Putting the Emphasis on Human Rights in a Post-9/11 World: Human Rights Education at the University of San Francisco

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.


The Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations proclaimed the years 1995-2004 as the U.N. Decade of Human Rights Education in order to put Human Rights Education on the international agenda and to coordinate activities around the globe. To keep up the momentum, the U.N. launched the World Programme’s Plan of Action for Human Rights Education with its first phase (2005-2007) focused on K-12 curriculum projects, and the second phase (2010-2014) on Higher Education and Civil Service. However, only a handful of Human Rights Education courses have been offered in U.S. colleges and universities. This fact leaves our U.S. teachers and teacher educators seriously unprepared to participate in this World Programme, only reinforcing the isolation this country experiences from the U.N. and the international human rights framework. It is no wonder that only 8% of the U.S. populace is familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document of human rights law. Yet in this post-9/11 world, the need for Human Rights Education has never been more pressing.

Given this context, the Department of International and Multicultural Education (IME) at the University of San Francisco School of Education is proud to offer the first and only graduate program in Human Rights Education in the U.S. At the same time, we would very much prefer to not be alone and to have university partners in this endeavor. We are writing this article in hopes that it inspires others to join us.

The inspiration for the Human Rights Education program came from the 2005 NYU Faculty Resource Network summer seminar on Human Rights across the Disciplines, in which Dr. Susan Katz participated. On the very last day, Karen Robinson, the former education director of Amnesty International, spoke on the need of bringing human rights content into the field of education, particularly teacher education. A light bulb went off in Dr. Katz’s mind since her department had just completed an external program review where students had expressed the need for a more global focus and new vision for the curriculum. After returning to USF with this idea, she and her colleague, Dr. Shabnam Koirala-Azad, received financial support from the USF Jesuit Foundation and the Leo McCarthy Center to develop new curriculum on Human Rights Education. In Fall 2008, IME launched an emphasis in Human Rights Education in the M.A. and Ed.D. programs and the enrollment has grown rapidly since then. Over 45 students have come to USF solely because of this emphasis.

The Human Rights Education emphasis involves 4 required core courses: Human Rights Education: Pedagogy and Praxis; International Human Rights Law for Educators; Gender and Globalization; and Immigration and Forced Displacement. In addition we have offered elective courses in Social Movements, Human Rights in the Media, Human Rights in Latin America and have proposed courses in Human Rights in the Graphic Novel, and a summer immersion experience in Ecuador on indigenous rights, the environment, and education there.

This article focuses upon the Human Rights Education course that Dr. Katz first piloted in Spring 2007 and has taught three times since in Spring 2009, Fall 2009 and Fall 2010. The original course description in the 2007 Human Rights Education syllabus is below:

This course will explore the essential concepts of “human rights,” as originally developed in key documents of the United Nations (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). We will investigate current violations of human rights worldwide and discuss the strengths and limitations of the U.N. framework to address these violations. In that light, we will consider the role of non-governmental organizations (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), activism and other means of defending human rights.

All of the case studies are intertwined with racism, discrimination against women and children, and poverty. We will analyze each from the perspective of international human rights and consider how this framework could lead to effective action. Students will develop either curriculum or further research studies to educate others about these case studies or other examples of your choice.

The particular case studies change each semester, and the most recent course focused on criminal injustice against African Americans, indigenous struggles against transnational corporations in Ecuador, and children’s rights in Haiti and the Sudan. What has not changed is that the course has always culminated in the creation of a research-based pedagogical tool, in which students select a human rights issue relevant to their own lives, examine the scholarly literature and related human rights legal instruments, and then develop a way to share this information with their classroom or community that incorporates an engaging and interactive approach. It is this final project, or pedagogical tool, that has been most effective in motivating students to take their knowledge beyond the classroom.

