Cultural Anthropology/Human Rights

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to: navigation, search

Human Rights[edit]

Martin Luther King, a famous supporter of human rights.

Human rights are the "basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled". Human rights are distinguished from general American rights or human privileges in that they are "guaranteed by international standards, legally protected, focus on the dignity of the human being, oblige states and state actors, cannot be waived or taken away, [and are] interdependent, interrelated, and universal."[1]

Countries vary widely in their approach to human rights and history is littered with cases of ignorance of these rights to downright atrocities that don't give human rights the smallest consideration. Though the world has seen great triumphs in human rights such as the American Civil Rights Movement, it has also seen great horrors such as the Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda. By showing the atrocities of what people are capable of and the good faith people are capable of society can have a more well rounded view of our world and strive to make it a better place. [2]

Civil and Political Rights[edit]

Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Parties and signatories to the ICCPR

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a document representing the foundation of established human rights laws. This document is a set of principles adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This document was written in response to WWII and the holocaust as an assurance that nothing that inhumane would ever happen again. This document sparked a commitment by many countries to abide by certain humane regulations regarding political, social, economic, and cultural rights of humans.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created in 1966 and entered into force on 23 March 1976.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is monitored by the Human Rights Committee (a separate body to the Human Rights Council which replaced the Commission on Human Rights under the UN Charter in 2006) with permanent standing, to consider periodic reports submitted by member States on their compliance with the treaty. Members of the Human Rights Committee are elected by member states, but do not represent any State. The Covenant contains two Optional Protocols. The first optional protocol creates an individual complaints mechanism whereby individuals in member States can submit complaints, known as communications, to be reviewed by the Human Rights Committee. Its rulings under the first optional protocol have created the most complex jurisprudence in the UN international human rights law system.

The second optional protocol abolishes the death penalty; however, countries were permitted to make a reservation allowing for use of death penalty for the most serious crimes of a military nature, committed during wartime[3].

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[edit]

States parties and signatories to the ICESCR

     states parties      non-state parties signatories      non-state parties non-signatories]]

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966, and in force from January 3, 1976. It commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals, including labour rights and rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. As of December, 2008, the Covenant had 159 parties.[4] A further seven countries had signed, but not yet ratified the Covenant.

One example of this organizations efforts includes the UN's many attempt to create peace in Northern Uganda. As discussed in Sverker Finnstrom's article in American Ethnologist, The Acholi peoples of Uganda despite having been largely displaced into refuge camps have continued to make steps toward a more stable economy. Their humans rights have been at stake for over two decades. The UN's various programs are working to put the rebel forces out and regain this cultures natural human rights.[5]

The ICESCR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including the latter's first and second Optional Protocols. [6]

Reproductive Rights[edit]

Reproductive rights are more than the women's right to her birthing process but also the right of the women to have the child. Although abortion is a large issue around the world the question remains on whether a women should have the right to abortion if she so chooses. As reproductive rights are more clearly defined later on in this section it is important that we keep in mind the issue of abortion and what this could mean for women's reproductive rights. Does it fall into the rights of the women or not?

According to Craven a woman's right to choose a midwife is center to reproductive rights. [7]

Reproductive rights are rights relating to reproduction and reproductive health.[1] The World Health Organisation defines reproductive rights as follows:

"Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence."[2]

Reproductive rights were first established as a subset of human rights at the United Nation's 1968 International Conference on Human Rights.[3] The sixteenth article of the resulting Proclamation of Teheran states, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children."[4][3]

Worldwide, issues related to reproductive rights are some of the most vigorously contested, regardless of the population's socioeconomic level, religion or culture.[5] Reproductive rights may include some or all of the following rights: the right to legal or safe abortion, the right to control one's reproductive functions, the right to access quality reproductive healthcare, and the right to education and access in order to make reproductive choices free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.[6] Reproductive rights may also be understood to include education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, and freedom from coerced sterilization and contraception, protection from gender-based practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) and male genital mutilation (MGM). [8]

Rights versus Culture, Rights to Culture[edit]

Rights to Culture ensure that an individual or group of individuals have all their rights to enjoy and participate in their culture. This includes such aspects as the right to take part in cultural life, the right that will guarantee that a culture will be conserved, yet still developed, and finally, the right to still be protected from any harmful cultural practices.

In discussing rights and culture there are two assumptions that people often make:

•One is that cultures are unchanging.

