Why use persuasion when combating traditional practices that violate human rights?

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Why use persuasion when combating traditional practices that violate human rights?

Let's start by explaining why we are coming together to discuss the power of persuasion in human rights work. Consider these questions when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:

  • What do we mean by ‘persuasion’? What do we mean by 'traditional practices that violate human rights'?
  • What does persuasion look like in human rights work?
  • In what situations is it best to use persuasion, as opposed to something more adversarial? Are there times when they could both be used together?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.

Can persuasion tactics help achieve legal reform?

I thought I'd kick start this conversation with a human rights problem that we tackle at Child Rights International Network (CRIN) - how governments and societies fail to view and treat children as rights holders - and ask what others think about using persuasion tactics with other, perhaps 'harder', advocacy methods to get legal reform. 

Children have all their human rights too, and not because "they are the future" or "the adults of tomorrow", but because they are human beings today. Yet so often children's rights are ignored and abuse in both law and practice. Harmful practices and traditional values play a huge role in this, ranging from circumsicion, child marriage and honour killings to ideas that children don't have civil and political rights because "they should be seen and not heard". You can read more about harmful practices and violations of children's rights in this report, and I'll probably talk about some of them more specifically throughout the week. 

One clear example of how children are not seen as rights holders is the harmful practice of physical punishment. In over 160, corporal punishment is lawful in the home where adults are (largely) protected by law from such violent assault. Traditional values about how to discipline children and the harmful practice that parents have the 'right' to smack their children dominate the debate in countries all over the world. 

How can we challenge this? At CRIN we have started to favour stronger forms of advocacy because traditional methods (eg letter writing, media campaigns, lobbying, protests etc etc) on their own have failed to generate the necessary change. We use and support legal advocacy to tackle problems like corporal punishment because in these 160 countries there is simply a problem with the law. Legal advocacy means challenging abuses of rights that are based on absent or weak laws or on laws that represent an abuse of rights in and of themselves. This might include strategic litigation in get a precedent (in common law countries mainly), encouraging a government to create a law against a particular rights violation, asking for the issuing of guidelines on the enforcement of a particular law or calling for the abolition of legislation that protects the perpetrators of violation. 

The law is the problem with corporal punishment, so put simply there must be a change in the law. But it is not as simple as that. People devise laws and governments (particularly in representative democracies, like the UK, which allows for corporal punishment in the home) so often bow to the lowest common denominator to ensure they stay in power. Harmful practices steeped in tradition, culture religion, or superstition play a huge role here too. What is needed is a real shift in how governments and societies view and treat children. 

Laws are the corner stone of human rights - if the laws says you don't have a right, then you don't have a right. Legal advocacy is essential to get legal reform, but what about other tactics, including persuasion? Should legal campaigners wait for the right moment to launch their advocacy, when they know that the society wants legal reform? Or should they just go ahead in the name of protecting and promoting human rights? How do they achieve an appetite for change in communities laden with harmful practices based on traditional values?

Would be really interested in everyone's thoughts on this!




Legislation in the wider context

Really interesting points Vanessa, thank you. I guess a good place to start is what we mean by persuasion. Persuasion, in the context of ending female genital cutting, takes the form of creating an opening for a dialogue that comes from within a community, it cannot be prescribed by external groups. In the context of FGC at least, understanding FGC as a social norm is crucial; by opening a dialogue around the human rights that everyone has, communities can explore what these rights mean to them and why practices such as FGC continue. So the question then becomes what leads people to make a choice that fundamentally goes against social norms?

Part of this answer is an enabling environment: civil society, media, healthcare, political will and religion all play a role in making this happen. Within that context we agree that legislation plays a key role, when it fits into a wider range of actions to ensure that human rights legislation is not an abstract notion for those that will ultimately benefit from it. Ending female genital cutting, as we understand it, has to factor in all of these elements and human rights are a key element of this. Legislation, if used badly, can drive a practice such as FGC underground and evidence suggests that it some countries, the average age at which a girls is cut has fallen, in order to avoid prosecution.

The compelling need for parents to cut their daughters is relative to the perceived expectations of those around them. If it is understood that the community as a whole has abandoned the practice, it can end. But not only the community – the intermarrying communities and social networks are equally crucial. So a process that starts with human rights at a legislative level brings in a variety of other interactions to end with human rights at a community level. So while legislation can be introduced before a society wants legal reform, how and when it is implemented might not be so clear cut.


