common issue, but other issues related to discrimination against women based on cultural or religious traditions ranks high up there as well. I don’t think these issues have popped up much in the past couple of days, but now that we’ve opened up the subject of the universality of human rights, I’m sure the debate isn’t over. The participants came here trying to learn more about rights because they educate others about rights, but in so doing they’re realizing that they need to question themselves on the universality (or non-universality) of these things called rights. That’s putting their own experiences, values, and beliefs into question. No wonder they ask facilitators for the right answers about rights. This is messy stuff.

Stuck on You: On sexual harassment and those touchy-feely energizers

It just wouldn’t be a workshop without Lionel Richie. Endless Love came trickling out of the speakers almost hourly at the Hotel Ibis in Morocco when I stayed there back in 2008. By the end of the workshop I was going sufficiently batty, and yet felt strangely empty upon boarding the plane and not hearing it.
Lionel’s back. The band playing tonight at dinner (they’re still going strong 2 ½ hours later) gave an acoustically-accurate but grammatically incoherent version of Stuck on You – the only real words I could understand were those in the song’s title. Stuck on you, mushrele grumpoo frumvsh depin msnool…They’re so good at playing the song that it’s the second time they do so. They played it last night as well. They also played every other song all over again, and pretty much in the same order. It may be a long week. Or perhaps they are only here on weekends.
The song reminded me of a moment during our facilitators’ orientation when we were discussing energizers, or “dinamicas” as we say in French. A discussion started after an energizer led by some of the participants created based on the word “love”. (The choice of words was up to them. The previous group had to make an energizer with the theme “conflict.”) In the love energizer, half the group approached the other half and began dancing with them and eventually tried to hug them (I should point out that the group members know each other quite well!). One woman ran away from one of them men yelling sexual harassment and that’s when the discussion began. While she yelled out in mock terror, it raised two serious issues: sexual harassment in a workshop and how to engage all participants in energizers where they may not be comfortable being close to others.
On the first issue, sexual harassment; some of the facilitators who attended last year’s program were surprised to find out that there were incidents of sexual harassment during last year’s workshop. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon: female participants in a significant number of workshops I’ve attended have been victims of sexual harassment. This is particularly regrettable when you consider that the participants are there to learn about human rights, dignity, respect, and equality. You’d think the guys would know better.
We discussed what happened last year and explored solutions to address any incidents that may happen during this year’s session. Have a play that demonstrates sexual harassment and talk to the participants about it, one facilitator suggested. Another one noted that there is one female and one male facilitator in each group, and a participant should feel comfortable going to one or the other to discuss any problems. The important thing was for us as facilitators and organizers to be observant of signs that show a participant is being harassed, and to take prompt and decisive action.
Solutions were a bit muddier when we discussed energizers in which participants touched each other. Facilitators noted they’ve had some participants – on religious or cultural grounds – who would refuse to participate in energizers and sideline themselves, an action that does affect the group dynamic. One participant wondered if we should ask them if they have any traditions that would prevent them from participating, but she quickly realized the futility of asking that kind of question, in itself discriminatory. We settled on taking the cautious route at first and having more non-contact or little-contact energizers at first, then trying out ones that require more contact later on in the program. The discussion lasted a good half hour, and to me it’s a splendid reflection of how much thought these facilitators take into what some would consider insignificant details. Who knows, by the end of the week, I’m sure most participants won’t have any problem being stuck on each other during an energizer.
Now if I can only get that one participant to stop taking pictures of me when I’ve got a mouthful of food. 

They are colleagues, not gazelles

Saturday night
I walked down to the beach with my three colleagues (all women). A man sitting on a chair nearby who looked like the sort of man who’s been working the beach tourist racket for years looked at me and said: “Monsieur vous avez trois gazelles avec vous; vous êtes polygame.” (Mister you have three gazelles with you, you’re polygamous.) As my colleague Natalie and so-called “gazelle” pointed out, they need a lot of education here. Of that there is no question. I replied that they did have a sense of humour, although it is misplaced and is nonetheless fed by an ingrained sense of male superiority and discrimination against women that objectifies and dehumanizes them. Did either of us say anything to the man? Well, no. There comes a point where you pick your battles, and that one wasn’t worth winning.
Discrimination against women is a topic we will be addressing while we are here. Not only how that discrimination manifests itself, but also ways in which human rights educators can combat and prevent such discrimination. While we may be talking of derogatory comments like the one the beach dude uttered, we will be addressing wider issues of discrimination that have systematically left women to be second-class citizens wherever it is they call home. We will be talking about the typical “gender roles” they play in society, their participation in decision-making at different levels such as the home or within the community, their access to certain services such as health care and why they are discriminated against.
It’s one issue of many. The reason why I’m here – and here is Saly, Senegal, about 80 km south of the capital Dakar – is for a second annual human rights training session organized by alumni of Equitas human rights training programs. The group organized a similar training last year in Ouagadougou, a city whose name I never tire saying. Within a couple of days, thirty participants from the host country, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso will begin their two-week human rights training program. The schedule is nuts, with the workshop starting every day at 8 AM and sometimes going until 6 at night. On top of that, the facilitators (6 in all and one coordinator) will have to go through a daily debriefing at the end of each day. Having done plenty of these before, these debriefs can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. I’m here to help out, but not too much. I will be around for a facilitators’ orientation that starts tomorrow and stick around for the first week, then I’m off.
For me it’s great to see the alumni of our programs carry out the same kind of program we did with them (with some adjustments). It’s a sign that the stuff we’re educating others about – namely the importance of human rights values, international human rights principles, and a participatory approach to learning that is action-oriented – is valid. It needs to be done, here in Senegal just as much as anywhere else. So while I’m here, I may yet get the chance to sit down with the beach dude and set him straight.