•Another is that in a given society there is only one acceptable culture that everyone must abide by.

However, these assumptions may cause problems within a group of people in a few ways. When new rights are accepted in a culture that is normally unchanging, that new right may create conflict within the culture because of the varying viewpoints within the group. For example the issue of unveiling Muslim women so that they would no longer be oppressed. While Westerners are using the etic point of view without understanding fully what the veil means to the Muslim women. This is when rights and culture may not agree. Culture and human rights don't tend to agree fully, new human rights given may go against rights given within a culture.

In Farnaz Fassihi's book "Waiting for an Ordinary Day" explains the life of individuals in Iraq. Once Saddam was captured and the citizens were run by Americans, all hell broke loose. Not only did the citizens not know how to respond to the new freedoms they had, they soon came to rebel against the men who had given them that freedom. Their human rights of freedom were not of the norm in their culture and were unknown how to cope with. (2b) [[1]]

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[edit]

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) touches on this topic. On 16 November 1990, a United States federal law passed that requires federal agencies and institutions to return Native American human remains and cultural items to their respective peoples. Some of these cultural artifacts include funeral objects, religious objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. These federal agencies and institutions receive funding in order to do this. In this way, people are entitled to their culture both during life and after death. However, when it is unclear as to who the remain belong to, NAGPRA made a outline of decent for who should gain ownership of the remains. NAGPRA and Ownership 1. Ownership resides with any lineal descendants 2. If no lineal descendants, ownership resides with (in order) : A. The tribe on whose land the remains or objects were found or B. The tribe who has closest cultural affiliation with the remains and who stakes a claim or if undetermined C. The tribe who is recognized as aboriginally occupying land that was determined to be traditionally theirs by the Indian Claims Commission, unless D. Preponderance of the evidence shows that another tribe has a stronger cultural affiliation that the tribe id’d by the ICC

Rights as Culture[edit]

As a culture, certain rights are issued to provide a general guideline as to how people within that culture act, respond, and live. As it is common for many different cultures to share similar rights, it is equally familiar to have diverse rights among these same cultures. With differing views on how things work and what is acceptable, each culture has its own idea of what rights are issued to whom. It is not one cultures place to say that the rights issued within another culture are unacceptable, with the exception of universal rights (a term in itself that is often undefined among anthropologists). Each culture has a right to their way of living. Even though some cultures practices may seem cruel, like the circumcision of young girls in Africa, these cultures have been practicing their traditions for hundreds of years and do not see them as unreasonable or cruel. They can choose freely how to live and govern themselves as long as individual rights, specific to that culture, are still upheld. As a culture, you have a right to define your way of living. It is only when the line of human rights is crossed that the right as a culture can be questioned.

Rights as culture vary from people to people. As an individual participating in a culture, you are granted certain rights. Slavery, from an anthropological perspective is a violation of human rights. The idea of “right as culture” supports slavery as a violation of human rights. It is because of the rights of the enslaved that this can be said. The enslaved has rights pertinent to his/her culture that the person facilitating the slavery is overlooking. The violation of these rights cross the boundary of inhumane. It is therefore impossible to justify the idea of slavery when looking at it from a cultural perspective.

Human Rights and Cultural Relevance[edit]

It is the job of cultural anthropologists to study the world around them to better understand the differences of all the various cultures. Even with human rights clearly defined in a universal list of 30 articles; there still can be unclear cultural practices that question these articles by law and by morality of some.

Today many organizations have been formed to protect and fight for the rights of all man-kind.

Amnesty International: The oldest, biggest human rights group focused on individual, local human rights activism. Because AI stays strictly out of politics and avoids getting involved in issues outside its rather narrow mandate (area of concern), people from all sorts of political and religious backgrounds are members and work together.

Electronic Frontier Foundation: Founded to promote and extend the concept of civil liberties to on-line communications. While the EFF is a U.S.-based group whose main focus is on U.S. law, it has a number of "sister organizations" in other countries.

Human Rights Watch: Founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch, is a coalition formed by a number of independent regional human groups. They are perhaps the best human rights researchers in the field at present -- their reports are extremely thorough, carefully written, and backed by impressive amounts of detail and numerous sources.