Thanks David. I suppose this

Thanks David. I suppose this is particularly the case in societies which feel that human rights are a "western" construct that go against their own traditional values, no matter how harmful these values and practices are. A lot of our work involves supporting local advocates, campaigners and NGOs to tackle children's rights abuses in their own national and local situations. One example of this collective advocacy is our campaign against the inhuman sentencing of children. Corporal punishment doesn't just happen in the home. Shockingly, in around 40 countries children in conflict with the law can be handed inhuman sentences including death, life imprisonment and horrific forms of corporal punishment such as flogging, whipping, caning and amputation. A lot of these laws are steeped in religion and ideas of tradition. So we are trying to engage with local campaigners to tackle these horrific rights violations because they speak the local language in terms of knowing who to speak to, what to say and how. But so far we have struggled to get enough local campaigners on board, and the feedback is that it is very difficult to challenge these rights violations, including campaigners fear in their own safety. The surge in laws restricting NGOs receiving foreign funding doesn't help, and they might be worried that joining our campaign opens them up as a target. I suppose this is where patient persuasion comes in because there are just so many factors at play that cause these rights violations and environments that allow them to persist and are resistant to change. But how can you persuade people in a community that lacks the freedom of expression and the other civil and political rights needed to challenge the status quo and those in power? I'd be really interested to know about how you did this with female genital cutting, and also how other people have gone about it.

Social networks for persuasion

That is the key question, absolutely. One of the reasons that we have chosen to partner with Tostan is their human rights led approach that does equip people to use their human rights, rather than simply become aware of them. I am sure that this will be expanded upon by Tostan, but their Community Empowerment Programme has proven to be very effective in allowing people to explore how they can use their human rights in a practical manner. The CEP takes place over three years and in part it is this timescale that means a community explores their human rights together – effectively they build the means to express their rights internally. So as you say, patience is crucial!

Abandoning FGC is one form that this understanding of human rights often takes, and is arrived at independently. Those that have decided to abandon then take on the responsibility of persuasion, using all they have learnt (health, legislation and importantly human rights) to explain why they have done so to others in their social networks. Once enough members of a community have decided to abandon FGC, then they hold collective abandonment ceremonies in front of their neighbouring communities – in itself this is a further form of persuasion that will also be seen by those in positions of authority, effectively challenging the status quo.

All campaign methods are valuable, but the challenge is wider

Hi Vanessa,

I'm technically speaking neither a lawyer nor a human rights expert (though I am currently a freelance member of the research department of "No Going Back", a charity that aims to help LGBT asylum seekers make applications in the UK) and am coming at this from the perspective of a political scientist activist who has been invloved in agitating for various different causes/policies over the last few years. I think the brief answer to your central question is that achieving substantial change requires both a strong campaigning movement to push for change and legislation to underpin rights.

Definining terms, I take "persuasion" to mean the use of non-aggressive, non-coercive and populist campaigning methods to a) raise awareness of a particular issue- both with members of the public and politicians, and b) enlist popular support in order to build a movement to oppose and reform reactionary practices. The definition of "traditional practices" is difficult. From a Western perspective you would be tempted to say any political and social ideals that are rooted in religion and superstition rather than the liberal/secular ideals of the Enlightenment. There are, in my opinion, three fundamental principles on which the modern state should be based: the democratic principle- that citizens should be able to choose their own governments and laws and actively consent to be ruled by that government, the "no harm" principle- that in a citizens private life they should be able to do as they please provided they don't cause harm to another and the "social contract"- citizens should be able to trust their government to protect them and to provide and protect their rights- civil, political and social. For me, reactionary practices are those which violate any of these three principles, and I rather hawkishly advocate opposing and, if possible, removing, any government that does so

Returning to discussion of tactics, without a movement for reform and agitation to ensure politicians pursue rights in parliament, it is much more difficult to get legislation through. On the other hand, popular support and activism alone can only act as a catalyst or instigator for change. Often legislation or statutory underpinning is essential to ensure those who don't necessarily support the movement still comply with its demands. I think generally speaking though, legal reform follows popular demand, and persuasion must be concerned predominantly with engaging people and getting them to engage with the issue. Politicians try to follow whats popular and are unlikely to stick their neck out for a cause which doesn't already have a substantial societal base advocating it.

What I also think is crucial is the role of pressure groups and activists to raise the profile of a particular cause or issue in the popular consciousness and act as a vanguard of public opinion that can build that pressure for legislation.This is to an extent where the issue of tactics itself creates a kind of tension. I believe such a movement must develop a large popular base, a grassroots initiative of ordinary people who are prepared to oppose all the individuals and institutions that are violating human rights, but that is not enough in itself. Not to get too Leninist here, but while the movement must be based in the grassroots, it must also be led by professionals who know about the issues, campaign strategy and organisation, how to use the media etc and can ensure unity, discipline and clearly defined goals for the movement.

A huge problem in fledgling human rights movements in many countries, but particularly in the Middle-East or sub-Saharan Africa is that you either have one or the other: a large grassroots movement that has the anger and passion for reform, but lacks the organisational ability or discipline or, on the other hand, a group of dedicated and skilled activists who have the leadership abilities for such a campaign but fail at gaining popular support. A successful movement requires both of these things and one of the key tasks as I see it is actually developing and assisting such movements in these countries themselves. Internal pressure is both more effective and more legitimate than exterior pressure, which often looks like the West lecturing nations on what values they should have.