This effectiveness is best illustrated in the student work presented in this article. Dr. Onllwyn Cavan Dixon enrolled in the pilot Human Rights Education course as an advanced doctoral student in Spring 2007 and wrote his final project on female genital mutilation. Subsequently, he taught Gender & Globalization in Fall 2009 and Human Rights Education in Fall 2010. Ms. Juliet Schiller, doctoral candidate, took the course in Fall 2009 and focused her research on women survivors of torture. She took the next step towards action in initiating a campus chapter of the organization Survivors International. The rest of this article describes their projects.

Female Genital Mutilation: A Pedagogical Tool for Beginning to Explore Global Violence Against Women

Dr. Onllwyn Cavan Dixon

In 1995, at the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women, Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked, “If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well” (Eidenmuller, 2010, para. 7). Exploring women’s rights, in all their facets, has been my passion for close to a decade. While enrolled in Dr. Katz’s course, I was inspired and encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of the practice of female genital mutilation as it relates to the interconnected nature of global violence against women. I credit the Human Rights Education course with helping to deepen my understanding of human rights issues and for transforming my praxis.

Senegalese activist Awa Thiam states, “When you cut off a woman’s genitals, when you sew them together, when you open them to have sexual relations, when you sew them up again when the husband is absent…there’s no need for explanation -everything is clear. You control the woman as you control no matter what the object, no matter what possession or property” (Walker & Parmar, 1996, 288). Like foot binding (China) and breast ironing (Cameroon), the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a manifestation of gender inequality leading to the oppression of girls and women. According to hooks (1990) and Mohanty (2003) sexism and misogyny lie beneath and fuel the values of many of the world’s social and political institutions, leading to hatred and violence against women.

At its core, the sexual mutilation of women is an attempt to control women’s sexuality, their very bodies. FGM and other practices of violence against women, including rape, domestic battery, and sexual harassment, are not issues of women’s rights, but of human rights (World Health Organization, 2008). Sara Corbett warns, “as Western awareness of female genital cutting has grown, anthropologists, policy makers and health officials have warned against blindly judging those who practice it, saying that progress is best made by working with local leaders and opinion-makers to gradually shift the public discussion of female circumcision from what it’s believed to bestow upon a girl toward what it takes away” (para. 10).

In the face of oppression “people tend to hold on to the practices that they can enforce” (Walker & Parmar, 1996, pp. 274-275). The World Health Organization (2008) defines FGM as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious, or other non-therapeutic reasons. Four different types of female genital mutilation are practiced today. Approximately 100 to 140 million girls worldwide have been subjected to one of the first three types of FGM (World Health Organization, 2008).

The practice of FGM has existed for thousands of years in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in Asia. It is not known when or where the tradition of FGM originated. Some believe the practice started in ancient Egypt, while others state it started during the slave trade when Black slave women entered ancient Arab societies. Others believe it started with the arrival of Islam or developed independently in sub-Saharan Africa prior to the arrival of Islam as a part of puberty rites. FGM is illegal in Western countries and most African nations, but many of the laws are not enforced.

FGM touches on many sensitive issues and should be approached with care and intention. Therefore, the facilitator should carefully consider the make up of their class including: age, gender, group dynamics, etc. and tailor the sessions accordingly. The sessions are a framework for introducing students to the key concepts for understanding the global nature of violence against women and how they may individually and collectively address the underlying issues.

Curriculum Overview

Session One Objectives

  1. Have a broad understanding of the meaning of “tradition.”
  2. Be able to identify gender-based traditions that are prevalent in their communities.
  3. Have constructive ideas of how to change bad traditions.

Session Two Objectives

  1. Describe the structure and functions of the normal female genitalia.
  2. Give a descriptive definition of FGM.
  3. Describe the range of procedures and the conditions in which FGM is carried out.

Session Three Objectives

  1. Identify the reasons given by communities for performing FGM.
  2. Give estimates of the prevalence of FGM in the countries where it is practiced.
  3. Describe the immediate and the long-term physical complications of FGM.
  4. Recognize the psychosocial and sexual complications of FGM.
  5. Document FGM complications.
  6. Learn about international conventions and resolutions against FGM.

