Part III
D: Where? Adapting to Local Context, Cultures, and Concerns

Assessing Group Awareness and Concerns

Although some participants may be familiar with human rights issues, many may be exploring these subjects for the first time. The facilitator needs to determine the level of group awareness. Each group of participants will also have its own priorities and concerns, which the facilitator should assess and be sure to include.

The facilitator should continually relate general topics to the local context (e.g., "What aspects of this topic are especially important to people in this community?"). If participants raise issues not directly related to human rights or the topic of the workshop or course, the facilitator may want to consult with them about adding a session, perhaps asking some of the participants to arrange a speaker or lead a discussion.

Assessing Group Experience, Needs, and Strengths

Facilitators should always adapt materials to suit the particular situations, needs, talents, and interests of participants. For example, participants with limited formal education may feel more comfortable with discussion and research methods based on oral narration. More educated participants might be offered supplemental readings.

The facilitator should be open with the group about her or his concern to find the right level and seek their help in finding the best adaptations. The facilitator's willingness to adapt and consult will demonstrate clearly that this is a collaborative process in which the facilitator is a co-learner.

Using Storytelling

The facilitator should encourage participants to contribute illustrative stories from their experience. For example, the facilitator might announce the topic at the beginning of a session, asking "How is this an issue in our society?" and invite examples. These stories need not be personal. Participants might draw from legend, literature, films, television, or local history. Narrating personal or family experience should be strictly an individual choice.

Sometimes a historical perspective on these stories is helpful (e.g., "What do you know about police brutality in your father's or grandfather's day?"). Likewise comparing participants' stories can bring out significant themes (e.g., "In these stories who or what supported women's education?").

Facilitators often need to curb storytelling lest the session lose its purpose. The number of stories might be limited (e.g., "Let's just hear one more example of such a case") or the time circumscribed (e.g., "Try to keep your stories to one minute so everybody who wishes can offer an example").

Including Local Culture

Another way to make human rights topics more relevant is to relate them to local culture, both traditional and contemporary. For example, the facilitator might ask participants if they can think of any relevant proverbs, modern or folk songs, myths, tales, novels, or popular films, TV series, or radio shows, etc. Participants might also analyze the content of this cultural material (e.g., proverbs that speak both for and against racist attitudes) and its implicit attitudes (e.g., "What is the relationship between men and women suggested in this song?").

Cultural Relativism

One objection frequently raised against international human rights is that they embody values that contradict and threaten local values and customs (i.e., "that's not our culture"). The United States, for example, refuses to acknowledge most social and economic rights, such as health care or housing, and has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). People of different cultural traditions often have conflicting conceptions about the relation between individual and the collective rights (e.g., does the community own its source of wood or water supply or is it private property?) or about what aspects of life are public and which are private matters (e.g., can the state interfere with how parents discipline their children?). Termed "cultural relativism," this view that all human rights must be interpreted and applied according to different cultures and traditional values challenges the human rights principle of "univer sality," which holds that human rights are the same everywhere in the world.

Human rights issues often conflict, and facilitators should not evade these clashes of values. Instead the group will benefit from exploring the issue: how should conflicts between international human rights standards and local cultural practices be resolved?

In dealing with issues of cultural relativism, facilitators should keep these points in mind:

1. Neither culture nor human rights law is absolute. As human constructs, both culture and law are continuously evolving.

2. Human rights law sets standards but generally does not prescribe how they are to be met, thus allowing for wide cultural differences in implementation.

3. Human rights issues are complex and multidimensional and need to be seen from more than one perspective. For example, rather than casting an issue like female genital mutilation as simply a dilemma between women's human rights and cultural or religious practices, it can also be examined from the perspective of economic rights, development, or poverty. What are the economic reasons behind a family's efforts to preserve their daughter's marriageability?