To turn to your final question, persuasion should be the first response to dealing with human rights issues. Even before reaching a petition or letter writing campaign, it is essential that there is already a movement in place and that the question of reform, even if not widely accepted, exists as a possibility in the popular consciousness. The terms of the debate must be cast by those seeking reform in such a way that they are relevant to those usually apathetic to politics and persuasive to those who oppose reform (for example, that reform is a way to save and update old values when, with no consession, the alternative could be insurrection and the complete distruction of them).

However, peaceful methods can sometimes only go so far, particularly given the literal militancy of many of the defenders of "traditional practices". Conventional methods of protest and persuasion are not always effective and, as many oppressive nations are either only semi-democratic or aren't at all, it can be difficult to pursue a conventional political solution. That is the time when more adverserial tactics are necessary and, if they fail, it is perhaps worth considering whether it is worth further supporting the movement that has been built if they wish to take on a more radical character and work with other dissident/opposition groups to pursue their ends.

The problematic thing few are happy to acknowledge is that many of these countries are so strongly governed by reactionaries and autocrats that revolution may be the only solution and I think in such a scenario many international human rights organisations (and indeed governments) need to consider whether instead of withdrawing, they should actively offer support to those who are fighting for better rights. Part of the reason the situation in Syria at the moment is so disastrous in that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over the rebels so we now have a revolutionary force that is more conservative and reactionary than the autocratic government it opposes. It is hard not to think that more could have been done to help moderate, secular and liberal rebels (who are agitating for better human rights) to oppose the Islamists and take control of the rebel movement.

It is an unpleasant truth, but sometimes no amount of persuasion and talking can resolve a problem. To take the example given by David of genital mutilation, it is unlikely many of these communities will be persuaded to stop doing it, they will need to be coerced through legislation, which may mean actually criminalising it. Your point about "human rights" being "Western rights" is an infuriating one that crops up often. I myself am opposed to the idea of "cultural relativism" as I think it is used to excuse a lot of reactionary and oppressive regimes and practices. The idea of human rights is a universal one rooted in rational principles, and any nation that is a member of the United Nations should abide by the UN convention on human rights under international law. Putting more pressure on the UN to enforce national law through sanctions and interventions against those states that violate them could also be a crucial mechanism for agitating reform.

Anyway, that's my slightly rambling take on the issue.


Thanks Rob, although in

Thanks Rob, although in response to your last paragraph I would point out that FGC has been criminalised in the majority of practising countries. While in many cases this legislation does need greater support, it has been shown that the most effective methods in ending FGC do instead start at the community level and that legislation is a pillar that supports this, rather than the other way around. Communities are already abandoning FGC across Africa - Tostan's programmes have seen over 6,500 communities chose to abandon the practice while overall rates are falling in many countries.

It is an African led movement (it was the African union who pushed for a recent UN General Assembly resolution 'Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilation') and much of the change is coming at a community level. In reality, communities can and are being persuaded to abandon FGC, but being persuaded by other communities and community members.


Social norms

Thanks David  @Orchid Project for the mention.  We would like to come back to a point you made earlier about understanding female genital cutting (FGC) as a social norm. 

'Traditional practices that violate human rights', including FGC and child/forced marriage among many other practices, are often the result of social norms that are deeply entrenched within communities and across social networks, even crossing national boundaries. Social norms carry the threat of social rejection if an individual makes decisions different from those of the group. For example, if parents choose as individuals not to cut their daughter, they know that the girl will face sanctions in later life – she may be ostracized by her community, and will have difficulty getting married. Therefore, parents agree to have their daughters cut even though as individuals they may not support the practice. This explains why FGC persists despite the fact that it is illegal in many countries where it is carried out. 

It follows that the key to ending the practices such as FGC and child/forced marriage lies in changing the social norms themselves. In order for this to happen, it is necessary for the decision to come from the community members and their wider social network, as they are the ones who enforce the social sanctions. 

The process of positive change takes time – our human rights-based Community Empowerment Program lasts three years and is holistic in nature, leading to impacts in many areas affecting the community. The program initiates open dialogue around traditional practices, giving community members the opportunity to discuss topics which have previously been taboo. When participants are empowered with knowledge about their human rights and the health consequences of FGC and child/forced marriage, they often decide themselves to give up these harmful practices, and seek to spread this message to others in their social networks.

As David said, communities who have chosen to abandon these harmful practices announce their decision at a public declaration. Making an announcement in a public setting reflects endorsement of the new social norm - no one will be ostracized for deciding not to engage in a practice when all have collectively agreed to stop it. 

So far over 6,500 communities from Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, and The Gambia have publicly declared their decision to abandon both FGC and child/forced marriage.  While the ending of harmful practices following our program and a public declaration for abandonment is not 100 percent, these public declarations are critical in the process for national abandonment and necessary for building critical mass, eventually leading FGC to becoming a thing of the past.