Session Four Objectives

  1. Humanize the practice of FGM.
  2. Connect FGM to the larger issue of violence and oppression of women in their local communities.

Session Five Objectives

  1. Have a better understanding of how the U.S. culture perpetuates violence against women.
  2. Have a better understanding of how relationship between pop-cultural imagery and the social construction of masculine identity.

Follow up: Community Reflection

Phase I (the problem)

  • Name the problem
  • Contextualize it
  • Identify its elements
  • Discuss the consequences

Phase II (the personal)

  • How does what you have learned contradict, expand, differ, or support your personal experiences?
  • What feelings and emotions were brought up by this topic?

Phase III (creative/transformative)

  • What action can I/we take based on our reflections?

Survivors International and the University of San Francisco

Juliet Schiller, Doctoral Candidate

My interest in working with survivors of torture occurred after I read Sister Dianna Ortiz’s (2007) testimony, Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth, for the course Human Rights Education. Her account led to my formation of a partnership between Survivors International, a Bay Area organization that rehabilitates survivors of torture, and the University of San Francisco, where I am enrolled as a doctoral candidate.

More than half the countries that form the United Nations use torture (Mendez, 2007). Torture is considered to be one of the most serious violations of international laws and falls under the definition of a war crime. Torture is used not only to destroy the entire person, but also entire communities through the threat and fear that torture spreads.

Nothing describes the horror of torture more vividly than torture survivors’ narratives, which reveal the raw feelings, emotions, and terror one feels when being tortured. As a result, I decided to collect narratives of torture survivors from several countries for the final project of the Human Rights Education class to raise the consciousness of San Francisco Bay Area university students and residents. I used narratives of female torture survivors from Central and South America, Pakistan, and North African regions. After collecting and focusing on four personal accounts, my paper included coping strategies of survivors from these different cultures and recommendations for action.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2000), at least 400,000 torture survivors who fled persecution in their native countries now reside in the United States. 90% of refugees in the United States have witnessed torture or have seen its effects in their communities (Sorensen, 1988). Women are at greater risk for organized violence compared with men and are less willing to publicly speak about their ordeals. As refugees, women face linguistic, monetary, and cultural obstacles as they attempt to navigate through the system of a new country and may experience heightened discrimination.

Through the collection of torture narratives, I felt moved to listen, to care, and most importantly, to act on behalf of survivors of torture. These stories were shared in the hopes that the international community might also stop to do the same. Training and education offer the most important steps toward eradicating torture from all countries. A human rights framework provides the legal and ethical context for educating citizens and governments about the use of torture. Spotlighting a country’s torture practices can create domestic and international pressure to end them.


Corbett, S. (2008, January 20). A cutting tradition. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20circumcision-t.htm

Dross, P. (2000). Survivors of politically motivated torture: A large, growing and invisible population of crime victims. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Victims of Torture. Retrieved from: http://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/reports/motivatedtorture/torture.pdf

hooks, b. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Eidenmuller, M. E. (2010). Hillary Rodham Clinton: Women’s rights are human rights. Retrieved from: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/PDFFiles/Hillary%20Clinton%20-%20Womens%20Rights.pdf

Mendez, J. (2007). Foreword. In W. F. Schulz (Ed.), The phenomenon of torture: readings and commentary (p. xiii). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mohanty, C. T. (2003). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ortiz, D., & Davis, P. (2002). The blindfold’s eyes. New York, NY: Orbis Books.

Sorenson, B. (1988). CAT and Article 20 and 22. Contribution to the festscrift for Jacob Moller. Raoul Wallenberg Institute. Torture, 8, 76-81.

>Walker, A., & Parmar, P. (1996). Warrior marks: Female genital mutilation and the sexual blinding of women. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company.

World Health Organization (2008). Eliminating female genital mutilation: An interagency statement UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO. Retrieved from http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2008/9789241596442_eng.pdf

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World