Peacenet: Not a human rights group itself, but rather the first and largest computer network for activists in peace, human rights, and related issues. Peacenet is run by the Institute for Global Communications (IGC), an activity of the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit trust. It is a member of the Association for Progressive Communications, an international coalition of networks for peace and human rights activists. This is a good group for the hard core, on-line activists.[9]

Women’s Rights in America

This satirical 1869 cartoon is an example of the propaganda used in the Womens' Rights Movement.

Many rights that may seem inherent to our generations have not necessarily been that way forever. One great example is the woman’s suffrage movement. The end of the Civil War, when African Americans were given the right to vote, marked a date when women found themselves the last social group in America to be able to vote. Organized women’s movements originally stood for many causes. But around the year 1914, it seemed, most women activists were fighting for the right to vote. In New York City, women's movements “revived flagging local organizations, introduced new lobbying techniques, standardized membership lists, and established a state headquarters”. [10] People were rallying and protesting for the right to vote. All the hard work by women and fellow radicals eventually paid off. On August 18, 1920 women were given the right to vote with the addition of the 19th amendment to the Constitution.

Labor, Land, and Women’s Rights in Africa: Challenges on the Rights of Women

Recent developments illustrate an increasing awareness of the status of women’s rights in Africa and social well-being of women is contingent on rights to equality, health, education, and political participation in economic, electoral, and customary institutions. The Protocol could serve as a blueprint for African governments, engaged in revising their national constitutions and in passing new equality legislation, to incorporate a more fulsome recognition of women’s rights in these documents. Legal instruments of the African system largely ignored women’s rights until recent years. The 1963 Charter of the Organization of African Unity (“OAU”) made no mention of women. African nations designed the region’s primary human rights document—the African Charter—in 1981 to protect state sovereignty. The African Charter references women only twice: Article 2 includes sex in a broad non-discrimination clause and Article 18(3) requires states to eliminate every discrimination against women. The definition of employment at the most general level an activity for which one receives payment needs some elaboration in the African context. Employment for women in Africa is characterized by subsistence and small-scale farming, and their participation in informal trade is connected to agriculture, as opposed to what might be normally understood as paid labor. This “unpaid” work is typically tied to women’s duties as mothers and wives, and to their community and familial relationships. African women’s agricultural labor, including subsistence and small-scale farming, will be referred to as “informal” labor and is distinguished from formal or salaried/contractual work. It is in this “informal” labor context that African human rights instruments, of the kind that the Protocol aims to be, could usefully qualify and add to the existing international obligations of African states by framing labor rights not only in terms of salaried employment, but also as work in and for the home. Yet the Protocol adheres to a definition of labor that overly differentiates between employment and agricultural work. The rights related to employment focus on equal pay and on freedom from harassment—rights important in the context of a salaried position but of little consequence for women deriving income from land or trade. In this regard, the Protocol is limited in its ability to address the obstacles that women face in developing and owning land and the impact of these obstacles on women’s ability to sustain a liveable wage. Before analyzing the provisions regarding labor and employment in the Protocol more carefully, it is useful to explore the context in which many African women perform their labor. Although specific employment patterns diverge across Africa, regional patterns seem to exist: 80% of African women do agricultural work, which is the mainstay of most East African economies, and few women perform salaried professional and clerical work. Sub-Saharan African countries, like Kenya, reflect similar employment patterns: women are largely excluded from formal, paid employment and they constitute almost half of the agricultural workforce and 70% to 80% of all subsistence farmers. The chief reasons cited for women’s exclusion from the formal sector are lack of education, poor mobility, restrictions on reproductive choice, and workplace discrimination.


Genital Cutting: two sides[edit]

There are approximately 85-114 million women with mutilated genitalia, and millions more face the practice each year. Mostly practiced in Africa, FGM (female genital mutilation) has many different levels of severity, with three main varieties of the procedure. The first is Sunna (meaning “tradition" in Arabic) Circumcision which involves the removal of the prepuce, or retractable fold of skin, or hood, and/or the tip of the clitoris. The second type is a clitoridectomy, which consists of the removal of the entire clitoris (prepuce and glands) and the removal of the adjacent labia. Lastly is infibulation, or pharonic circumcision. Infibulation involves a clitoridectomy followed by the remaining tissue being stitched closed, leaving a small hole to allow for urine and menstrual blood to flow through. Most cases of female genital cutting occurs between the ages of four and eight and the use of anesthesia is rare. FGM is practiced in order for the women of their culture to be accepted; it is the beginning of being a women. Although there are different religions that practice FGM not one of these groups require it. The reactions to FGM involve national action and law.