Any efforts to end harmful practices should consider the social nature of the practice, anchor social change within fundamental human rights supported by national legislation, and seek to involve all the key influencers in the decision to abandon the practice. 

Are international standard setting and norms useful locally?

Thanks everyone for your comments here. I'd like to pick up something that @RobW said about the UN enforcing international law in national situations. Broadly speaking, when it comes to harmful practices rooted in tradition, culture, religion or superstition, do people think that the UN can be of help to human rights campaigners? Can messaging what the international community says, particularly when a government is named and shamed, be an effective persuasion tactic (as well as a legal one - more and more courts are starting to cite the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance). In what circumstances?

Am I right in thinking that international standard setting wasn’t key when it came to FGC, David and @Tostan?

Sitting in the Human Rights Council in Geneva gives a great perspective on how nations around the world view and interpret human rights to help their citizens live with dignity, respect and equality. But you also get the sense that these dialogues are so distant for the lives people are actually living around the world, and the human rights abuses that are going on everywhere, as well as States' private agendas. When it comes to corporal punishment of children for instance, the UN has said numerous times that is amounts to a human rights violation because it is violent assault. But yet traditional values about what it means to be a child, how they should behave and 'rights' parents have over them are so deep that in over 160 countries, including the UK, it is still lawful in the home. Some would argue that smacking a child is not as damaging as things like FGC or child marriage (despite medical evidence to the contrary showing long term physical and mental scarring), so how do you get the community on board with this when so many think it is ok to give a child a little smack?

Discriminatory laws against the LGBT community in Russia and other countries (I think it's proposed or in effect in seven now, including Ukraine. Lithuania and Moldova) are couched in "won't someone protect the children" rhetoric. Not only in this incredibly patronising to children (as are other laws that deny them access to information about sexual and reproductive health, drugs, pornography etc etc), but it is dangerous for freedom of expressions, chills social debate on important issues, stagnates society and entrenches the status quo and violates the rights of minority groups. Do people think that the UN can do anything here? Or the IOC with the Sochi Olympics, for that matter? 

I guess what I'm trying to get at is: Can international standard setting and what the international community thinks about a particular human rights issue be useful for local advocates trying to persuade their governments and societies to a) view something as a right issue b) listen to concerns c) do something about it and change the law, and then enforce it effectively. 

Government action

We feel that what is very important is government action on a national level. Several governments that we work with have shown real will and commitment to ending harmful practices such as female genital cutting (FGC). The Government of Senegal, for example, as well as outlawing the practice – FGC has been illegal in Senegal since 1999 - has made a human rights-based approach to ending the practice central to their second National Action Plan for FGC Abandonment (2010-2015).

We have also been working very closely with decentralized authorities in Senegal over the past two years and each region has put in place a Regional Child Protection Committee whose role it is to monitor and follow through on public declarations for abandonment. These regional committees are comprised of local government authorities and different civil society representatives. They continue awareness raising and report potential problem areas related to FGC in each region along with Community Management Committees established during the Tostan program.

The Ministry of Justice in Senegal is also very involved and we have partnered with them to undertake decentralized trainings on the law - translating all of the child protection laws into local language and discussing them on local news shows.

The human rights instruments are a vital tool when teaching people about their rights and responsibilities and it is important to show them that there is international support for abandonment. The full effect of the UN resolution is however still to be seen, but it has been an important advocacy tool so far and in the last six months there has certainly been an increase in international coverage and awareness around this issue.

LGBT rights - international community v national (eg Russia)

That's interesting, thanks very much Tostan. Particularly around matching law and practice and how you need to get the community on board to actually make rights around sensitive issues a reality. 

Does anyone have any examples from their work where a UN resolution has been really useful in national contexts when traditional values are causing a harmful practice? 

Although it's not a resolution, on LGBT rights the UN has recently launched its "Free & Equal" campaign. It's been a massive effort from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and they have the likes of Desmond Tutu on board. The idea behind the campaign is start conversations, difficult conversations around taboos, about LGBT issues in communities. One element of the campaign is releasing films regularly where an everyday person talks about some of the issues they face around LGBT rights, like this mother in Brazil talking about her life with a gay son. So it is similar to the persuasion tactics spoken about here, but coming from the international community.

This has all been done when traditional values around what constitutes a family have been used as an excuse to criminalise and prejudice LGBT people in many countries, including the "anti-gay" propaganda laws in Russia and other countries. So I was interested to read that Masha Gessen, a prominent and outspoken Russian LGBT campaigner who is open about her own same-sex family, says that the UN's campaign will have little impact or could even make matters worse because "it's both too late and too early for education campaigns here". 

In a perfect world, this education campaign would feel local to Russia as opposed to something coming from the international community. But homosexuality is such a taboo issue in Russia at the moment and the new laws make it illegal for people to mention the world to children, who need to hear it most (both for themselves and for society). 

