Public lecture highlights the importance of human rights in marginalised settings

Posted on April 11, 2016

Distinguished visiting scholar, Prof Catherine Campbell presented a public lecture at the Hatfield Campus of the University of Pretoria (UP) on Thursday, 17 March 2016, titled, ‘Against “human rights”: a blunt tool for community mobilisation in highly marginalised settings?’. The lecture was organised by UP in collaboration with the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).  

ASSAf is South Africa’s official national academy of science and represents the country in the international community of science academies. The Academy’s mandate is to promote and inspire outstanding achievements in fields of scientific enquiry, and to recognise excellence through election to membership. ASSAf also conducts research on matters of public interest, both on request and through their own initiative, in order to provide evidence-based advice to government and other stakeholders.

Prof Campbell is Head of the Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and is a Director of her department’s Health, Community and Development Group. She is a qualitative social psychologist whose research expertise lies at the intersection of social psychology, sociology, social policy, development studies and gender studies. The key topics of Prof Campbell’s research include mental health, HIV/AIDS, the interface between marginalised communities, and policies and interventions in support of the wellbeing of women and children.

In the introduction to her lecture, Prof Campbell said that it was well known that human rights approaches dominate the landscape of public health and social development policies and interventions across Sub-Saharan Africa. She explained the importance of understanding how human rights are viewed by the communities that they are designed to serve, and highlighted that, within academia, intellectuals are divided in their opinions regarding the value of human rights strategies.

She discussed her research, which evaluates the debates around these strategies using three case studies of human rights approaches in action: a programme that seeks to facilitate women’s rights in South Africa, another to facilitate the rights of groups who are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS in Zambia, and a third to facilitate the rights of women in violent marriages in Uganda. The lesson to be drawn from these case studies is that there are complexities in seeking solutions to problems that have their roots in patterns of political, economic and cultural factors.

The programmes discussed seek to promote human rights as a path way to gender equality, put an end to domestic violence and effect a reduction in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The aim of Prof Campbell’s lecture was to provoke questions rather than to provide answers. ‘There is an urgent need for human rights programmes to engage in more advanced dialogue with vulnerable groups rather than using the current “one size fits all” conceptualisation of rights,’ she said.

Human rights is a complex issue and the literature is divided with regard to African rights – some academics seeing them as vital tools to hold states accountable for delivering entitlements like health care and education, and others saying that there can be no rights without resources. To illustrate this complexity, Prof Campbell cited authors like Makau Wa Matua, who says that human rights are part of a higher agenda to impose culturally biased norms and practices in non-western settings as part of what he calls ‘the wider colonial civilising mission’.

Prof Campbell explained that there is an assumption that human rights are a weak tool in the absence of political commitment from all-powerful groups and economic alternatives to oppressive social relationships. Social change is unlikely to come from the oppressed overthrowing the oppressors. Some women and youths feel that exercising their rights would lead them into poverty traps because they are dependent on their husbands and fathers. ‘We need a decontextualised understanding of women’s rights. Our research suggests that programmes seeking to empower women need to take a far more realistic approach,’ she concluded. 


- Author Mikateko Mbambo

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