Female genital mutilation is a prime example of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is a principle stating that a given practice can be truly understood only from the context of the culture in which it is practiced. From a western prospective, female genital mutilation is viewed as inhumane and a violation of human rights. However, from the prospective of a member of a village in Africa that does practice female genital cutting (such as Senegal), this may be a social normalcy comparable to male circumcision in the United States.

FGM is a controversial issue that does not have a clear and concise answer. An international campaign to eliminate female genital cutting has been active since the early 90's, actively attempting to divorce itself from a health framework, adopting instead a human rights framework to justify the intervention.[11] In western culture genital cutting is not part of the culture and therefore not accepted. But with the numbers of mutilated women in the millions there is a strong conviction for many cultures to maintain the act. Different cultural factors affect the beliefs all over the world about whether the act of genital cutting is an appropriate action. There are many negative factors regarding genital cutting; effects include extreme pain, susceptibility to infection, sometimes death, HIV susceptibility, abscesses and small benign tumours, haemorrhages, shock, and clitoral cysts, and decreased, if not elimination, of sexual pleasure. Long term effects may include kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, various urinary tract infections, various gynecological and problems with child birth. For us in the Western part of the world it seems ridiculous to go under such a risky procedure just to be accepted. The upside of the cultural cutting is that the girls can now be respected adults among the community and start a family,and the fact that this custom has been practiced throughout their culture for many generations. In Sudan, for example, a family's honor derives from a woman's sexual conduct and by practicing genital cutting families can curb their sexual desires. These unbalanced side effects cause uproar among human rights activist For more information on genital cutting see Female Genital Cutting.

Female Genital Cutting in Britain[edit]

One of the more interesting examples of female genital cutting is placed in Britain. Most FGC (female genital cutting) occurs in Africa and is under hot debate with human rights activists because of all of the negative affects associated with FGC. Britain is a westernized type culture and so genital cutting is strictly forbidden. It was officially outlawed in 1985 and considered child abuse nationally. Still, even with government stepping in to stop this cultural sin an underground culture grew to where parents were leaving the country in order to see their children to adult hood. Even in cases where widespread education campaigns reach the people and inform of the technological advances and horrific consequences of genital mutilation it still happens. I believe that in a world with so many different views that it would be strange if everyone thought the same way. This practice of FGC may not be pretty and may have terrible outcomes but it is part of some cultures and to them nothing matters more than preserving their beliefs and rituals.[12]


Entitlements are the socially defined rights to life sustaining resources, meaning access to things that are seen as basic human rights and social freedoms the right to strike, to a set minimum of (daily, weakly and yearly) work hours, the age of retirement, to bear arms, to create unions, associations and cooperatives etc. There is a clear correlation in the between the level of social and economical development of a nation and support for entitlements. They have also an effect on the level of happiness of the citizenry and reduce social conflicts. In many developing countries where entitlements are not as explicitly defined and enforced, it is a struggle for citizens to hold entitlements. Generally in the western world, social pressures, especially by the middle class, have been able to established government entitlement programs created with the expectation of maintaining equality in employment opportunities, access to clean water, health-care, minimum wage, and correct any other biases in the prevailing social economic system or due to geographic distribution of the population.

Entitlements in the United States[edit]

The concept of individualism and independence characteristic of Americans, for historical and cultural reasons is valid and even unique in comparison to any other nation states. At the same time they seem to conflict with the concept of entitlements, or at least some, since many entitlements are depicted in the “United States Bill of Rights.”. The duality that is prevalent in the nation political spectrum also obfuscates the issue and the discourse between entitlements, rights, social justice, individualism versus the collective and many other basic political idioms and definitions, most probably by design, especially if we consider that not so long ago the U.S. was in a ideologically driven cold war and has had many problems in dealing with politically active minorities.

One incorrect view concerning entitlements in the United States is that the country is cover-obligated when it comes to entitlements and that it may bankrupt the nation. [13] This notion of course does not make any sense as soon as one analyzes the expenditures in the nation's budget, and consider the effect of entitlements in increasing normal state revenue and in distorting perceptions in regards to increases in the tax burden. There is also the argument that U.S. debt is a result of immense military spending, not entitlement payments. For example, Wallsten and Kosec [14] estimate that the U.S. is spending approximately $200 billion per year on military expenditures. Contrastingly, the estimated annual cost of several entitlement programs are much smaller; for example, universal health care would cost only half the current U.S. military expenditures.