Obviously we really hope that the campaign will be of some help to LGBT communities. But I think we will just to have to wait and see….

Reframing the debate

Apologies for coming late into this conversation. Took a little time to get familiar with technology since I am rather cyber illiterate. Finally my colleague Shakun helped register us and put me out of my misery!

I would like to pick up some of the threads of this interesting debate…especially those put forward by Rob and Vanessa that relates to the age old debate of the Universality of the Human Rights discourse vs cultural relativism and the that of legal reform vs social/cultural reform. All of which on we have some rather critical if controversial views! But good to take the debate forward.

But first…. a little to situate our work from where our reflections, both experiential and conceptual are generated….

Vimochana since its beginnings in 1979 has been working with the vision of making violence against women unthinkable and creating a violence free world for all. Our specific concern is with the ‘human rights’ violation of women within the home and community, as in dowry related harassment, suicides, murders and other forms of marital violence, sexual harassment and rapes of women, trafficking and prostitution, declining sex ratios etc…almost all of which are undoubtedly rooted in patriarchal cultural traditions. However our wider concern is also with the larger violence in society today that is not only distorting old forms of violence and discrimination but also generating new forms of violence against women and against the more marginalised and vulnerable communities. Therefore, our involvement with issues related to communalism, fundamentalism, wars, fragmentation of communities and cultures due to the processes of modernisation, globalisation, et al.

Our interventions on these issues related to violence are at several levels including crisis intervention, public campaign/ advocacy and community outreach apart from creative initiatives  like Courts of Women that are part of our search for alternative and other forms of justice and Women in Black actions against violence for peace. It is as part of this search that we would like to present some of our critical concerns:

  1. In cultures of the global south (be they in Asia/Africa or even the Americas and Europe) can tradition be seen as a static/fossilized process unaffected by the larger contemporary context within which it is defined; be it the processes of colonisation, post independent developmentalism or globalisation?
  2. Is the universal human rights discourse really universal or is it a product of the very specific culture and politics of post Enlightenment Europe? In this context is not the polarization between universality and cultural specificity rather specious if not hegemonic?
  3. As a women’s organization that is attempting to deal with patriarchal precepts and practices both in tradition and modernity  we are aware that the institution of law (which is in fact a product of this universal and liberal discourse) is not only limited in the way it can understand and respond to matters of social justice in heterogeneous societies but largely irrelevant as well. By this we do not negate the role that law can play but feel that it needs to be placed on par with other and diverse ways to justice embedded in cultures and communities that are not purely structured around relationships based on social contract between the state and citizen/individual.
  4. Should our efforts be oriented towards the task of erasing cultures and their manifestations or of making them more resilient, just and/or subversive? 

 It is in this context that we would like to look at the relevance of powerful persuasion as a way of combating Traditional Practices that Violate Human Right. It is in this context also that we would reframe the argument:

  • by not positing persuasion as an instrument to combat traditional practices. But as a way to internally converse with tradition that has been reconstructed by modernity and its processes and
  • by decentering human rights and making it only one of the ways  way to justice and not make it replaceable with justice itself. Universal Human rights can only be a means and a strategy and not a vision of social change and transformation.

Let us try to relook for instance at the issue of dowry that on the one hand has sought to be countered through a piece of legislation called the Dowry Prohibition Act that criminalises the act of giving and taking dowry within marriage. And on the other through public campaigns that seek to attack it at the level of changing the mindset of society.

Both these means frame dowry as a product of tradition.  One attempt to reframe the issue and evaluate our interventions was Daughters of Fire; The India Court of Women and Related forms of Dowry and Related Forms of Violence against Women that was organised by Vimochana in collaboration with 40 other national organizations in Bangalore in 2009. The Court through a Jury of eminent women and men, academics and activists heard about 30 personal testimonies of violence and resistance and expert witness statements that sought to contextualize these testimonies. I quote below from the introduction to the publication we brought out on the Court: 

“One of the reasons perhaps why dowry as a practice refuses to be legislated out of existence or die a natural death in the process of development is because it continues to be constructed in the popular imagination and public policy as a timeless cultural tradition that indelibly marks all infantile, barbaric societies that refuse to grow up to become modern and civilised by accepting the rule of law.

What became clear was that while dowry in its diverse forms has traditionally rarely been a problem in itself, as a particular form of  modern extraction and homogenised violence,  it has become endemic to the notion of a nuclearised, monogamous, conjugal unit called marriage and thereby  spread across all classes, castes and communities.

The thesis that dowry (in its present form) is not a cultural artifact but a crime of modern day economics was taken to a deeper level through several testimonies and presentations that showed how the processes of liberalisation are not only exacerbating poverty and the feminisation of poverty but also generating new vulnerabilities for women including declining sex ratios, trafficking, forced migration, decreasing age of marriage etc; They clearly demonstrated that in the new development paradigm which is hostile to the unproductive, deskilled, immobile woman, dowry signals the extreme devaluation of women who have become economic burdens and liabilities both within the natal and the marital home. Privatisation and liberalisation therefore, it became clear, were not merely a set of economic rules but have had a more intrusive impact on society and the environment.”

So much for now friends…..this has been a long comment.Will come in on some of the other issues raised in this conversation. 

Everyone can have their own tradition, but they are not rights

Hi Vimochana and welcome! 

You raise some really fascinating issues. I have never thought about dowries like that, but it does make sense to see it as something that has evolved from a traditional practice into something brought on by economics, changing attitudes towards women (both positive and negative) and cultural backlash against imposing ideas of human rights. 

Individual’s rights do need to work in conjunction with a society, so I agree that human rights are not universal in that sense - not everyone can claim their rights 100% because that could harm others, and each right needs to be read in context. For example, parent's right to freedom of religion has often been used to ensure lack of free will on their children's part when it comes to their education and ideas about religion, and also their bodies (eg male circumcision). Human rights laws, like all laws, are supposed to be living and breathing documents that evolve and progress as societies (hopefully) do. But saying that, they do have a fundamental and inherent quality. And that is not just because they are written down, but because as a whole societies and the international community have agreed on some basic principles that are necessary for people to live with dignity, respect and equality. 

My concern around traditional values and cultural relativist arguments against human rights is that tradition is just that - one community's tradition. I might have traditions coming from where I do that are different from someone else’s, even though we live next door to each other or work in the same building. One thing we should both be able to agree on is that we each have human rights that the other should not infringe upon, whatever our individual traditions. 

I am also concerned that traditional values and cultural relativism is used as an excuse to discrimination against minorities who don't fit the status quo and the ideas of whoever is in power, whether that's a patriarchal structure, a closed religious institution or simply one person over another. 

assumption of universality of the UN Declaration of Human Rights

Dear Vimochana,

thanks for these thoughtful comments. I'd like to elaborate a bit further on your second concern, since this exactly touches upon the point I wanted to write about today: the assumption that the universal human rights discourse is a universal one. While I personallly believe that the UN Declaration of Human Rights holds universal rights, I also have to admit that I - living in the Middle East - hear other opinions from "gatekeepers of traditional practices here in the region". Mostly Muslim countries, frequently criticized the UN Declaration of Human Rights for its perceived failure to take into account the cultural and religious context of non-Western countries. 

One of the major criticisms human rights activists are confronted with here is the response that they are trying to "westernize the country", are "anti-Islam", "apostates" (depending on the country, the punishment for apostasy from Islam ranges from no punishment at all to execution), " morally loose", " foreign" or " alien", All of these terms are used to discredit the human rights activists; delegitimize their struggle; to dishonor or devaluate the woman or her family (the concept of honor is an extremely important one in the region) and to facilitate and justify the use of violence against them.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam is a declaration of the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference adopted in Cairo in 1990, which provides an overview on the Islamic perspective on human rights, and affirms Islamic Shari'ah as its sole source. CDHRI declares its purpose to be "general guidance for Member States [of the OIC] in the Field of human rights". This declaration is usually seen as an Islamic response to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. 

Much discussion in this dialogue has taken place on the role and use of legislative frameworks. While this is important, it' becomes a more complicated one in the Middle East I believe, when we are confronted with a civil and criminal code plus Islamic laws, reflected in the existence of (for instance in Jordan where I live) three main types of courts:  Civil courts, military courts and religious courts. As I mentioned yesterday in one of my comments, Pakistan also follows rulings of traditional courts. While these courts are officially illegal, their rulings are implemented, due to social norms, and pressure. 

For the region I live in, the history and legitimacy of the UN Declaration is one not to be ignored when working in more traditional Islamic areas I believe. Does anyone recognize this/ has experience working in more traditional Islamic regions and can add from their experience?  

Peace Jose




Although this is not

Although this is not experience of working with traditional Islamic religions, I can say that after working with Maasai communities in East Africa for some years, traditional law runs alongside state law and is regarded as equally important. This will often be used in lieu of any access to law courts, simply because people cannot afford to go that route. Rulings can be on issues as diverse as domestic violence to land matters. In fact, many land disputes have arisen over traditional land deals that are not recognised when official surveys are conducted. I have heard anecdotal evidence of how changing traditional law around domestic violence has, to some extent, been informed by changing state law, with the final say resting on village court systems. This of course has filtered down from UN resolutions and declarations.



Persuasion is the art to direct people to change their mindset in a smooth but clear and definite way.

No result can be obtained by trying to force people to change their habits especially when it is a social practice passed from one generation to the other. Information and demonstration leading to a full understanding of the situation will allow people to accept the idea of a change. Then, over a period of time the transition needs to be worked out to avoid confusion and fear among the population.