Health care can be used as an example. Citizens in the lower part of the economic spectrum have entitlements to Medicaid due to the increasing levels of poverty in the United States due to the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor. The government has attempted to focus on tax dollars to ensure Medicaid welfare to those who cannot afford private insurance in hopes of increasing the access of affordable heath-care to more of it's citizens that are increasingly poor and economically insecure.

Some believe this idea of entitlement is hurting the U.S on a national level, and believe it is also damaging the citizens at a more personal level. They may think that people do not really contribute to their workplace, that they simply show up and have 'face time' and expect that simply because they are there they are entitled to get their raise or promotion. This believe comes from Phillipe Bourgois’ article “Workaday World, Crack Economy”, describes, although this sense of entitlement is felt many people from areas such as East Harlem, simply quit working legally all together. [15] Although this mind set is believed to be widespread and does exist, it can cause the work ethic and motivation of employees to drop, which decreases their productivity. [16] Of course the contrary argument can also be used, better work ethics and increased motivation by guaranteeing job security and better pay may indeed increase productivity or at least improve social stability and future planing, in fact the primary reason to establish a minimum wage in most part of the world is mot only to extend social justice but to dignify work.

Others believe that the U.S. does not provide enough entitlements for its citizens, especially when compared to the majority of the other developed countries in the world. In fact, the Human Development Index--which ranks countries according to factors such as health, knowledge and education, and standard of living--ranks the U.S. at #15, whereas many countries who provide their citizens with much more entitlements are ranked much higher. [17]

Cultural Imperialism[edit]

Cultural Imperialism was first conceptualized during the Cold War. There are two ideas cultural imperialism is based on. The first is that some cultures will dominate other cultures; while the second is cultural domination by one culture will eventually destruct the lesser culture(s) and the dominating one will take its place. A common wrong example of cultural imperialism is the Western culture imperialism across the world, which is erasing local traditions and replacing them with cell phones, McDonald's, and radios. However, anthropologists dismissed this because of three things: cultural imperialism assumes the citizens do not have the means of resisting anything of Western origin; non-Western music, food, and material have been able to integrate into Western Europe and the United States, and ignores the fact that cultural forms and practices sometimes move around the world, without ever reaching the West.

Cultural Hybridity[edit]

Anthropologists were not satisfied with the discourse of cultural imperialism, so they began to search for alternative ways of understanding global cultural flows. That is when the phrase borrowing-with-modification came to be. Borrowing cultural forms or practices from elsewhere always involves borrowing-with-modification. This phrase refers to the idea that people never adopt blindly, but always adopt what they borrow for local purposes. In other words people rarely accepted ideas, practices or objects from elsewhere without finding a way of adapting them to local practices in order to serve local purposes. This form of cultural change is very different from having something from elsewhere forced upon you, like cultural imperialism suggests. [18]


  1. World Health Organization
  3. Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, Article 2.1
  4. "UN Treaty Collection: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights". UN. 2009-02-24. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  5. Sverker Finnstrom {url=}
  7. CHRISTA CRAVEN 2007 A "Consumer's Right" to Choose a Midwife: Shifting Meanings for Reproductive Rights under Neoliberalism: American Anthropologist Volume 109. Issue 4. December 2007 (Pages 701 - 712)|
  10. Lois W. Banner, Women in Modern America: A Brief History
  11. Bettina Shell-Duncan
  12. "Female Genital Cutting in Britain". BMJ (British Medical Journal): Victoria Mill House, Framlingham, Woodbridge, Suffolk. 1995. Retrieved 2009. 
  13. "Curbing Spending by Reframing the Politics of Entitlements". Walker Foundation. Retrieved ?-?-2009. 
  15. Bourgois, Philippe 1995 “Workaday World, Crack Economy.” The Nation (December 4) pp. 706-11.
  16. Danger in the Comfort Zone. American Management Association| {url=,M1}
  18. Schultz, Emily and Lavenda, Robert, "Cultural Anthropology, A Perspective on the Human Condition" pg.422

"Female Genital Mutilation: A Call to Action",Troubia N: New York, New York, Women, Ink, 1993. 48 p.

  1. ^ Birx, James. "Human Rights and Anthropology." Encyclopedia of Anthropology. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2006. Print. Pg. 1228.

Health and Healing · Marriage, Reproduction and Kinship