Persuasion is a main tool in any conversation, it is also an art that can be learned. 

7 tips for respectful persuasion

Thanks for sharing this definition of persuasion, Kadida! Good to see you in another New Tactics conversation.

We agree that effective persuasion is "an art that can be learned." Philippe Duhamel shared 7 tips for the New Tactics community on respectful persuasion:

1. Tune in and connect. Use the weather, the environment, any element of communality to create the initial contact. Start with small talk (or rituals, such as those in Ghana). It helps create that tiny bond on which to tie your message.

2. Pace the energy. It's hard to say this without sounding esoteric, but there's an energetic quality to the art of convincing. Adjust yourself to the other person. One trick is to subtly mimic their body position. It creates an unconscious feeling of association.

3. Take in the cues. If the person is smiling and leaning forward, he's showing some interest and you are making progress. Likewise, if she is pulling back or looking away, slow down your spiel. Take the time to pull them back in. Check up on how you are doing. Sprinkle in some questions such as "Does that make sense to you?", "Do you see this also?".

4. Be transparent. Be yourself. You are not peddling junk or selling used cars. You can let the other person know how you feel, your doubts. Let your humanity show through. If you create the opening, you stand a better chance the other will lower their guards.

5. Listen carefully. Most people assume being persuasive is the capacity to hammer your points forcefully. I'd say, not so. Being persuasive actually has a lot to do with shutting your mouth, at times. Hear what the other person is saying, verbally and nonverbally. Persuasion is an exchange.

6. Stay humble. You may be right about some things. You may be wrong about some other things. Recognize you don't have all the answers. Practice humility. Be willing to learn from the interaction.

7. Go, then let go. Give it your best shot, but respect the fact that the other person may indeed have no time (or patience) for you right now. Persuasion is rarely achieved in a single encounter. Picture that person being more open later. Your interaction may have opened a window for the future. Let go and be at peace. You did your best.

Any other tips that we can add to this list?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

I would add to point 7 and

I would add to point 7 and say that Following up is also crucial. One conversation may have ended but with patience (as Safeer mentions) then it is always worth considering actively following up. Especially with social norms, this may not be the next week, or the next month, but even years down the line.


Thank you. I will keep these 7 points as a good guideline.

More Points

I would like to add a few points:


I think patience is key characteristic of the person going to persuade somebody. Be patient and stay cool, never lose your temper. 


Knowledge on the issue is also very important. The persuader must know the issue thoroughly. He/she should know why it prevails, who benefits from it, who is harmed by it, how community looks at it, which laws relate to it etc. I would like to share an example when I had to persuade people to start using iodized salt. I could deliver a lecture on the benefits of iodized salt and the harms of lack of iodine in our food to a community that suffered from iodine deficiency disorders (over 35 % people had goiter). All my lectures fell on deaf ears. Finally, I analyzed the community's attitudes and practices and found out where it hurt them the most. Marriage of an eligible daughter is usually the most pressing issue for a family. If the girls has goiter, it would be impossible for the family to arrange her marriage. So I added this to the harms of iodine deficiency and it worked wonders. Knowing your issue inside out counts a lot. 


Thank you Vanessa, Jose and

Thank you Vanessa, Jose and David for your responses and the concerns you raise.

Vanessa  yes we agree that cultural relativism is a position that is taken by patriarchs, fundamentalists and nationalists to reinforce status quo and used again women, minorities and other vulnerable communities. However it is also a reality that universal human rights is the language of the colonisers and imperial powers  (both internal and global) that is intrinsic to the project of secular hegemony masquerading often times as care or even liberal democracy. Take for instance the occupation of Afghanistan by the US that was almost sold to us as a feminist just war to save the poor Afghani women from the brutally patriarchal Taliban! This is not to say that  the Taliban can take refuge under the fig leaf of cultural relativism to justify its misogynistic  politics. But neither can a global power like the US use the fig leaf of democracy and universal human rights to justify its project of domination and control. Both cultural relativism and universality are therefore two sides of the same coin of domination and control in modern times and its political culture.

And so while we would be wary of universal human rights, we are surely for evolving a language  of rights, or perhaps justice, that can be  contextualised, collectivised and even historicised.   

For instance in India, as perhaps in most South Asian cultures we are used to working with multiple notions of rights and justice. ( Like we are used to speaking multiple languages!.) Like David we too are used to negotiating and working with the secular law, personal laws of different religions and customary laws of communities that may not be codified. And we find merit in working simultaneously at all levels. Simply because women come from and occupy  different realities and we must help/empower them find justice within those specific realities. Even as we learn from these realities. For we are committed to a politics of diversity and pluralism and not homogeneity and hegemony. The former engenders conversations. The latter fosters control.

In India for instance there was a huge debate on whether we need to bring in a  Uniform Civil Code to ensure justice for women on issues related to family and the domestic sphere based on uniform secular principles and regardless of which community they come from. Or whether we should take refuge under the several personal laws, be they Islamic, Christian or Hindu. It is not surprising that the Hindu fundamentalists, Nationalist and Secularists wanted the former. While the Muslim fundamentalists pushed for the latter. We rejected the idea of the Uniform Civil Code and instead campaigned and pushed for the opening up of and reforms within the personal laws.

Jose and David just to share one little way in which we have tried to work with traditional Islamic communities (India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world) While addressing issues related to violence against women within the community we  initiated a process called the Aapa ki Adalat ( the Court of the Elder sister) in which we try to find justice for individual women violated by their husbands and families through a more progressive and gender just interpretation of Quran. And the source for this more progressive interpretation is not the UN Resolution but a more rooted and organic idea of justice that is infact universal to all communities and cultures. And in doing so we have had dialogues and debates with the male Moulvis and Mullahs who were dispensing justice within the Shariat Courts. Today many of them are telling their communities to come to us since they have failed to facilitate justice for women! But that is a long story....

In this context Kirsten we would like to say that persuasion is not only an art or  a technique that can be learnt but a politics and a vision that has to be owned. And therefore in Vimochana ‘Persuasion’ is organically part of all our interventions in which we are always trying to listen to and converse with the women who we see not only as victims, but as survivors and resistors most of who draw their sense of agency and empowerment from the context in which they are rooted; however problematic this context may be.

Perhaps Shakun, my colleague from Vimochana would also like to come into this conversation....?

Working within the context, however problematic it is

"In this context Kirsten we would like to say that persuasion is not only an art or  a technique that can be learnt but a politics and a vision that has to be owned. And therefore in Vimochana ‘Persuasion’ is organically part of all our interventions in which we are always trying to listen to and converse with the women who we see not only as victims, but as survivors and resistors most of who draw their sense of agency and empowerment from the context in which they are rooted; however problematic this context may be." (quote from comment above)

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Madhu. I really appreciate the point you are making here and I am eager to learn more about how Vimochana and other practitioners are working with survivors and resisters, and recognizing the empowerment gained from the context in which they are rooted.

We have an example of a tactic on our website from Malaysia in which women engage communities in public debate around contested perspectives of Islam. It might not be closely related to the point you are making, but I thought it was an interesting example of work that is being done to bridge religion, government and rights. Here's an excerpt:

Sisters in Islam, as one of the founding members of a joint action group called Malaysians Against Moral Policing (MAMP), has been organizing in response to the growing zeal of the state in policing the morality of citizens. Sisters of Islam provides support to MAMP through providing research and creating awareness of existing interpretations of Islam that uphold universal human rights and offer alternative interpretations to the official and dominant interpretations that have resulted in violations of human rights. By staying within an Islamic framework, Sisters in Islam and MAMP are able to raise awareness of human rights violations that are given religious sanction—such as discriminatory practices against women, homophobia, persecution of religious minorities and restrictions on freedom of expression.

The discourse on Islam is currently being highly contested at many different levels. On the one hand, there is increased Islamophobic discourse, aimed at persecuting Muslims and discrediting Islam as a religion that promotes violence. On the other hand, some governments of Muslim countries use Islamic discourse as a justification for curtailing the human rights of their citizens. There are also community leaders and religious leaders who preach fundamentalist and/or conservative interpretations of Islam that perpetuate and justify violence, repression and fear. This tactic is an attempt to bridge these issues by presenting alternative interpretations of Islam that are consonant with and uphold universal human rights. It provides insights for creating alternative avenues for opening discussions regarding fundamentalist Islamist and Islamophobic justifications for human rights violations. Most significantly, it engages the public and grassroots communities to enlarge the space for more inclusive and democratic public debate.

More information on this tactic here.

If there are more examples of this kind of work, please share them here! Thank you all for this thought-provoking and informative dialogue!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Thanks for this really though

Thanks for this really though-provoking post Vimochana. I just want to clarify that by the universal application of human rights, I am certainly not in favour of neo-colonial rhetoric or human rights by force. Human rights do get a bad name here in the UK as well when they are imposed by what is seen to be foreign power (ie the European Court on Human Rights....) and there are calls to repeal the Human Rights Act because of this. People see human rights as a limit on their power. 

But I do believe that human rights, as evolving, living and breathing principles, are a useful tool in opening up communities to discussions about what it means live in a fair and just society. Heavy means of enforcing human rights in countries have negative consequences - both in terms of people's lives (Afghanistan being the perfect example! And Iraq too - but human rights reasons were probably ways for western governments to justify intervention to their populations) and worldwide attitudes towards human rights. But perhaps human rights are also automatically dismissed by some communities as an alien construct that is 'not for us' before they are discussed, instead of being seen as something, among many other things that can be localised to that community, that can be slowly used to persuade a society towards change. And that could certainly be a product of history - both colonial and modern. 

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